The enormous mobilisation against the war wasn’t enough to stop the destruction of Iraq, but its very presence on the streets was an achievement of human responsibility (Cosmopolis column published in the Hindu Business Line BLINK, 16 August, 2016) (PDF here)
Last week saw the release of the Chilcot report, the results of a seven-year inquiry into Britain’s role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The report was scathing about the war’s rationale and execution. The former British prime minister Tony Blair, who will be tarnished forever for his part in the debacle, was forced to stand before the cameras and account for his decisions. Though Blair stopped short of a clear apology, there was something winded and broken about his performance, as if he realised that in trying to make history he had let history overtake him.
The Iraq War remains the single-most formative political event of my life. I say that even though it had very little to do with me. The war was obviously much more devastating for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who were killed in the invasion and the ensuing chaos, and for the many American, British, and other allied soldiers who died fighting a war they should never have had to fight. I don’t pretend to have a comparable stake in the conflict. I’m neither Iraqi nor American. I have never been to Iraq, I didn’t lose loved ones or dear friends in its battlefields and shell-shocked neighbourhoods, and throughout the long war I slept safely in places far away from its daily carnage.
And yet George W Bush’s folly is something I feel personally. I was 18 at the time, a particularly tender age, in the midst of my first year of college at Yale. I plunged myself into the hopeful, hyper-active protest movement against the war, petitioning, canvassing, organising demonstrations, participating in debates, writing editorials, and generally devoting what energy I could spare from my studies to the cause.
I remember keenly those months leading up to the March 2003 invasion. One could already sense in the autumn of 2002 the stirrings of the giant beast of war: the escalating rhetoric of the president and his lieutenants, the meek compliance of Congress, the media falling lock-step behind the government, the wider American public either disinterested in or eager for the exercise of their country’s unrivalled power. For an 18-year-old, it was a vividly charged time to join the anti-war movement. Trivial activities like making banners or asking other students to sign a petition seemed freighted with noble purpose. Friendships were made and broken over the impending war. I was incredulous that sentient people could support the invasion, but I was even more angered by those who didn’t care to take a position at all. This was a time for action, one way or the other, and passive acceptance seemed to me a truly terrible kind of complicity.
With a youthful sense of grandeur, I felt part of something much greater than myself. The global protests on February 15, 2003 — when as many as 30 million people took to the streets in dozens of countries around the world, including 10,000 in Kolkata — seemed a vindication of our efforts. I marched along with friends and family and hundreds of thousands of other people in New York City, shutting down the streets of midtown Manhattan. The New York Times wrote the next day that “there may still be two superpowers on this planet: the United States and world public opinion.”
The enormous mobilisation against the Iraq War was one of the last great global movements before social media. There was no Facebook to speed our group formation. There was no Twitter to amplify the spread of information. Instead, the connections we made and communities we forged were visceral, the inhabiting of the street not the screen. I marched in Washington, New York and elsewhere again and again in opposition to the war. I did it with a breathless urgency. I didn’t really think that my sore feet and voice would stop the war from happening, but I felt that there was nothing more important I could do than protest.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t ever enough. It came as a body blow when on March 20 of that year, the first bombs began to fall on Baghdad and the most powerful military force in human history set in motion the demolition of Iraq.
I’m a bit more circumspect about rallies and demonstrations now, but the memory of that febrile time has stayed with me. However inchoate and however ineffective it proved, the worldwide movement against the war in Iraq sparked a broad kind of political consciousness in me. It was my duty to take a stand as a member of the species, as somebody whose sense of belonging wasn’t restrained by nation or creed. Iraqi lives mattered. Millions of people from Seoul to Santiago de Chile felt the same way. Yes, their attempt to stop the war failed. But their very presence on the streets was an achievement of human responsibility, of the awareness that the lives we lead are inextricably linked to lives led elsewhere, and that to deny that connection is the greatest crime.