August 21, 2021

In War, Americans Are Deaf to the Prophetic Voice

Let us now praise Rep. Barbara Lee. On September 14, 2001, three days after Al-Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the House of Representatives was debating H.J. Res. 64, which would

give President George W. Bush carte blanche to use military force in the newly “declared” war on terror. The first target, you may recall, was going to be Afghanistan. The House approved the resolution. The vote was one vote shy of unanimous. That vote was the one belonging to Barbara Lee, whom we now quote in full.

Mr. Speaker, I rise today with a heavy heart, one that is filled with sorrow for the families and loved ones who were killed and injured in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Only the most foolish or the most callous would not understand the grief that has gripped the American people and millions around the world.

This unspeakable attack on the United States has forced me to rely on my moral compass, my conscience, and my God for direction.

September 11 changed the world. Our deepest fears now haunt us. Yet I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States. I know that this use-of-force resolution will pass although we all know that the President can wage war even without this resolution. However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint. There must be some of us who say, let’s step back for a moment and think through the implications of our actions today—let us more fully understand their consequences.

We are not dealing with a conventional war. We cannot respond in a conventional manner. I do not want to see this spiral out of control. This crisis involves issues of national security, foreign policy, public safety, intelligence gathering, economics, and murder. Our response must be equally multifaceted.

We must not rush to judgment. For too many innocent people have already died. Our country is in mourning. If we rush to launch a counterattack, we run too great a risk that woman, children, and other non-combatants will be caught in the crossfire.

Nor can we let our justified anger over these outrageous acts by vicious murderers inflame prejudice against all Arab Americans, Muslim, Southeast Asians, and any other people because of their race, religion, or ethnicity.

Finally, we must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target. We cannot repeat past mistakes.

In 1964, Congress gave President Lyndon Johnson the power to “take all necessary measures” to repel attacks and prevent further aggression. In so doing, this House abandoned its own constitutional responsibilities and launched our country into years of undeclared war in Vietnam. At this time, Senator Wayne Morse, one of the two lonely votes against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, declared, “I believe that history will record that we have made a grave mistake in subverting and circumventing the Constitution of the United States. I believe that with the next century, future generations will look with dismay and great disappointment upon a Congress which is now about to make such a historic mistake.”

Senator Morse was correct, and I fear we make the same mistake today. And I fear the consequences. I have agonized over this vote. But I came to grips with it in the very painful yet beautiful memorial service today at the National Cathedral. As a member of the clergy so eloquently said, “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.”

Over the past 10 days, we’ve seen a fairly vigorous effort to do everything except acknowledge the prescience of Barbara Lee’s warning of two decades ago. A lot of the same think-tank war heroes and retired brass hats that pitched the war in Afghanistan—and its blowback stepchild, the war in Iraq—have been all over television doing everything except acknowledging that Barbara Lee was right in 2001, more right than they were, with all their advanced degrees, ribbons, and medals. And she was sharp enough to remind them that a previous generation of their kind had made the same pronouncements with the same confidence that turned out to be bloody and wrong in exactly the same way. The apparently eternal Foreign Policy Establishment can always repeat past mistakes.

Jeannette Rankin had been there before. A European war was raging and the United States was sliding toward it and Rankin, a towering figure in the fight for women’s suffrage, had been elected to Congress from Montana for the first time in 1916. She was the first woman to be so elected. Once there, she’d been one of 50 members of the House who voted against the declaration of war that brought the United States into World War I. Shortly thereafter, the Montana state legislature rejiggered how its two members of the House were elected. Rankin was cast into a Democratic district and, rather than go down to certain defeat, she ran for the Senate and lost.

In 1940, she ran again for the House and won. A little more than a year later, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. On December 8, 1941, a resolution to declare war against Japan came before the Congress. Once again, Jeannette Rankin voted against the resolution. This time, she was the only member of Congress that did. Immediately after the vote, she was pursued by reporters and trapped in a phone booth in the House cloakroom. Her political career was effectively over, but she lived long enough to speak out, loudly, against the Vietnam War. In 1968, Rankin, then 88 years old, led 5,000 women dressed in black in a march against that war.

Hers is the tradition that led Wayne Morse—and Ernest Gruening of Alaska—to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and to Barbara Lee’s lonely opposition to H.J. Res. 64. When Morse and Gruening got up in the Senate in August of 1964 to voice their lonely opposition to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, you could hear all the way back to Jeannette Rankin and all the way forward to Barbara Lee. Gruening said:

The serious events of the past few days, the attack by North Vietnamese vessels on American warships and our reprisal, strikes me as the inevitable and foreseeable concomitant and consequence of U.S. unilateral military aggressive policy in Southeast Asia…. We now are about to authorize the President if he sees fit to move our Armed Forces . . . not only into South Vietnam, but also into North Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and of course the authorization includes all the rest of the SEATO nations. That means sending our American boys into combat in a war in which we have no business, which is not our war, into which we have been misguidedly drawn, which is steadily being escalated. This resolution is a further authorization for escalation unlimited. I am opposed to sacrificing a single American boy in this venture. We have lost far too many already.

And, in a passage Barbara Lee quoted decades later, Morse was struck with a similar vision of the future.

I believe that history will record that we have made a great mistake in subverting and circumventing the Constitution of the United States… I believe this resolution to be a historic mistake. I believe that within the next century, future generations will look with dismay and great disappointment upon a Congress which is now about to make such a historic mistake.

In situations like this, Americans largely are deaf to the prophetic voice. Truth be told, we have to strain to hear it even in the best of times, when it is drowned out by chest-thumping self-congratulation. It never stands a chance when the drums begin to pound and an enemy is found, or concocted out of whole cloth. On those occasions, the rare dissenter is struck by the same curse that Apollo put on the Trojan seeress Cassandra, who, after he showed her the ways of prophecy, spurned his advances. Her prophecies always would be correct, but nobody would believe her. Eventually, Cassandra is carried off with the rest of the Trojan women and, according to Aeschuylus, she ended up in the house of Agamemnon, the conqueror of Troy, her gifts and her curse both undimmed.

But as the morning wind blows clear the east,

More bright shall blow the wind of prophecy.

And as against the low bright line of dawn,

Heaves high and higher yet the rolling wave,

So in the clearing skies of prescience,

Dawns on my soul a further, deadlier woe.

And let us all praise Barbara Lee, to whom we did not listen

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