To kick off their Top of the World tour in March 2003, The Chicks (formerly known as The Dixie Chicks) flew to London for a performance at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire theater. The United States was on the brink of war with Iraq, and anti-war protestors filled the crowd. After The Chicks played their hit song, “Travelin’ Soldier,” lead singer Natalie Maines spoke out against the imminent war: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence. And we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.”
The crowd cheered and the show moved on. Later that night, The Chicks celebrated a successful first performance with their crew.
When The Guardian published a review of the show, however, Maines and her bandmates, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, found themselves at the center of a national firestorm. News outlets in the United States picked up the story and the country music community turned on The Chicks. Free Republic led a campaign to ban the band’s songs from the radio, fueled by the venomous backlash from listeners. Stations set up trash cans for people to throw away CDs and make snarky comments to the media about the mouthy, unpatriotic women they could no longer support. Death threats rolled in, and the FBI identified a credible plot to kill Maines during a concert in Dallas, Texas. In a post that has since been removed, Rightwingsparkle gleefully asked, “Did The Chicks go too far?”
HUNGRY FOR WAR IN 2003
In the documentary about the controversy, “Shut Up and Sing,” a member of The Chicks’ team told Maines she should be less judgmental of the president. The president’s approval ratings would be even higher than when the war ended in two weeks, he said, which would further alienate their country music base. The scene is an intimate portrait of the psyche of the nation in 2003. The country was on high alert and hungry to lash out at any perceived enemy, and The Chicks were a convenient target.
The 2002 AUMF has spanned three albums by The Chicks. As assuredly short operations stretched to endless wars, the truth became clear: The Chicks did not go too far; the United States did.
The Chicks performed their first US show on the tour in Greenville, SC on May 1, 2003, the same day President George W. Bush made his infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech. Standing aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, Bush declared “In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” The speech drew significant criticism, however, as the war dragged on. The inconvenient reality that Iraq did not, in fact, have weapons of mass destruction catalyzed a decline in public support for the president and the war in Iraq.
The Brown University’s Cost of War project estimated that the Iraq War cost the American people over $2 trillion, far exceeding the high-end Bush administration estimate of $200 billion. Of the almost 1.4 million veterans who served in Iraq, 5,000 American men and women died and tens of thousands more were wounded. For veterans who returned home, the war had lasting negative impacts on their physical and mental health: The suicide rate for veterans in the post-9/11 wars is 1.5 times higher than the non-veteran population, and more than 40% of troops who served received lifetime disability benefits. At least 130,000 Iraqi citizens died, a severe undercount, and the conflict further displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Finally, 64% of veterans told the Pew Research Center that the war in Iraq was not worth the very real human and economic costs.
“TAKING THE LONG WAY” INDEED
I know, it is easy to armchair quarterback. After all, I was only in the third grade when Bush launched the invasion under the cover of the broad Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) Against Iraq that Congress passed in 2002, which allowed the president to deploy troops as “necessary and appropriate” to “defend US national security against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.” In the 18 years since the United States invaded Iraq, however, my generation has come of age under mass state surveillance, ballooning Pentagon budgets, and disproportionate executive authority. By the time The Chicks released their obstinate, willful rebuke, “Taking the Long Way,” in 2006, the tide of public opinion was turning.
In the last two years, Congress has built momentum to revoke the blanket authorization that paved the way for the Iraq War. In March 2021, Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Todd Young (R-IN) reintroduced bipartisan legislation to formally repeal authorizations for the Gulf War and the Iraq War, decades after their respective passages. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) announced he would call a vote to repeal the 2002 authorization as part of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act.
The AUMF has provided cover for an ever-stronger executive branch to unilaterally launch strikes, deploy troops, and launch invasions based on flimsy evidence without congressional oversight. Repealing the AUMF would restore long-overdue balance to the constitutional order, which bestows the power to declare war to Congress rather than the president. The vote is a huge win for the bipartisan effort to revoke the “zombie authorization” and ensure a future president cannot use the authorization to bypass Congress again.
The 2002 AUMF has spanned three albums by The Chicks, and presidents from both parties have used it to justify actions beyond its intended purpose. As assuredly short operations stretched to endless wars, the truth became clear: The Chicks did not go too far; the United States did.
Taylor Giorno is a fall researcher at the Center for International Policy’s Arms and Security Program and Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative.