The first protest I ever attended was a mass march against the invasion of Iraq. I was a young teenager, far from radical, but it was the thing to do that drab February day in 2003. I joined the million-strong slow jostle towards London's Hyde Park. Around the world, in over 600 cities, millions of people were marching too. It was reportedly the largest protest event in world history. The march I attended was long and dull.
The following month a US-led coalition of forces invaded Iraq. Now, 11 years later, there is little solace in having perched, with no more commitment than it took to hold a sign and chant, on the right side of history. In the grips of a militant Sunni insurgency, ruled over by an intransigent Shiite government, intractably enmeshed in Syria's sprawling civil war, Iraq sits in sectarian tatters.
And, while many thousands of people committed much more energy and passion to anti-war activism than my pathetic teen offerings, the impotence of these mass protest efforts rankles. The vast marches and rallies were historic for their size, not their impact. In May 2003, a few months after the coordinated February mobilizations, Gallup reported that 79 percent of Americans thought the war was justified. The biggest protest event ever did not even sway public opinion; it took the realization of an illegitimate, difficult war and a failure to find WMDs before general public opinion turned against Operation Iraqi Freedom.
It's not my interest to criticize the anti-war movement for trying. Protesters were not the (oil-fed) locomotive that dragged us and the people of Afghanistan and Iraq into a low decade of war. To be sure, I do have a problem with identity peaceniks. For example, an anti-war drum circle gathers in the twee town center of Woodstock, New York, to proclaim to the unhearing ether that they do not like war. It's worse than futile because it is active in its own helplessness. But when the biggest protests ever could not stop an illegal war, it is hard not to review the decade with negation and despair. There's nothing to be done, it seemed then, as it seems now.
It is no longer available to label oneself "anti-war," to join a mass march, to hold a sign and feel content in one's efforts against the empire.
Tomes can and have been filled detailing the calamity that is the US legacy in Iraq. Yet my aim here is a more modest consideration of the anti-war movement and its flailing place in the War on Terror. Anti-war is, I'd suggest, sometimes a more pernicious position than it seems. It does not align with "pro-peace" — a mantel even the most hawkish interventionists would bestow upon themselves.
Specifically, anti-war is a rhetorical position that can be pandered to with troubling effect. It enables the Obama administration to declare the end of "war" by withdrawing and removing troops, while maintaining corporate and contracted assets in the military's wake. Above all, though, "anti-war" as a designator makes little sense when there can be war without war. Today and on Wednesday, US drones dropped missiles over Pakistan for the first time in six months, killing at least 10 people — 16 by some counts.
Without declaration and invasion, without the sort of grand event of war with attendant presidential addresses and mass troop deployments, it's hard to imagine drumming up the sort of mass event-based response that constituted the movement against the Iraq war. But, as we painfully learned, those vast mobilizations were impotent. It is no longer available to label oneself "anti-war," to join a mass march, to hold a sign and feel content in one's efforts against the empire.
Nor can we help ourselves to the fantasy that current US reticence for renewed military intervention in Iraq has anything to do with the success of anti-war efforts. As this week's drone strikes in Pakistan remind us, the US still has no problem in deploying firepower overseas. But, while the oil fields of Iraq remain under Shiite control, the US will not send in drones and warplanes against the ISIS insurgents in fear of further rocking markets and jacking up the now-spiking price of oil up even more.
There's no mitigating the disaster of the Iraq war. As Owen Jones noted in the Guardian: "It is difficult to see how the continuing collapse of Iraq can be avoided: the more informed the expert, the more despairing they seem to be." Those who once supported the invasion should certainly have long been prompted into soul searching and regret. But so too should those of us who placidly joined anti-war activities. If I had better suggestions about how to dismantle the US war machine and the interests of capital that it serves, I would be writing that column instead. No affirming flames here. But, in the absence of knowing how it is to be done, I note simply that it is not enough — it has not been enough — to be on the right side of history.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard
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