protest against the Iraq war, Glasgow, 15 February 2003

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the huge demonstrations in London and Glasgow against the imminent US-UK invasion of Iraq. A few days later David Aaronovitch published a nasty, condescending article in the Guardian that he must have hoped would help break the momentum of the anti-war movement. It was headlined “Dear marcher, please answer a few questions.” I took him at his word and sent the Guardian an article with answers to his questions. Naturally they ignored it. Here it is, written on 28 February 2003.

Remember the peace marches on 15th February 2003? Remember the sunshine and all the people and all the hope in the air?

A few days after that, retired leftie David Aaronovitch used his Guardian column (The Guardian, 18 February 2003) to spread a little fog about. Some of it seems to have settled over the Palace of Westminster, or last Wednesday (26 February) there wouldn’t have been a single MP ready to vote against the obvious proposition that the case for war has yet to be proven.1

David Aaronovitch addressed himself to us, the marchers, quite directly. “Dear marcher,” he wrote. “I’d like to ask you a few questions.” Well, I’d like to answer them. And if the 393 MPs who think there’s a case for war happen to be listening, they might learn something too.

You say, David, that the Kurds and the Iraqis didn’t march for peace. Iraqis marched with us in Glasgow; I saw them. I didn’t notice any Kurds. You ask why they weren’t there. I’d guess they’re keeping their heads down. Wouldn’t you? Britain and the USA betrayed them at the end of the Gulf War. Perhaps they’d rather not make enemies in Downing Street and the White House. You never know what might happen in a war.

There are many Iraqis who would give their lives to depose Saddam if only they had a decent chance of success. Perhaps some of them think that the bloodshed of invasion is no heavier a price than the bloodshed of revolution. Maybe they trust the US to act in the interests of the Iraqi people. Maybe they don’t know much history. Neither you nor I know how many Iraqi people think like that, and we never will know it. War and occupation are apt to change the way that people remember their politics.

this parroted “war about oil” stuff

You ask whether I believe ‘this parroted “war about oil” stuff.’ Are you serious?

The Middle East is a key strategic region; oil is a key strategic commodity. Excuse me if I answer your question with more questions. Do you think George Bush is a lunatic? What part would you expect oil to play in the planning of an intense and expensive war in an oil-rich country at the very heart of the Middle East? You seem to think that Afghanistan is self-evidently unconnected with oil; that the US attack on Afghanistan proves that the US doesn’t fight its wars for oil but for the good of mankind.

Any estate agent could explain it, David. The answer is location, location, location. Afghanistan is at the edge of the Middle East. It comes a little cheaper than a proper oil kingdom. You can trade up when the time’s right. Don’t you think that the Soviets held that opinion when they invaded the country? Haven’t you heard of the plans for a gas pipeline across Afghanistan? Of course I believe the stuff about oil. So does the US Congress, or it wouldn’t foot the bill for the war.

You worry about suggestions of equivalence between Iraq and the US. Me too. A few shells filled with mustard gas – or even a few thousand – aren’t equivalent to a nuclear arsenal. You ask me to name Welsh villages attacked with chemical weapons by British bombers in the last 20 years. I don’t know what Welsh villages have to with it. But since you ask, no, I can’t name any. As luck would have it, no anthrax spores were sent to Wales in the bio-attacks of autumn 2001. The spores were sent to American cities; to Washington and to New York. They weren’t ordinary anthrax spores. They were ‘weaponised’; they had almost certainly been produced in US government laboratories. It’s a serious matter when a government lets biological weapons fall into the hands of terrorists, don’t you think?

I wish the UN weapons inspectors every success. I can’t gauge the precise degree of cooperation they have received from Iraq, and I doubt whether you can, either. But I hope the inspectors are setting a precedent, and I know that the precedent will be worthless if it depends on the threat of war. How could that process ever be applied to a country with truly serious weapons of mass destruction?

mass action beats any Supreme Court hollow

You worry about suggestions that we should try to bring the government down. You ask if I’m up for that. Yes, actually. The thing is, I’ve done it before. We marchers got the poll tax repealed in 1991 and – a little less directly – we brought Margaret Thatcher down. It wasn’t a revolution but it was a lesson that there are some things a British government just can’t do. I’d be very happy if the waging of wars of aggression was added to that list. As an institution for keeping the government honest, mass action beats any Supreme Court hollow.

I can’t help noticing that for an old leftie you seem rather uncomfortable with the idea of mass action. You ask whether I think Blair should halt his plan for ‘housing’ asylum seekers in Lee-on-Solent because a third of Lee’s population have demonstrated against it. Yes, that’s exactly what I think. I can see no sense in housing asylum seekers in a place so unwelcoming, although I can see why Blair might like to send them there if he really prefers imprisonment to housing. I understand Blair’s difficulty of course. It isn’t just that he needs the votes of potential BNP supporters. His real problem is that he knows that it will be hard to lead a multicultural society into war. If Britain is to be forged into a weapon it will need to shed some of its multicultural floss. That’s one of the reasons I marched for peace. And it’s why I’ll march again and block streets and lobby MPs and argue with servicemen and ask people to strike until Blair starts to listen.

It doesn’t bother me, as it bothers you, that our efforts might make Saddam more obdurate. I really can’t see that a little more or less Iraqi obduracy will have any impact on events. On the other hand, it does bother me that your views might give comfort to Osama bin Laden. It’s quite clear that the 9/11 attacks on America were meant to spark a general conflict between Islam and the USA for influence in the Middle East. The bandwagon has perhaps been a little slower to roll than Osama intended, but it seems to be creaking along very nicely now. I presume that both George Bush and Osama bin Laden think that they can gain from the war. I don’t know which of them has guessed right, but I’m quite sure that the rest of us will lose.

I’m glad to see that you’ve kept an open mind in spite of all your worries, David. It’s really sweet that you admit that we marchers might, after all, be right and you might be mistaken. It’s right and proper that you ask me what will happen if I’m wrong. You seem to think that there is something ominous about this question. Forgive me if I’m misrepresenting you – you don’t make yourself very clear – but you seem to think that mistakenly staying at peace is riskier than mistakenly going to war. You seem to think we should give war a chance.

“It is just possible that a new Iraqi government, instead of moving towards democracy, might be a corrupt oligarchy. All I can say is that the signs look relatively promising in both Kosovo and Afghanistan.” – David Aaronovitch, The Guardian, 18 February 2003.

Let’s try to be clear. Let’s suppose that I am mistaken. Let’s suppose that we stop the war anyway. There will be one more dictator in the world than is quite necessary. Suppose that US belligerence doesn’t diminish. Suppose the US won’t allow sanctions to end and won’t let the UN set up the kind of proportionate monitoring regime that could block any militarily important weapons program in Iraq without harming the Iraqi people. That would be terrible, but possibilities for improvement would still exist. We could keep on marching.

Now suppose that we can’t stop the war. Suppose that the Saddam government falls and there is no patriotic uprising against the occupying forces. Suppose that Turkey survives intact and that there isn’t a conflagration across the Arab world and that there are no inter-communal disturbances in Britain. We in the peace movement will do our best to help these suppositions along. We will march side by side with our Muslim comrades and try to prevent the worst from happening. Perhaps it will work out nicely for George and Tony.

If it turns out like that, a number of countries will conclude that the only credible deterrent against US attack is a modest nuclear arsenal, and that the sooner they get one the less likely it is to be interdicted. Perhaps the US will be able to threaten and bomb them into abstinence. Perhaps the US will be in time, every time. But what about India and Pakistan? They already have quite sizeable nuclear arsenals and they came to the brink of war twice last year. India and Pakistan may conclude that their arsenals need to be big enough not just to face one another down, but to deter US pressure. What then?

Perhaps somebody will somehow – how? – restore a little international trust. Perhaps our various governments will manage to contain nuclear weapons by consensus. Possibly – just possibly – all this will happen before there’s a nuclear war. But I’m not betting on it and I’m not going to give war a chance. That’s why I’m going to keep on marching.

Postscript – February 2023

The Bush-Blair adventure in Iraq sank into quagmire and spawned ISIS. For a few years hardly anyone could be found who was prepared to stand and defend the position David Aaronovitch set out in February 2003. After a while not even David Aaronovitch would do it, at least not outright. But the “Give war a chance” lobby is back in business. This time it’s over Ukraine and the enemy they want to fight is a nuclear-armed superpower. They are far crazier and far more dangerous than Aaronovitch and his New Labour friends were in 2003, though some of them are the same people. They have also been far more successful at marginalising the anti-war movement. We, the anti-war movement, need to get our show back on the road.

Photo: Glasgow 15 February 2003 © Lars Born, some rights reserved

  1. On 26 February 2003, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw tabled a motion supporting “the Government’s continuing efforts in the United Nations to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction” and calling upon Iraq “to recognise this as its final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations.” Labour backbencher Chris Smith tabled an amendment to leave out the call upon Iraq and instead say that the House “finds the case for military action against Iraq as yet unproven.” The amendment was defeated (with Tory help) by 393 votes to 199. The main Government motion then passed (again with Tory help) by 434 to 124 votes. 121 labour rebels voted for Chris Smith’s amendment. It was the biggest Labour rebellion against Tony Blair up to that point, thought it was surpassed a few weeks later in the 18 March vote that took Britain to war. 

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