What Did the Peace Movement Do During the Destruction of Iraq?

By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, February 26, 2023

This March 19th will be 20 years since the horrific evil of Shock and Awe. For many years, we held protest demonstrations on that date in Washington D.C. and many other places. Some of these events were large, some small. Some were exciting because they combined permitted “family safe” rallies with street blocking, and brought everyone into the streets when they saw that the very last thing the police wanted was to arrest anyone. These were in addition to at least eight demonstrations in Washington or New York between 2002 and 2007 that turned out over 100,000, people, four of them over 300,000, one of them 500,000 — perhaps pathetic by global standards or the standards of the 1960s or 1920s, but Earth-shattering in comparison with today, and created more quickly than those of the 1960s, which came only after years of carnage.

This March 18th there will be a new peace rally about a new war in Washington DC. More on that in a minute.

I’ve just read David Cortright’s valuable new book about the movement against the war on Iraq, A Peaceful Superpower: Lessons from the World’s Largest Antiwar Movement. This book reminds me of many things I lived through and took part in, and presents some of them from a perspective I didn’t have at the time. (One thing I’m newly reminded of is the terrific graphic advertisement above.) This book is well worth reading and considering, and expanding one’s thoughts upon, because each separate peace movement has good and bad points in relation to others as they come and go, or fail to appear. We have an obligation to learn lessons, whether they amount to remembering how right we were or coming to understand how misguided — or some of each.

(See also, the film We Are Many, and the book Challenging Empire: People, Governments and the UN Defy U.S. Power by Phyllis Bennis and Danny Glover.)

Some of us have never let up or taken much of a step back during these 20 years, even as — for about 17 of them — we’ve routinely encountered the belief that there is no peace movement. (Now we know something of how Native Americans feel when they read about their own extinction.) Things have gradually changed in dramatic ways. Cortright reminds us how new internet organizing was, how it worked, how social media was not a part of it, and how critical various events (such as the death of Senator Paul Wellstone, to pick one of many) were to what has become a long blur of remembered agitation and mobilization. (And, of course, people who identify with one of the two big political parties have changed places on whether it’s acceptable to question a war, as they always do with the party of the president.)

Some of us were new to peace organizing and view that of 20 years ago more in comparison with that of today than with that of a half-century back. Cortright’s perspective varies from my own in numerous other ways as well, including which organizations we each worked for, which aspects of educating and lobbying we focused on, etc. Cortright is fond of the phrase “pacifists” or “radical pacifists” (in contrast with more strategic “moderates”). I find that many people who favor the abolition of the entire war industry, as opposed to a particular war alone, never use the term “pacifists” as it invites longed-for but off-topic discussions of what you would do in a dark alley to defend your grandmother, rather that how you would reorder global relations. I find that those who favor such terms rarely if ever mention the word “abolitionist.” Cortright also favors promoting patriotism and religion without noting any consideration that there might be anything even partially counterproductive in that. His apparent inclination to fit in with the Zeitgeist is perhaps encapsulated in the first sentence of the book, which I confess to having found it hard to read past: “As I was finishing this book on historic opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq, Russia launched its unprovoked military assault on Ukraine.”

When you do plow ahead and read the rest of the book, you find some very smart understanding of the importance of communication and messaging — and accounts of how Cortright and others had that understanding 20 years ago. This makes it all the more stunning that he would choose to parrot the propaganda of naming the most clearly provoked war in recent years “unprovoked.” Obviously there’s nothing moral or defensible about a provoked war. Most wars are rarely described as either provoked or unprovoked, much less officially named one or the other. The clear purpose of naming the Russian invasion of Ukraine “unprovoked” is nothing other than erasing how blatantly it was provoked. But Cortright goes along, and — I think, not coincidentally — so does every Democratic Congress Member.

While I do love disagreeing with people and arguing points, I’m generally shocked by the notion that personal emotions need enter into that. And I’m outlining how my perspective diverges from Cortright’s primarily to tell you that it doesn’t matter. I agree with most of his book. I benefit from his book. And the problems we face must be ranked as follows: 1) The war mongers; 2) The great masses of people who never do a damn thing; and maybe at place #1,000-or-so) Disagreements within the peace movement.

In fact, in this book, Cortright recounts that in the early days of the incipient movement against war on Iraq, he took part in peace rallies planned by ANSWER despite various important disagreements with ANSWER. He believed it important to take part in any peace rallies anyone organized. I felt the same way when I agreed to speak at this month’s Rage Against the War Machine event, which I think may already have helped boost other local events and plans for more national events, including by groups and individuals who deem only some of them acceptable to take part in. That rally coming up on March 18 is also being planned by ANSWER, which Cortright reminds us, United for Peace and Justice and many other groups collaborated with for years during the war on Iraq.

Cortright also recounts that during every peace movement, even when war opposition has polled higher among racial minorities (as it pretty much always did until Obama’s war on Libya), peace events have been disproportionately white. Cortright also reminds us that peace groups have often addressed this by accusing each other of racism. I think this is another important lesson to bear in mind, without of course twisting it into some sort of defense of failing to do everything possible to build a diverse and representative movement. That task remains ever present and important.

Cortright addresses the failure to prevent Shock and Awe, while also noting the partial successes, including building a global movement (which went on to do important things in many countries), preventing UN authorization, preventing a serious international coalition, limiting the size of the operation, and turning much of the world against U.S. warmongering. I would stress here the creation of a now-greatly-diminished Iraq Syndrome in U.S. culture, which helped greatly in preventing new wars on Iran and Syria, impacted the public’s understanding of wars and war lies, hindered military recruitment, and temporarily punished war mongers at election polls.

While Cortright’s book is mostly focused on the United States, the phrase “world’s largest” in his title addresses the scope of the movement, including the single biggest day of action, February 15, 2003, which included, in Rome, Italy, the single biggest demonstration ever on Earth. We currently have much of the world opposed to U.S. war making, and significant but much smaller rallies in places like Rome, with the U.S. movement struggling to be born.

Cortright raises as many questions as he answers, I think. On page 14 he claims that no movement, however massive, could have stopped the invasion of Iraq, because the Congress had long-since given war powers to presidents who just don’t care. But on page 25 he suggests that a larger movement could have blocked Congressional approval. And on page 64 he says that the peace coalitions could have formed earlier, organized larger and more frequent protests, focused more on preventing the war and less on demonstrating just after it started, etc. Clearly the systemic problem of presidential war powers (and the cultural problem of people putting obedience to presidents of a Party ahead of peace) is a major hurdle that needs to be addressed. Clearly, also, we just don’t know what could have been done or what could be done now with a larger movement.

We do know that a Republican Congress Member has just introduced under the War Powers Resolution, a bill to force a vote on ending U.S. warmaking in Syria, as well as a separate rhetorical resolution against sending any more weapons to Ukraine. And we know that virtually nobody from the whole peace coalition of 2002-2007 will support such things, in part because of the offensiveness of the Congress Member involved, and in part because of his Party identity. This Party problem is not addressed by Cortright.

Cortright’s loyalty is to the Democratic Party, and if anything he understates how decisively the peace movement gave that Party Congressional majorities in 2006. He omits entirely the cynicism that emerged in, for example, Rahm Emanuel openly talking about keeping the war going in order to campaign against it again in 2008, or Eli Pariser pretending that MoveOn supporters favored continuing the war. Cortright draws on and disagrees in part with the book Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11 by Michael T. Heaney and Fabio Rojas. I recommend reading my take on it, if not the book itself. Some of us see a massive wave of cynicism drowning everything to this day, with Congress using the War Powers Resolution to stop the war on Yemen only when it could count on a Trump veto, and then droppoing the matter as soon as Biden (who had campaigned on ending that war!) was in the White House. If you imagine anyone in Congress is trying to reduce militarism, please read this.

Cortright is generally very accurate in what he tells us, including when he tells us that MoveOn did events around the country. But he doesn’t tell us that they were sometimes organized only in Republican House districts — a fact that may seem to some strategic wisdom that should simply go without saying, but that feeds the perception of cynicism in those who have witnessed elections draining movements and want to resist the perversion of activism into electoral theater. Cortright also tells us that the peace movement shrank in 2009. I’m sure it did. But it shrank even more in 2007, as energies went into the 2008 election. I think it’s important not to erase that chronology.

In his emphasis on elections, Cortright gives Obama, and those who turned their energies to electing him, credit for his complying with the treaty signed by Bush to end the war, rather than giving the peace movement credit (including, but not principally, through the 2006 elections) for compelling the already-elected Bush to sign that agreement. Objecting to this over-emphasizing of elections is not, by me at least, the expression of a desire to ignore elections entirely — something Cortright opposes repeatedly, but which seems a bit of a strawman.

Any history is severely limited because life is so rich, and Cortright fits in a great deal, but I do wish that he had mentioned that public opinion polls had a majority wanting Bush impeached over the war, and that activists mobilized to demand it. The fact that the Democratic Party was opposed may play a key role in the erasure of this aspect of the activism of the time.

I think the most useful purpose for a book like this comes in allowing comparisons to the present time. I recommend reading this book and thinking about today. What if the U.S. establishment had spent 5 years pretending that Bill Clinton was Saddam Hussein’s puppet, elected and owned by that foreign tyrant? What would have still been possible? What if the movement against war in Ukraine had arisen earlier, and larger, and against the 2014 coup or the years of violence that followed? What if we had created a movement in support of Minsk 2, or of the International Criminal Court, or of basic human rights and disarmament treaties, or for the disbanding of NATO? (Of course some of us have created all of those movements, but, I mean to say: What if there were big and funded and televised?)

The educational results of the peace movement against the war on Iraq were extensive but largely temporary, I think. The understanding that wars are based on lies faded. The shame for individuals who’d backed the war in Congress faded. The demand to reduce the military funding that generates new wars, or to close the foreign bases that instigate conflict, shriveled. Nobody was held accountable through impeachment or prosecution or a truth-and-reconciliation process for darn near anything. Hillary Clinton became capable of winning a nomination. Joe Biden became capable of winning an election. War powers became only more entrenched in the White House. War by robot airplane emerged and changed the world with devastating results for people and for the rule of law. Secrecy expanded dramatically. News media coarsened and worsened significantly. And the war killed, injured, traumatized, and destroyed on a historic scale.

Activists developed and refined countless techniques, but they all remained dependent on an even more corrupt communications system, an even more degraded educational system, and an even more divided and more party-identifying culture. But one of the key lessons is unpredictability. The organizers of the biggest events didn’t do the biggest amount of work and didn’t predict those big turnouts. The moment was right. We need to be doing the necessary work so that the forums for action are there whenever the moment arrives again when opposition to imbecilic mass-murder, and support for peace, is deemed acceptable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.