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The Long Arm of the Anti-War Movement


History never turns out the way you expect or want. The world powers in 1914 knew there would be winners and losers in the wars they contemplated sending other peoples’ sons to die in, but they never imagined that one-sixth of the earth’s land would be removed from their collective dinner plates for almost a century. In 1939 the same world powers (with some minor changing of sides) rolled the dice again, still not capable of conceiving that they might lose the 700 million people of China for decades.

And who would have thought the antiwar movement of 2002-2003 against the US war on Iraq would play a role in the ongoing emergence of a homeland for the 24,000,000 Kurds spread across Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq? I will attempt to draw the causal link between these events below.

It takes a lot of work, both materially and propagandistically, to prepare the US population for a war that sends hundreds of thousands of ground troops into someone else’s country. Efforts on both these fronts are a part of this tale.

Even though the Democratic Party was solidly pro-war from the outset it had a few outspoken voices who opposed the war, and they had to be isolated, their arguments refuted, and a resounding pro-war majority had to emerge. The method hit upon did not deviate from the wisdom of Goebbels:

“Naturally the common people don’t want war: Neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, IT IS THE LEADERS of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is TELL THEM THEY ARE BEING ATTACKED, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. IT WORKS THE SAME IN ANY COUNTRY.”

The point of attack in 2002-3 was Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. I shall leave aside the multiple, layered, truly world-class ironies involved in a President of the United States fearing weapons of mass destruction in the hands of another. Likewise I shall pass over the question of what defines a weapon of mass destruction, simply noting that my definition is “any weapon more potent than a bolt-action rifle,” which I believe is eminently fair. WMDs, as they came to be short-handed, became the single most important argument for immediately invading Iraq, a reason to ignore the shilly-shallying United Nations and its talkathons, to get short with recalcitrant allies, to get the job done before the sky fell. 

Like all good lies, it had an element of verisimilitude: Saddam Hussein had employed nerve gas against Iranians in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 and again on his own people in several well-documented occasions, and there had been facilities for producing various poisons. The existence of such weapons was solemnly affirmed by the then-most-trusted soldier in America, Colin Powell, in a televised speech watched by tens of millions that Powell’s chief of staff later admitted was a pack of lies.

There were counters to this blitz from the antiwar movement, which was not at all standing around waiting for the hammer to fall. A group in the Northeast called Traprock Peace compiled all the existing information about the Iraqi stockpiles and potential for producing WMDs, and analyzed the US’s case. It turns out that most of this information was public, just hard to get at. The reason any of it was public at all was that the Iraqi armed forces had decided that poison gases were a dead end, and had themselves initiated the riddance of the WMDs and then told the story. Their reason was straightforward: poison gases are no more and probably less effective than standard artillery at dealing death from a distance. Unlike artillery, gas can get blown around and poison your own troops, who must therefore wear (in the desert!) cumbersome  protective gear. And the propaganda hit was tremendous. So the Iraqi Army themselves began doing away with their stockpiles of WMDs and dismantling their production facilities because they were not idiots and could see trouble on the horizon.

So, then, where did the amazing figures produced by Colin Powell come from? Traprock Peace showed that what the US government did was to assume that every Iraqi WMD facility in existence produced WMDs 24/7/365 unless verified otherwise, and then computed the total. From this wholly imaginary total the US subtracted only those amounts of stockpiled WMDs which they could certify had been destroyed. Ditto for the facilities themselves. Traprock wrote a marvelous analysis of all this and hand-delivered it, along with all the data, to every member of Congress.

But still, this propaganda campaign was not enough. Mass demonstrations of surprising size began to happen everywhere. There were two in October 2002 in Seattle, where I live, that clearly drew far, far beyond the ordinary reach of the groups that organized them. Undoubtedly the same was true all over the US. Then a World Social Forum was held in Genoa that totally swamped the city and was viciously attacked by security forces. Rather than backing down, the World Social Forum forces (whoever they are) started the call for a world-wide series of demonstrations on February 15, 2003 to stop the war. Organizing on a disconnected but global scale began.

Meanwhile, as the US rulers carried out the every-day work of preparing an invasion, which involved moving an amazing amount of military shit to within pouncing distance of Iraq, a problem developed. The plan was to invade Iraq from two directions: from the south, through Kuwait, which was prepared to host the invasion host, and the northwest, through Turkey. A classic pincers attack, beloved by all invaders with enough troops to come from two directions, since it forces the defender to split his forces and his attention. But the people of Turkey demurred. When the US asked, politely, if it might send an armored division or two through Turkey, the Turkish Parliament refused to vote in support, more than once. Assuming this was just a normal ally-to-ally holdup/ransom, the US cajoled, undoubtedly offered more and then way more, but the Turkish parliament seemed unable to tell the Turkish people that their opinion didn’t matter. It seems that Turkish popular opinion, by an astounding margin of 95%, did not care to open their borders to an invading American force with a baggage train ten of miles long. Naturally the aforesaid divisions were already sailing around the Mediterranean, waiting for permission to cross Turkey. They ultimately had to turn around and steam either through the Suez Canal or around the Cape of Good Hope (I have no idea which) and then wait in line behind all the other behemoths carrying war materiel through the narrow border of Kuwait and Iraq. This presented a not small problem. Leaving aside the loss of the second front in the northwest (in what is becoming Kurdistan) it put a lot of stuff in line to go through a relatively narrow corridor.

Now is where I make an inference, for which I have no supporting facts, but only logic. You will have to decide if the inference is warranted. I believe that the US High Command balked at the loss of the second front and demanded more time to work on the Turks to find some way, any way, to allow a second front to be opened in northwest Iraq. Double the bribes. Develop some threats. Suborn some Turkish legislators. Whatever. These are not guys who like to take chances. Their concerns were overridden because the political leadership of the US was freaked out by the breadth and depth of antiwar sentiment.

Specifically, it was spooked by the largest coordinated mass action in history: demonstrations in over 600 cities on February 15, 2003, in scores of countries around the globe, estimated at 35-40,000,000 people in the streets at the same time with the same agenda: Stop the War.

Real movements spawn sub-movements, bring completely uninitiated forces into political actions, develop a cultural side and find ways to accommodate people who don’t get off on marching in the streets. Thus in Seattle the night before the Feb 15 march there were 5 or 6 separate stagings of Aristophanes’ great comedy Lysistrata, in which the women of Athens agree to withhold sex from their husbands until peace is made with Sparta. In the original, as the action progresses, various Athenian and Spartan men are depicted as having erections. In the hilarious version I watched on Capitol Hill, all the men throughout the play appeared with dildoes growing out of their heads. Undoubtedly such examples could be multiplied indefinitely from other cities and other countries.

Well, Colin Powell’s speech may have silenced the Congressional opposition, tame as it ever was, but it didn’t do a thing to stop the oldsters from tabling on 35th Avenue NE in Seattle. Every couple of blocks you could run into another table of whitehairs from the Sound Non-Violent Opponents of War in front of some business complex handing out leaflets, urging attendance at February 15th, selling buttons, and so forth.

There was no reason to think it wouldn’t get worse. Crowed estimates for Seattle for the February 15 demonstration ranged from 55,000 to 70,000, easily twice the size of any political gathering before or since. Millions marched in London. New York’s demonstration was severely attacked first by the weather and then by the police, who attempted to herd demonstrators like so many cows and somehow pulled the plug on WBAI’s efforts to simulcast the rally over the radio.

So — final inference — the US political leaders did the only thing they could to silence the protests: they started the war. Without a second front.

Sadly, it worked. Vast numbers of people succumbed to the “Save Our Boys” sentiment and although it is fair to doubt if they changed their opinions about the war, they certainly changed their willingness to protest it. The next demonstration in Seattle, in early April, about three weeks after the March 20 beginning of the war, drew about 5% of the number of participants of February 15th. The unity of antiwar forces that the impending war had forged disappeared overnight into the same old boring and contentious factions, leaving, as it were, not a rack behind.

Except in Kurdistan. There the absence of an actual invasion force coupled with the general disappearance of the Saddam Hussein state, emboldened the Kurds to step in and take over where they could. Naturally there has been a huge amount of back and forth in the last 11 years, but now, with the seeming death-blows of ISIS and the Sunni insurgency to the Iraqi state, the prospects of Kurdistan for the Kurds looms larger than ever before.

We had a part in this. What we do, matters.

David McDonald photographs plants and blogs from Seattle, WA. He can be reached at

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