A Look at the Movement Against the US War in Iraq

In the fall of 1990 and into the early weeks of 1991 millions of people around the world protested the anticipated US-led war against Iraq. From Washington, DC to London; Berlin to Tokyo; Bangladesh to Gaza, massive protests were held in the months leading up to the January 16, 1991 attack. I myself attended one of the most emotionally powerful antiwar protests I had ever attended the day before the war began. It was in Olympia, WA. Over 3000 people (in a county with a population of around 100,000) attended a rally and then marched to the Washington State Capitol. We entered the building and took over the chambers for several hours. Some protesters spent the night and only left when they were removed by Washington State Police.

A similar scenario developed in the fall of 2002 and the early part of 2003.  While the Bush White House issued ultimatums to the Iraqi government and called them negotiations, Secretary of State Colin Powell presented a tableau of lies to the United Nations in a vain attempt to get its approval for the upcoming US invasion of Iraq.  Meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and the generals who worked with them ferried hundreds of thousands of US military men, women and machines to Kuwait and other nations in the region. The Navy continued to move its ships into position. On February 15, 2003, over ten million people around the world protested, demanding and pleading that Washington and London back off from their invasion plans. As Brian Becker of ANSWER wrote me in an email: “The Iraq anti-war movement succeeded in doing something that was without precedent. We created a mass movement that brought millions of people into the streets – in the U.S. and around the world — prior rather than after the outbreak of a military conflict.” Like the protests in 1990 and 1991, these protests were also ignored. Becker continued, “Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld raced to invade Iraq because they knew that the only way to change the political calculus which had left them entirely isolated, in the political sense, was to change the facts on the ground in Iraq, so to speak.”

A month later the second massive US attack on Iraq began. That attack too was met with worldwide protest. Unfortunately, as the first days of the war became weeks, the protest diminished while the war forces monopolized the media and the battlefield. By May 1, 2003, George Bush was confident enough in his victory that he strode onto the USS Lincoln and told the world the military mission had been accomplished. Little did he and his advisors know that the war was actually in its infancy. Certain elements of the antiwar movement began to take notice, although most of its members and organizers had reluctantly surrendered their determination, acknowledging another victory for the US war machine.

Then, that machine got too big for its britches. It began the task of occupying the nation of Iraq, taking over the administration of its towns, villages and cities. A subservient regime of Iraqi technocrats and politicians, many of them recent exiles, joined with various clerics and tribal leaders to take over that element of power Washington was willing to share with them. Reconstruction money began to pour into the coffers of US and other non-Iraqi corporations in a cynical pretense at making it appear that Washington was truly interested in helping the Iraqis rebuild their nation after two US invasions and many years of sanctions. At first, most Iraqis kept their opinions to themselves, but then US forces rode into the town of Fallujah and fired on a protest of citizens who wanted a school returned that had been overtaken by US forces for their use. A few days later, four Blackwater (now called Academi) mercenaries were killed and hung from a bridge leading into Fallujah. This was the advent of the Iraqi resistance and the first indication to the overconfident US public that the Pentagon was not going to have as easy a time as they were used to. Fallujah became a center of resistance to the US occupation. In May 2004, the US military went crazy, going into the town, dropping white phosphorus and pretty much killing at random.

Although there were some in the antiwar movement who argued that the US military should remain in Iraq to “fix what it broke,” the growing Iraqi resistance convinced most within the antiwar camp that if they did not organize with the demand to bring the troops home immediately, the possibility of the war getting further out of hand loomed rather large. The two national networks in the US antiwar movement intensified their organizing, answering a grassroots demand for greater resistance to the war. A third group calling itself World Can’t Wait also formed and began working independently and with the other organizations. There was never unanimity amongst these groups and at times there was open enmity. The differences were political at their foundation, but were exacerbated by tactical and strategic disagreements, as well.

These differences were not new or specific to the antiwar movement of the 2000s. Like Joe Lombardo of United National Antiwar Coalition stated to me in an email, “I believe part of it dates back to the splits that existed between the National Peace Action Coalition and the People’s Coalition for Peace and Justice back in the days of Vietnam and to divisions in the left since the time of the Russian revolution.” A more recent appearance of these differences can be found in the movement that developed in 1990-1991 before and during the first US invasion of Iraq. It manifested itself then between the two national networks: The Coalition to Stop U.S. Intervention in the Middle East and The National Campaign for Peace in the Middle East.  The organizers of the former included many members of the Workers World Party (WWP). The latter group represented more new left and liberal elements of the peace and anti-intervention movements; members of its leadership and rank and file were closely tied with the left side of the Democratic Party. In addition, there were non-affiliated student, anarchist and workers organizations that organized their own protests while also supporting the much larger protests organized by the national coalitions. As it turned out, the disagreements made a single antiwar protest impossible.

A similar breakdown of alliances appeared in 2002, as it became apparent the Bush White House was intent on invading Iraq. This time around the trend formerly represented by The Coalition to Stop U.S. Intervention in the Middle East was now represented by ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), a group formed by the International Action Center, which in turn was primarily composed of WWP members. The second trend was represented by United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ). The political differences between the two groups were sharper, especially since UFPJ — the group which had essentially replaced the National Campaign–was even more closely aligned with the left elements of the Democratic Party.

In 1990-1991, the Coalition to Stop U.S. Intervention in the Middle East opposed the US sanctions against Iraq. The National Campaign for Peace in the Middle East did not.  This was a crucial difference between the two organizations. In addition, the Coalition to Stop U.S. Intervention in the Middle East wished to tie the question of Palestine and the Israeli occupation to the issue of US war in the Middle East. The National Campaign for Peace in the Middle East did not. A similar set of differences appeared in the antiwar movement of the 2000s. Of course, UFPJ did not support the totally discredited idea of sanctions any longer, but there was enough opposition in the group to connecting the issue of the Israeli occupation to the antiwar position that it remained off the list of UFPJ demands for most of the decade. Despite the very real differences between these two organizations, they did manage to actually sponsor at least two national protests jointly.

The more interesting protests took place outside of either coalition and involved street blockading, sit-ins and occasional street battles. Although these protests were certainly attended by those who had organized and attended the mainstream marches and rallies, they represented an attempt to actually resist the war machine, not just oppose it. Perhaps the most militant and directed of these protests took place in Olympia and Tacoma, Washington where protesters blocked shipments of military Stryker vehicles bound for Iraq.

Another group included in the latter mix would be the antiwar groups composed of military veterans and active duty troops, Veterans for Peace (VFP) and the Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). When I asked Patrick McCann, the recently elected national president of VFP about the role VFP and IVAW played in the movement against the war in Iraq, he responded, “Veterans for Peace is the riddle that the war-mongers can’t resolve.” Noting that, “when the Iraq war began, those opposing war there were in a significant minority. We were able to turn that around in a few short years.” In part, continued McCann, this occurred, because VFP helped to set a tone in the peace movement that does not blame the warrior for the war…. (Furthermore)Veterans for Peace (and groups like IVAW) helped to develop a support network for active-duty soldiers that want to resist illegal war and illegal orders.” Additionally, VFP refuses to fetishize the wearer of the uniform, unlike those that support the war and some liberal antiwar groups.

Yet, the antiwar movement did not achieve its absolute goal. The complete withdrawal of all US troops, mercenaries and agents has not happened. It is true that most US troops are out of Iraq, yet CIA, mercenaries and Special Forces still remain. In the US war in Afghanistan, the war continues to chug along, occasionally taking the lives of US soldiers and Marines and more frequently taking the lives of Afghans. In addition, US Special Forces, CIA mercenaries and drones continue to kill at will around the globe.

Why and how? How effective was the antiwar movement of the 2000s in limiting (if not ending) the US war in Iraq? Why did it fail in preventing the war itself and why did it not end it more quickly? The amount of space allowed for this article can only provide some basic insights into these questions. Yet, these insights should be the beginning of a larger effort to examine and learn from the experience of that movement.

First and foremost, the closeness of some members of the larger coalition, UFPJ, to the Democratic Party essentially insured that anti-imperialist elements within the antiwar movement would ultimately be marginalized. Although ANSWER’s analysis was (and is) more consistently anti-imperialist, it has its own problems, especially in its appeal to many in the antiwar left and its tendency to avoid talking about the excesses of authoritarian leaders like Saddam Hussein. In my opinion, it is virtually impossible to oppose the machinery of US imperialism without an anti-imperialist understanding of the US role in the world. Any other approach limits the success and the goals of any antiwar movement. This is exactly what happened. The presence of the Democratic Party in the antiwar movement and its ability to siphon off so many activists into various politician and single-issue campaigns pretty much guaranteed the election of a Democrat in 2008; a Democrat who would tone down the US wars while maintaining Washington’s quest for world domination.

Another manifestation of the drawbacks in being so closely aligned with a major political party (Democrats) is that once that party is in power, any movement associated with it is almost certain to fizzle out. As Debra Sweet of World Can’t Wait wrote in an email, “The crowning blow to the mass movement against the wars was that the Bush regime was driven out — by a mass movement created from the top to support a president whose mission was to save the system, restore US credibility internationally, speak the language of multiculturalism, while essentially carrying out the program of empire as commander in chief.” Barack Obama is the current face of this charade.

From the moment the US invaded Afghanistan, the opposition to that action has been muted. Besides the anti-imperialists of the left and right most people in the US have at the least, tacitly supported the endeavor. Once again, the fact that it was not opposed by most of the US antiwar movement until late in the game is evidence of where the lack of an anti-imperialist understanding can lead. The US presence in Afghanistan, beginning at the very latest in the 1970s with US support of the anti-Soviet mujahedin, was never about freedom for the Afghan people or about capturing Osama bin Laden. It was always about extending the US presence into the region. So is the ongoing support for the regimes in Pakistan, no matter how repressive and anti-democratic they may be.

There are those on the left who consider an overtly anti-imperialist position to be an ultra-left position. My understanding is that while it may be a radical position (as in radical means going to the root of the problem), it is not ultra-left. Indeed, given the overtly imperialist nature of US foreign policy, any other approach to opposing US military actions is certain to be piecemeal and rarely successful. If we do not understand the problem, then how can we address it correctly? A tangent of this is the quandary some who oppose the war but not the warriors face. In many cases, this position creates a situation where antiwar protesters almost fetishize the soldier, thereby removing the soldier’s own agency. To the credit of VFP and IVAW, they seem to understand this possibility and work with veterans and the non-military public in trying to address this issue. Perhaps the most public of these efforts were the 2008 Winter Soldier hearings in the Washington, DC area. Not only did these hearings reveal the atrocities that made up the Iraq and Afghan wars; they also provided the warriors with one means to deal with their involvement.

After the large protests of January 2007, the antiwar movement fragmented further. ANSWER organized a couple more marches on the Pentagon that focused on the link between war and poverty, among other things. Other groups organized locally. Thousands of regular folks opposed to the war joined US presidential campaigns, with many of them ultimately helping Barack Obama win the White House in November 2008. The pace of the US-fueled sectarian conflict and death squad murders inside Iraq slowed and fewer US troops and Marines saw the deserts of Iraq. In fact, many were being re-assigned to Afghanistan. By 2010, relatively few US troops remained in Iraq.

In June 2010, I received an email inviting me to a conference in Albany, NY. The purpose of the conference was to form a new antiwar network in the United States. While I did not attend the conference, I did write about it. Originally intended as an antidote to the lethargy and recriminations that had set in to the two primary national organizations, the United National Antiwar Conference (UNAC) was composed of pacifist, religious, political, left, and anti-imperialist organizations and individuals hoping to resolve the split. As Joe Lombardo said to me, “Many of us could not accept that, in the belly of the beast, in the heart of imperialism, there was no serious opposition to the U.S. war policies. Additionally, it was right around the time of the first Gaza flotilla and we felt that the antiwar movement could no longer take an agnostic position on Palestine. So UNAC took a strong position in support of Palestinian rights. This caused a big debate and some people left UNAC over this debate…. At the end of our conference we held a march through the streets of Albany to a local mosque that had the Imam and other members attacked through FBI dirty tricks. We saw this as a statement that the antiwar movement was coming to support the Muslims against these attacks.” The Islamophobia aspect of the wars on Islamic nations had largely been ignored by most of the United States. UNAC continues to organize and debate around these and related issues. However, according to some attendees, the occasional conferences held by the organization are often consumed with irrelevant nitpicking amongst leftist groups.

Meanwhile, the masses of people that were in the streets during the bulk of the US war in Iraq are no longer there, despite the ongoing drone war and the growing presence of US influence in the Syrian civil war. In part this is due to the economic concerns most of us have in the wake of the market crash; the subsequent bailouts and the growing trend towards austerity measures being enforced across the planet. However, some of the apparent apathy is related to the deceptively antiseptic appearance of drone warfare. The way drone attacks are presented to the US public makes it appear that there is very little damage, collateral or otherwise. As far as most people are concerned, only the “bad guys” are being killed. This perception of drone warfare alone separates the death and destruction of warfare even further from those in whose name it is being waged. Of course, as eyewitness reports from residents and eyewitnesses make clear, drone strikes are not clean and often intentionally target first responders and civilians.

When I asked World Can’t Wait’s Debra Sweet how to respond to this “new” warfare, she responded with a challenge. “There is no substitute for mass mobilization in the streets; it’s more important and mood-changing than anything else. But to get that takes getting to the youth, many of whom remember nothing at all pre-Bush; their world is one of permanent war with no borders.” Sweet’s last phrase is chilling on its own. The implications of it are even more so. For those who oppose any war involving US forces the task is clear. The means toward accomplishing the task, however, remain open for discussion.

Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden.  His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com