West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd refers to himself as “a student of history.”
In fact, he is history.
The longest serving senator in the history of the legislative branch of the federal government, the former majority leader of the chamber, the constitutional scholar who several presidents (Democrats and Republicans) considered as a potential Supreme Court nominee, the long-ago southern stalwart who reconstructed himself as a supporter of civil rights and an early backer of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, he is an epic figure who speaks with an authority steeped in the wisdom gained from having personally experienced what others know only from books.
Byrd became a hero to anti-war activists in 2002, when he employed his knowledge of history and his personal experience of being a senator throughout the Vietnam fiasco, to warn against the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Byrd was not listened to by the Bush administration or Democratic leaders in the Senate.
But his opposition to the Iraq mission was proven was at a thousand turns during the year that followed George Bush’s launch of an unwise and unnecessary war.
With the continuing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, and particularly with an expansion of that presence, Byrd says, “we risk adding the United States to the long, long, long list of nations whose best laid plans have died on the cold, barren rocky slopes of that far off country of Afghanistan.”
Grounded in the history he knows so well, and in the personal experience both of having visited Afghanistan and of having watched past presidents follow fantastical advice and end up in disastrous wars, Byrd’s speech is an essential statement.
It is, as well, wise counsel from a senior senator to the man whose presidential candidacy he championed.
Barack Obama should listen to Robert Byrd and the call of history.
Here, then, is Byrd’s speech, titled “The Grave of Foreigners” and delivered at what historians will recognize as a critical turning point for Obama’s presidency:
Mr. President, I am a student of history, and a firm believer in applying the lessons of history to present and future planning. There is no profit in making the same mistakes over and over again, and no future in building on a foundation of shifting sand. Our military planners and our Afghanistan policy analysts as well as members of this Senate would do well to spend some time considering the history, geography and cultures of Afghanistan.