It's the rare leader who's willing to admit they were wrong. In the no-holds-barred world of modern politics, where every word is used for leverage, admitting mistakes is seen as giving the opposition ammunition.
Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., the North Carolina congressman who died Sunday on his 76th birthday, was perhaps best known for his jingoistic "freedom fries." He also should be remembered for his later acknowledgment that the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was misguided and unnecessary.
Jones' change of heart was not for political gain. His district in predominantly rural northeastern North Carolina is strongly conservative. And as the home of one of the largest Marine Corps presences anywhere (along with throngs of military retirees), the 3rd district has traditionally been passionate in its military support.
Ironically, it was that military presence that ultimately changed Jones' mind — and heart — on the legitimacy of the war, which led to more than 4,000 U.S. deaths and 100,000 Iraqi casualties.
In a 2006 article in the magazine Mother Jones, the congressman recounted how he had come to deeply regret his championing of the war. His change of heart happened while attending the funeral of a 31-year-old Camp Lejeune Marine sergeant killed in March 2003.
Jones watched as the sergeant's widow and her three young children said goodbye forever to a husband and father.
"It hit me: This little boy would never know his daddy," Jones said. "This was a spiritual happening for me."
It did not make Jones anti-war. It did, however, make him deeply aware of the toll war takes on military families and the indelible scars it leaves, both physical and mental. It made him understand that war should always be a last resort, something he came to believe was not the case with Iraq.
It made him understand that patriotism is not jingoistic and that debating the awesome responsibility of sending our military into combat must always be a serious and somber endeavor, never clouded by distractions the likes of "freedom fries."
The men and women of our military do not get to decide when they fight or for what. It is their duty to obey orders and be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.
We hope that Jones' legacy will be that he worked tirelessly to honor fallen service members and their families. And, more important, that he worked tirelessly to remind fellow members of Congress of their sacred duty to thoroughly and honestly examine and debate any action that commits our troops to harm's way.
Our leaders have few duties that are more important.
REPRINTED FROM THE NEW BERN SUN JOURNAL