Walter Jones

U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr., R-N.C., refers to legislation calling upon the George W. Bush Administration to produce a plan to withdraw troops from Iraq during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in 2005.

Walter B. Jones Jr., a North Carolina congressman who so enthusiastically supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq that he argued for the french fries and french toast served in House cafeterias to be called “freedom fries” and “freedom toast” — a jab at France for its opposition to the war — but who later underwent a dramatic change of mind and emerged as a prominent Republican critic of the war, died Sunday, on his 76th birthday.

His office confirmed the death in a statement. It had announced on Jan. 26 that the 13-term lawmaker had entered hospice care, his health having declined after a fall in which he broke his hip. Jones had been granted a leave of absence in late 2018 for an unspecified illness.

Jones first ran for Congress in 1992, campaigning unsuccessfully as a conservative Democrat for the northeastern North Carolina district that his father had represented for 26 years. A Southern Baptist from childhood, Jones converted to Catholicism in his early 30s and cited his opposition to abortion among the factors that led to his disenchantment with his family’s longtime political party.

Two years later, amid the “Republican revolution” that swept the House, he joined the GOP and won a seat in a neighboring district, an area that presently includes the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune and Cherry Point air station.

During his early tenure on Capitol Hill, he was a reliable Republican vote and, in 2002, joined most Republicans and many Democrats in voting in favor of a resolution authorizing President George W. Bush to use military force in Iraq after Bush accused Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein of hiding weapons of mass destruction.

Russia and France threatened to veto a United Nations resolution authorizing the war, but the French were the most vocal in their opposition. In response, Jones and Rep. Robert Ney, R-Ohio, led a successful campaign to oust the word “French” from House cafeteria items.

They were acting in an American tradition that dated at least to World War I, when sauerkraut was rechristened “liberty cabbage.” Jones called his effort a response to France’s “self-serving politics of passive aggression,” while liberals lampooned it as knee-jerk jingoism.

The U.S.-led invasion began in March 2003 and has led to more than 4,000 U.S. deaths and more than 100,000 Iraqi casualties. No weapons of mass destruction were found, and the justification for the invasion was soon revealed to have been based on faulty information. (“The people around Bush manipulated the intelligence,” Jones later said.) Jones, who came to deeply regret his championing of the war, traced his transformation to a funeral held at Camp Lejeune for a 31-year-old Marine sergeant, the driver of an amphibian assault vehicle, who was killed in March 2003 while helping evacuate wounded comrades. In the presence of their three young children, including newborn twins, his widow read from the man’s final letter home.

“I had tears running from my eyes,” the congressman told Mother Jones magazine.

He watched as the older boy dropped a toy and a Marine picked it up and handed it back. “And the boy looked up at him,” the congressman said, “and the Marine looked down, and then it hit me: This little boy would never know his daddy.”

“This was a spiritual happening for me,” he told the magazine. “I think at that point I fully understood the loss that a family feels.” He added of his drive home: “The whole way, 72 miles, I was thinking about what I just witnessed. I think God intended for me to be there.”

He began his endeavor to write to relatives of every U.S. service member killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, one wrenching letter at a time.

“I have signed over 12,000 letters to families and extended families who’ve lost loved ones in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and that was for me asking God to forgive me for my mistake,” Jones told NPR in 2017. He also hung posters displaying the faces of the war dead along the hallway leading to his office on Capitol Hill.

In 2005, Jones publicly renounced his vote and called on Bush to set a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq.

He became a scathing critic of U.S. military action under Republican and Democratic Presidents. But he held Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, in particular contempt for his role advocating the Iraq invasion. While Jones held fast to core Republican tenets, including opposition to abortion rights, on other issues he found himself a lonely voice within the GOP. He backed campaign finance reform and increasing the minimum wage. He twice opposed his party’s leader, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, for House speaker. And he voted against President Donald Trump’s signature tax bill in 2017 in part because it raised the deficit.