Opting out on Iraq

Today's anti-war protesters seem more interested in saving themselves than anyone else.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘Trick or treat Mr Blair!’ shouted an anti-war protester outside the UK parliament last night, as the Stop the War Coalition’s ‘day of action’ against attacking Iraq coincided with Halloween.

Some protesters dressed up as ghouls and witches, and one held a pumpkin with the words ‘Don’t attack Iraq’ scrawled across it in black ink. ‘If you’re gonna scare anyone on Halloween it might as well be warmongering politicians’, said Abby from South London. ‘Though I don’t expect we’ll get many sweets or chocolates for our troubles….’

So what was the protesters’ ‘scary’ message for Blair? ‘We’re here to tell him “not in our name”’, said 21-year-old student Mark, repeating a now-familiar slogan of the modern anti-war movement. ‘We want the government to know that we want nothing to do with their wars’, said Abby, who described the day of action as a ‘powerful display of disapproval’. ‘Basically we’re saying, “Oi Blair! No!”’, said one protester.

Talking to the protesters, it soon became clear that many are resigned to the war taking place. ‘I know there will be an invasion of Iraq and I know there isn’t much I can do about it’, said one. ‘But what should I do – stay at home and say nothing? I can still add my voice to the protests.’ Others pointed out that the government ‘would probably ignore’ the protests and get on with their wars anyway, ‘because that is what governments do’.

Resignation to war seems to be a common thread in the new anti-war movements across Europe and America. According to the Boston-based paper the Christian Science Monitor, there is one big difference between the ‘Vietnam generation’ and today’s ‘Iraq generation’ – namely that today’s protesters don’t think they can actually stop war, but are still keen to kick up a stink. Some protesters say ‘war with Iraq is probably “inevitable”’, reports the CS Monitor, ‘and that no amount of marching or chanting or drum-beating will likely change that’ (1).

According to a German commentator, ‘[W]hat is most striking about today’s anti-war protests is a sense of futility, the idea that they cannot prevent the course of war but might possibly be able to “raise awareness” about its potential consequences’. For the launch of his Silent Protest against invading Iraq in London on 29 October 2002, anti-war writer and artist Bill Drummond wondered, ‘Would one less person be killed? I don’t know. But I’m [not] going to let this possible futility stop me now’ (2).

On last night’s London demo, the protesters were not only resigned to war, some of them weren’t even particularly anti-war. ‘Why don’t we send in a crack squad?’ asked Jon from Edinburgh. ‘We could send in a tiny group of troops to shoot Saddam, and then pull out without causing bloodshed.’

Another talked up the possibility of launching ‘pinpoint strikes’ on Iraq – the kind of invasion preferred by UK international development secretary Clare Short, who has been described as a ‘thorn in Blair’s side’ for her supposedly ‘staunch opposition to war’. Short wants ‘remedies that will hit Saddam and the elite, not the people’ (3) – as do some White House hawks, who are keen to ‘destroy the Iraqi President’s power base but spare the country’s rank-and-file troops’ (4).

Some protesters were opposed to all forms of ‘violent intervention’ in Iraq, but not to other forms of intervention. ‘The UN should take a lead over weapons inspections, rather than allowing America to boss it around’, said one. Many seemed to overlook the fact that this kind of ‘diplomatic intervention’ shows a similarly scant regard for sovereignty or self-determination in third world states. Such intervention most often heightens divisions and tensions around the world rather than bringing peace.

‘If it’s gonna happen’, said Moira from Reading, her voice expressing that sense of resignation that war ‘or something like it’ would indeed happen, ‘then it ought to be done through the United Nations, without a shot being fired’.

If the anti-war movement is so resigned to an attack on Iraq taking place, what are its protests about? If they aren’t about building a big opposition to Britain and America’s war plans and trying to change things, what is the point of them? ‘We are showing our disapproval and voicing our individual opposition’, said Abby.

This captures the approach of much of the modern anti-war movement. Recent British and American demos against invading Iraq may have been big (though not as big as the organisers claim), but they are less collective demonstrations of a coherent opposition to war, than a collection of individuals expressing their ‘disapproval’ of whatever America and Britain decide to do. Anti-war protests are not so much about challenging Bush and Blair and trying to stop them in their tracks, but about expressing an individual, moral revulsion to war.

In this sense, demonstrating against war today is a way of cleansing your private conscience rather than effecting public change.

Consider the ‘Not In My Name’ slogan. This has become the most popular refrain of those opposed to invading Iraq. On the 150,000-strong demo in London on 28 September 2002, thousands of placards declared that an invasion of Iraq was ‘not in our name’, while much of the American left and anti-capitalist brigade has built a new umbrella anti-war campaign called ‘Not In Our Name’.

This slogan sums up the current anti-war sentiment. Resigned to the fact that a war will take place and unconfident of their ability to stop it, anti-war protesters instead wash their hands of war. ‘Not In My Name’ is a way of declaring that, when the war does inevitably happen, you personally want nothing to do with it. Far from challenging Bush and Blair’s war-in-the-making, anti-war protesters are virtually saying, ‘Do what you like, we know we can’t stop you – just count us out’.

This ‘opting out’ rather than getting stuck in is also reflected in the other big theme of the anti-war brigade – the idea that invading Iraq will cause more problems than it’s worth. Many anti-war campaigns focus on the ‘risks and dangers’ of attacking Iraq, claiming that launching a war will not only destabilise the Middle East, but cause more terrorism around the world and make even us in the West more ‘at risk’ from attack.

‘You know what will happen if we invade Iraq?’ said one protester, making me wonder who this ‘we’ was. ‘More Balis.’ Others claimed that bombing Baghdad would give ‘people like bin Laden all the ammo they need to do more 11 Septembers’. ‘It will only create more terror’, said one, ‘and I thought Bush and Blair were supposed to be against terror’.

Anti-imperialist movements of the past often highlighted the destabilising consequences of war. They pointed out that self-interested invasions carried out by Britain, America, France and the rest would only make international relations less stable.

But today’s anti-war movement seems to have twisted these claims into an argument against taking decisive action of any kind on the world stage. Their arguments about the ‘risks of war’ seem to be driven more by fear than by a desire to challenge intervention abroad. ‘Blair is making London into a target for terrorists by doing this’, said one of last night’s protesters, echoing arguments that have been made by anti-war veterans John Pilger and Tariq Ali (and George Michael…) – and capturing the strong sense of personal fear and insecurity within the anti-war movement.

Protesting against war today seems to be more about opting out and saving yourself, rather than saving anyone else. This is best captured by the new Silent Protest that was launched in London last week. Those who oppose invading Iraq are encouraged to organise ‘personal silent days’ as a declaration of their opposition, and are even supplied with a set of cards containing phrases like ‘Coffee please’, ‘Yes’, ‘No’, ‘Maybe’ and ‘Fuck you’, so that they can communicate the essentials of everyday life without having to speak.

Bill Drummond, organiser of the Silent Protest, asks: ‘And why stop at stopping world war? Why not all those little petty domestic ones that go on in our families, bedrooms or at work?’ So you can have a ‘personal silent day’ against the potential slaughter of Iraqis or against a family member who you’ve had a tiff with. ‘Why silence?’ says Drummond. ‘Because it’s golden, sound, worth a shot. Because somebody once said “the right to silence is our trump card”.’ (5)

These Silent Protests sound like the kind of tantrums thrown by children when they don’t get what they want – where protesters don’t engage with the problem or challenge it head on, but instead sink into

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Topics Politics


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