New York Times reporter James Dao has filed his second story in nine days critical of the Afghanistan war. First came the 3,000-word Sunday front-page story on May 29, "After Combat, the Unexpected Perils of Coming Home," emphasizing the negative from the start:
Capt. Adrian Bonenberger made plans for his final patrol to Imam Sahib. But inside, he was sweating the details of a different mission: going home. Which soldiers would drive drunk, get into fights or struggle with emotional demons, he wondered....The final weeks in a war zone are often the most dangerous, as weary troops get sloppy or unfocused. Once they arrive home, alcohol abuse, traffic accidents and other measures of mayhem typically rise as they blow off steam.
Tuesday’s front page found Dao in North Carolina celebrating conservative anti-war congressman Rep. Walter Jones in "Republican Who Broke Ranks On War Is an Outcast No More."
Formerly embedded with Special Operations Forces during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Dao’s reporting often focuses on the darkness of war, and in at least one notorious case that grim attitude seemed to shape his reporting. A 4,600-word piece on October 26, 2005, "2,000 Dead: As Iraq Tours Stretch On, a Grim Mark," quoted a letter from Marine Cpl. Jeffrey B. Starr predicting his own death, but in a truncated fashion that painted Starr as a doomed and powerless victim. Dao left out a vital part of Starr’s letter: "I don't regret going, everybody dies but few get to do it for something as important as freedom....Others have died for my freedom, now this is my mark."
On Tuesday, Dao hailed Rep. Jones and jumped on growing Republican opposition to the war -- a whopping 26 House Republicans out of 240 voted for an amendment cosponsored by Jones to speed up troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
On matters like abortion, military spending and religion, Representative Walter B. Jones seems thoroughly in tune with this conservative, staunchly Republican district in eastern North Carolina, home to the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune and thousands of military retirees.
On the issue of war, however, Mr. Jones has defied typecasting. An early critic of the American invasion of Iraq, he has been ostracized by the Republican leadership in Congress. And now he is emerging as a leading advocate for swiftly withdrawing American forces from Afghanistan, a position that has made him, of all things, a liberal hero.
"When you talk about war, political parties don’t matter," he said in an interview.
But Mr. Jones may no longer be the outlier he was six years ago. Late last month, an amendment intended to accelerate the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan sponsored by Mr. Jones and Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, nearly passed -- in part because 26 Republicans broke with their leadership to support it, triple the number who voted for a similar measure last year. Their ranks included at least three freshmen elected with Tea Party support.
Some foreign policy analysts now see Mr. Jones, 68; Representative Ron Paul, Republican of Texas; and a small coterie of Tea Party stalwarts as the leading edge of a conservative movement to rein in American military power -- a break from the muscular foreign policy of President George W. Bush.
There was more sympathetic reporting of the kind the Times rarely gives to conservatives. Dao even let Jones work in his Roman Catholicism to support his anti-war stance, something the paper rarely if ever does for conservatives who defend their stances on abortion or gay marriage on religious grounds.
"I came to believe we were misled, we were lied to," Mr. Jones said recently. "The people around Bush manipulated the intelligence."
In June 2005, he stunned his party establishment by appearing at a news conference with Mr. Paul and Representative Dennis Kucinich, a liberal Ohio Democrat, to call on Mr. Bush to start reducing troop levels in Iraq.
Mr. Jones’s offices were immediately flooded with calls from angry constituents who branded him a traitor and demanded his resignation. He made the cover of Mother Jones magazine in 2006 and drew a tough primary challenge in 2008 from an opponent who called him "a poster boy for the left." Mr. Jones won handily.
A convert to Roman Catholicism, Mr. Jones says he has not missed a Sunday Mass in nearly 40 years. His faith, he says, caused him to question the war.
"I did not vote my conscience and I sent kids to die, and they didn’t have to go," he said. "I thank God that he made me feel guilty about my vote on Iraq."