“Holiday protests don’t stop wars” – 15 years after the protests against the war on Iraq

Marcha en Londres el 15 de febrero de 2003

15 February 2003:

In more than 800 cities world-wide between six and ten million people demonstrate against the imminent war on Iraq. According to other estimates it were even between eight and 30 million. In Rome there were two million, in Madrid 1.5 million, in Barcelona between one and 1.5 million, in London between one and two million, in Sevilla more than 200 000...

One month later, on 20 March 2003, began the invasion of Iraq with aerial bombing, including from military bases in the countries where the largest demonstrations took place: from RAF Fairford in Britain the US B-52 bombers took off, with very few exceptions without problems. Other US war planes took off from bases in Spain, Italy, and other NATO countries. Not much is known of disruptions to military operations which left from countries with a strong opposition to the war.

In January 2004, during the World Social Forum in Mumbai, Indian activist Arundhati Roy commented: “It was wonderful that on February 15th last year, in a spectacular display of public morality, 10 million people in five continents marched against the war on Iraq. It was wonderful, but it was not enough. February 15th was a weekend. Nobody had to so much as miss a day of work. Holiday protests don’t stop wars.

1. I remember 15 February in London well. Among some groups oriented more towards nonviolent direct action we had prepared a paper “A rough guide to war resistance”, and we distributed probably some 10 000 copies. The guide highlighted the military infrastructure within Britain which was part of the war (such as RAF Fairford, RAF Lakenheath, PJHQ Northwood just outside London), and proposed nonviolent direct action to “disrupt” the military infrastructure – unfortunately with little success. There were some actions that tried to interrupt the daily functioning of the war machine, but nothing potent or prolonged.

Holiday protests don’t stop wars, said Arundathi Roy, and she is right. Can we imagine not just 1-2 million people marching through the streets of London (Rome, Madrid, Barcelona, …) shouting “no to war”, but on the next day and in a nonviolent way only 1% of these “masses” occupying the airbase in Fairford, Aviano (Italy), Rota or Morón de la Frontera (Spain), and in this way at least partially stopping the war?

2. The movements against the war in Iraq had little strategy beyond mobilising the masses for ever larger demonstrations under their leadership. I don’t know if they really were that naive that they thought this would be sufficient to stop the war. We had a situation where, for example in Britain, there was a majority of 80% against the war. Nevertheless, there were almost no action that tried to at least put a spanner into the works of the war machine. The same in Italy, Spain … (in the USA, the war initially had the support of a majority, a context very different from the majority of the European countries). It does not surprise that after the beginning of the war the movement collapsed pretty quickly, even though public opinion never returned to support the war. The result was widespread demobilisation and disempowerment of lots of people who just had started to get involved in the movement.

3. The war machine – everything military – is the core of the State. To oppose a war in which the State has a vital interest – neither Blair nor Aznar were merely “Bushs poodles”, as a popular slogan of the anti-war movement claimed – and to think that to win public opinion is sufficient to stop this war is absolutely naive. Public opinion alone is rarely sufficient for the success of a social movement, and much less so when the issue at stake touches on powerful interests and the core of the State. Much more is needed than “holiday protests”.

4. If there has been a war about which one can say that the anti-war protests had an important role in ending the war it is the war of the USA in Vietnam. However, in this case the movement did not have as an objective to prevent this war, but to end a war that was already going on since the early 1960s. From 1967 a majority was opposed to the war, and in 1970 only one third of the US population thought that it had not been a mistake to get involved in the war in Vietnam.

Besides public opinion, within the Armed Forces a lot of resistance developed: disobedience, desertion, conscientious objection. The “GI Resistance”, the resistance of the soldiers themselves, was a key factor, because the military authorities were no longer able to be confident their orders would be complied with, and many middle rank officers feared their own subordinate soldiers.

5. The context of the movement against the war in Irak was very different. This movement tried to prevent a war. In many European countries – above all in Italy, Britain and Spain – it could count on the support of a great majority of the population, something which was a necessity but not sufficient to exercise the power needed to prevent the war. At least in Britain the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition, dominated by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), rejected any strategy of civil disobedience, and only in the last weeks before the start of the war they had to talk of disobedience because of pressure from the grassroots of the movement. Nevertheless, they never developed a strategy based on disobedience or civil resistance, and they never attempted to build the leadership from below needed to carry out such a strategy. There was no training in nonviolence, not even the most basic training in nonviolent techniques. There was no preparation for repression. Even worse: the few groups that were working in this direction – the network Reclaim the Bases, Fairford Peace Camp, among others – saw themselves marginalised by the Stop the War Coalition. From what I know, this was not very different in other European countries.

6. What could the movement have done with the support of 80% of the population and some strategies based on empowerment and civil resistance? Maybe it would not have been possible to prevent the war in Iraq – above all because of the majority support it enjoyed in the United States – but it would have been possible to take some countries out of the “coalition of the willing” formed by the USA for the war, especially Italy, Britain, and Spain. I am thinking of actions such as in Greenham Common during the 1980s and 1990s, which almost made impossible the normal functioning of the nuclear missile base. I am thinking of massie blockades (or occupations) of military bases used for the war. I am thinking in “plowshares” actions of nonviolent sabotage of war places, I am thinking in disrupting the supply of the Armed Forces, that is to say, the transport of military supplies from the naval ports in the respective country. Besides strategies of disruption of the war machine, one can imagine strategies of disruption of the normal functioning of society (blockades or occupations of State or economical institutions, such as the stock exchange) or strikes. It would have been important to not just say “no to war”, but to move from protest to resistance, from saying “no” to making the execution of the war impossible, or at least to increase the political cost of it to a level those in powers would not have been able to accept.

7. I would like that on 15 February 2018 we do not only remember the huge demonstrations in our countries, the mobilisations without precedent, but that we also reflect on the failure of the strategies employed.

However, it was not a total failure. Even though the movement against the war in Irak was not able to prevent this war, it is very probable – at least in Europe – that it has prevented others, such as a potential war against Iran. The mobilisations of 15 February 2003 did contribute to that our governments – in Europe – at least during some time were much more careful with their militarist strategies.

8. The “no to war” remains important, and maybe it will be even more important in the future. We are entering times of depleted resources of cheap (fossil) energy, of available minerals, of drinking water and arable land. It is likely that we are going to return to times of wars about available resources. To prevent these wars, it will not be sufficient to say “NO”, we will need to develop strategies based in empowerment and organizing to make the wars of the future impossible or politically extremely costly. Either we organise, or will see ourselves confronted by many wars.

“Las protestas de vacaciones no paran las guerras”