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We didn't stop the war, but we weren't defeated
The legacy of the world's biggest protest movement?
Hello everyone! This week I’m sharing a podcast and some writing on a subject very close to my heart - the 20th anniversary of the demonstrations against the Iraq war on February 15th 2003. You can hear the episode below, in the Substack podcast app, by following these links to listen on Spotify, or Apple, or anywhere else you get your podcasts!
To this day, the anti-war protests that took place on February 15th 2003, remain the largest political mobilization in human history.
An estimated 14 million people, in 600 cities around the world, came together for an orchestrated day of action to try and stop Bush and Blair’s determination to invade Iraq.
To reflect on the legacy of that movement, and what it can teach us about resilience after huge political losses, I sat down with two activists who were involved in the anti-war movement at the time: Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, and Asad Rehman, director of War on Want.
We discussed how that unique and unprecedented mobilization was organized, what it felt like on the streets of London that cold February day, and how, while we may not have stopped the war, we certainly changed history. We also talked about how all of us navigated feelings of despair after the war began — and what lessons we can learn from the anti-war movement as we gear up to fight future battles around issues such as the climate crisis.
If you were part of that day, I hope the podcast brings back some powerful memories. But even if you weren’t, I hope you’ll enjoy a conversation that truly left me feeling invigorated and inspired.
Have a listen and let me know what you think!
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On February 15th 2003, I was a fresh-faced and gregarious 21-year-old living in London.
I had moved to the city six months earlier, ostensibly to study a Master’s degree at the LSE and had no idea that the next twelve months would end up being the most seminal of my life. Not because of anything I heard inside the university’s cavernous lecture halls, but because of everything I learnt from immersing myself in the campaign to stop the Iraq war.
Opposing Western military intervention in Iraq was an issue that was deeply personal for me. I was born in the UK, but my mother’s side of the family are from Iran, and I grew up against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. That terrible war, in which the West armed both sides, lasted eight years and destroyed innumerable lives, with an estimated one million people killed in Iran and 500,000 killed in Iraq. My time in Iran as a young child was dominated not just by the turmoil of the political situation under the Islamic regime but also by witnessing the realities of war — from food rations, to bomb raids, to loss of life. Those early years instilled in me a deep opposition to militarism in all its forms, especially Western intervention in the Middle East.
All of which is to say that when the drumbeat of war began shortly after 9/11, first in relation to Afghanistan and later to Iraq, I threw myself into activism — campaigning almost every day to stop what I believed was an ill-thought-out, illegal and immoral war to gain control of Iraq’s resources.
As I write, trying to capture the public mood back then, it’s genuinely hard to put into words just how electrifying that political moment felt. In the six months running up to the war, discussions around it dominated all aspects of cultural and political life in the UK. It was a topic that everyone talked about, in schools and places of worship, workplaces and universities, at music, literature and film festivals, as well as of course every day in the media and the corridors of power. Up and down the country, anti-war groups sprung up organically around local themes or a set of interests: Archaeologists Against the War, Medics Against the War, Ravers Against the War. It felt like almost every day some major celebrity spoke out against it, released artwork, or tried to use their platform to influence opinion. It was a moment where if you had a voice, you had to use it.
For me, that year was transformational and to this day it continues to shape how I interact with the world, not least through the deep and lasting friendships. I learnt how to write and deliver speeches, how to organize direct actions, how to fundraise, how to design leaflets, how to debate and convince someone who disagrees with me, how to work in coalitions, how to find common ground with people who hold differing political views, how to motivate, encourage and keep the energy going by using creativity in protests, and, very helpfully, how to make your body go completely limp as the police drag you away from a protest so you slow them down.
The day of February 15th itself has an almost ethereal feel to it now. It was cold, freezing cold, I remember that. And it was also a blur, of people, coming from every direction, of all ages, all walks of life, all ethnicities, chanting, waving placards, cheering each other on. By the time I arrived at Hyde Park it felt almost overwhelming. I listened to speeches from Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn, Rev. Jesse Jackson, the actor Tim Robbins. Apparently Kate Moss gave a speech too, but I must have missed that. The other thing I remember is crying. It was so extraordinary to be in this sea of people, all brought together by the desire to save lives. People around me were hugging each other and crying too. Something changed that day for everyone who attended it. We saw how big our movement was. How much we cared. How much power we had. We thought, in that moment, we’d won. They couldn’t not listen to us now. At the time, a New York Times said about the demonstrations “There may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.”
But just over a month later, on March 19th 2003, the Bush Administration sent U.S. military forces into Iraq. This marked the beginning of a violent occupation that would last nearly 10 years, cause hundreds of thousands of deaths and would reshape the Middle East.
Like many activists, I was crushed when the war started and in the months that followed. Watching the shocks and explosions on our TV as the bombs fell on Baghdad was devastating. Seeing how the British establishment ignored the will of the people enraged me. It also caused me to question what the point of all our organizing was. And I wasn’t the only one to feel this way. Many people who were there on February 15th never went on a demonstration again, losing heart in the political process completely.
At the time, our mobilizations felt like a huge failure. But looking back today, it’s clear the anti-war movement changed history. The war shifted the views of a whole generation and set the tone for politics over the coming decades - that the views of ordinary people don’t matter to those in power. It began a process that led to many feeling they couldn’t trust politicians. We knew they lied. We knew they went to war for oil.
A whole generation younger than me were introduced to politics through that anti-war movement and the realisation that neoliberalism, the fossil fuel industry and the arms trade fuel the war machine. Would we have had the student protests of 2010 in the UK without the anti-war movement? I doubt it. Many of me and my friends also went onto be deeply involved in campaigning against the attack on our civil liberties as the War on Terror escalated. Would we have been able to do that without the connections and coalitions we had built from the anti-war movement? Not in the same way. The anti-war movement also demonstrated a new way of intersectional organising, that was diverse and pluralistic, not tied down by the old school hierarchical organising of the old Left, changing how social movements worked together. The Occupy movement modelled that really well and to great effect.
The anti-war movement also created seismic ripples in mainstream politics. Questions about whether candidates supported the Iraq war were still being asked when Joe Biden was seeking nomination for the Democratic presidential bid 18 years later. The rise of the Jeremy Corbyn was directly linked to people feeling that he had integrity, and clips of him speaking at the demonstration on February 15th were shared widely at the time of his election to leader of the Labour party. It influenced both the rise of Bernie Saunders, as someone who vehemently opposed Bush at the time, but also Donald Trump who years later used the Iraq war as a way of demonstrating how the political elite lied to people and couldn’t be trusted.
In this week’s podcast, Asad reflects that “we may have not stopped the war, but we were not defeated”. It’s a crucial point I think.
When we talk about resilience it’s helpful to look at social struggle in this way, not as linear, but as circular, with patterns of influence looping around and spearheading new actions, new thinking, and new movements. Today, whilst I continue to mourn the awful loss of life that came from that war, I’m also quietly proud of what we achieved, the many millions of us, all over the world who helped build a movement to try and stop a war, driven by a profound love of humanity.
Were you there on that day? How do you remember it? Have a listen to the podcast and let me know what you think in the comments below.