NEW YORK — Is it not fair to say that the more we love our country, the more we want it to be a better, more honorable country?
If we use this criterion, then we can say that few people loved the United States as much as former Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia. And only death (June 28) could silence him.
Nobody was more vocal than Byrd in opposing the Iraq War, which he considered a disgraceful course of action by the U.S. Few stated that opposition as strongly as Byrd did on the Senate floor.
In a March 19, 2003, address to the nation soon after the bombing of Baghdad had begun, President George W. Bush stated: “The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder.
“We will meet that threat now, with our Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Marines, so that we do to have to meet it later with armies of firefighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities.”
Thus began one of the most costly wars, in terms of money spent, number of lives lost and the decline of respect for America, that the U.S. would ever wage. Sen. Byrd reacted with predictable horror to this course of action, and was one of the few to vote against the war.
Speaking on the Senate floor the afternoon of March 19, 2003, Sen. Byrd said: “Today I weep for my country. I have watched the events of recent months with a heavy, heavy heart. No more is the image of America one of strong, yet benevolent peacekeeper. The image of America has changed. Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned.
“Instead of reasoning with those with whom we disagree, we demand obedience or threaten recrimination. Instead of isolating Saddam Hussein, we seem to have isolated ourselves. We proclaim a new doctrine of preemption, which is understood by few and feared by many.
“We say that the United States has the right to turn its firepower on any corner of the globe that might be suspect on the war on terrorism. We assert that right without the sanction of any international body. As a result, the world has become a much more dangerous place.
“We flaunt our superpower status with arrogance. We treat U.N. Security Council members like ingrates who offend our princely dignity by lifting their heads from the carpet. Valuable alliances are split.
“After war has ended, the United States will have to rebuild much more than the country of Iraq. We will have to rebuild America’s image around the globe.”
In his address to the nation on the evening of March 19, 2003, President Bush said the purpose of invading Iraq was “to disarm Iraq, free its people and defend the world from grave danger.”
Earlier that afternoon, on the Senate floor, Sen. Byrd had stated: “The case this administration tries to make to justify its fixation with war is tainted by charges of falsified documents and circumstantial evidence. We cannot convince the world of the necessity of this war for one simple reason. This is a war of choice.”
As President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney kept trotting out lame excuses for the war against Iraq, Sen. Byrd said: “The brutality seen on September 11th (2001) and in other terrorist attacks around the globe are the violent and desperate efforts by extremists to stop the daily encroachment of Western values upon their cultures. That is what we fight. It is a force not confined to borders. It is a shadowy entity with many faces, many names and many addresses.”
The Iraq war has proven to be an unrelenting tragedy not only because of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have been killed but also because of the casualties suffered by occupying soldiers. It is estimated that the total costs of veterans’ health care and disability may be higher than $700 billion.
Sen. Byrd’s heroic voice was one of the earliest and strongest against this nightmare.
Cesar Chelala, Ph.D. and M.D., is a co-winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights.