The Real Heroes of an Unjust War

Anti-war demonstrators in Rome, Italy on 15 February 2003. (Photo: Reuters)

Twenty years ago today, a United States president declared war and launched an invasion against a sovereign Middle Eastern nation, Iraq, citing an imminent threat to the American Way of Life (AWOL) and all that it stands for. President George W. Bush, the American boy-king, proceeded to unleash a military offensive the Pentagon called “Operation Shock and Awe” on the capital city of Baghdad that threatened the lives and livelihood of millions of innocent Iraqi people, not to mention the stability and security of the entire region and international community.

But before he could conquer Iraq, Bush first had to get past a big barrier blocking his way: the public opinion of the rest of the planet.

Months of prior threats against Iraq by Bush and his ultra-conservative cronies had spurred into action grassroots movements of citizens in many countries, and they were determined to stop the American war machine in its tracks. On 15 February 2003, people in countries around the globe organized and turned out in their millions to protest the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq and to push back on the imperial ambitions of the USA with the full intention of halting the planned invasion.

The large numbers of citizens taking to the streets told the story: Rome, Italy reportedly had the highest turnout of anti-war protesters anywhere in the world that day, as an estimated three million people demonstrated through the streets to say “Peace, no war”. And this in the cradle of the ancient Roman empire, no less, surely causing Julius Caesar to turn over in his grave. Not to mention Italy being a fascist power during World War II.

In London, England, home to another past empire, about two million people marched in protest against the planned U.S. invasion of Iraq. In Spain, another former fascist power during World War II, one million peaceful demonstrators turned out in Barcelona and another one million people in Madrid. In Germany, yet another fascist power in the Second World War, half a million peaceful anti-war demonstrators turned out in the streets.

Back home in the USA, in about 150 cities from the east coast to west coast, north to south, the American people in their hundreds and thousands marched, demonstrated and stood up to deliver a united message of rejecting war to their own government. It was much the same on every continent around the globe — an estimated 700-plus cities in more than 70 countries, all told.

Traditionally, most anti-war movements arise after a conflict has been going on for some time, with the goal being to stop the war and “bring the boys back home”. This time, it was different. The worldwide protests of 15 February 2003 were carried out before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq had even begun — turning out to be the largest collective anti-war voice in human history.

As the last remaining superpower on the planet since the end of the Cold War, the arrogant American state was now getting pushback from another rising power to be reckoned with.

“The fracturing of the Western alliance over Iraq and the huge antiwar demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion,” a New York Times writer dutifully noted. “In his campaign to disarm Iraq, by war if necessary, President Bush appears to be eyeball to eyeball with a tenacious new adversary: millions of people who flooded the streets of New York and dozens of other world cities to say they are against war based on the evidence at hand.”

There was much talk in the U.S. news media about the heroic acts of American soldiers during the invasion and occupation of Iraq. But there was nothing heroic about killing and injuring innocent Iraqi civilians and rendering them homeless when they could not fight back. The real heroes of the unjust American war in Iraq were the estimated 15 million residents of Planet Earth who embraced peace over war, negotiation over annihilation, who symbolically locked arms the world over to tell the USA on 15 February 2003 for the first time in human history: “Not in our name!”

And how did the U.S. government under Bush respond to that historical show of moral force by the world’s people? Just as you would expect a country that had once dropped two atomic bombs on Japanese cities to respond: The U.S. flashed its Great American Smirk, ignored all the worldwide public protests, disregarded all the dire warnings by the experts and then proceeded to reduce parts of Iraq, an ancient civilization with a rich history and culture, to rubble from 20 March 2003 onward, never looking back. Bush, along with British prime minister Tony Blair, became the most despised leader in the world at the time. The war crimes being committed today in Ukraine by Russian president Vladimir Putin, as horrific and unforgivable as they are, pale in comparison with Bush’s illegal and immoral war in Iraq (and Afghanistan before that).

The officially stated reason for the U.S. getting into the Iraq war quagmire was removing from power a madman leader by the name of Saddam Hussein — who, incidentally, the U.S. had helped to install as Iraqi president in a military coup decades earlier. The officially unstated reason for the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq was to secure Iraq’s vast oil supply in the Middle East and to rewrite the geopolitical map of the Middle East region more to the liking of extreme-right neo-conservatives (“neo-cons”) on the American political right, reasserting the USA’s status as a modern-day empire.

Fast-forward 20 years to today, 20 March 2023: What had that historical blunder by Bush and Co. achieved? A lasting peace? No, the world today is more unstable in many ways than it was back then. A free and democratic Iraq? The Iraqi people would laugh at that notion. Today, an estimated 2,500 U.S. troops (not counting other “special operations” military personnel) are still based in Iraq. They are there just in case the government of Iraq is toppled by one anti-American force or another and the United States needs to prop it back up again. The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq may be long over, but the American shadow looms large over the world and there is nothing to prevent the same scenario from repeating itself 20 years from today.

And to think that the whole thing was based on officially sanctioned lies, both by the Bush administration in the United States and the Blair administration in the United Kingdom. Today, both Bush and Blair remain unrepentant and unapologetic about the needless war and suffering they inflicted on Iraq two decades ago and other countries since then under the so-called “war on terrorism”.

Just as with the pre-war protests 20 years ago, the numbers today tell the story: more than 210,000 civilian deaths in Iraq (source: Iraq Body Count), while other research and studies place the numbers at around half a million casualties. More than one million Iraqi people continue to be refugees — or “internally displaced,” as the official phrase goes — in their own country (United Nations).

Domestically in the USA, the price has been high as well. More than 7,000 U.S. military service members have lost their lives in all U.S. war operations since 11 September 2001, with more than 30,000 service members and veterans having committed suicide due to traumatic stress (Costs of War). And the price tag for American taxpayers for the continued U.S. military presence in Iraq and neighboring Syria over the past two decades: nearly $3 trillion (Costs of War).

The U.S. drive to war in Iraq two decades ago undeniably caused an extreme domestic political schism that also opened the door for a divisive figure like Donald Trump to walk into the White House some years later and foment the fires of insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on 6 January 2021. Trump may have had nothing to do with the American war in Iraq, but he took full advantage of the schism in society that the divisive war caused. He is still reaping the political benefits of that war and the divided U.S. public today.

At the end of it all, who has been held responsible for the Iraq war calamity? Bush, Cheney (a.k.a. the Prince of Darkness), Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, British prime minister Blair — not one of them was ever charged with crimes of war and crimes against humanity, as they should have been, and not one of them ever lost a night’s sleep over the whole thing. In fact, most of them had made good money from speaking fees, book publishing and high academic positions since that time.

But as bleak as that picture looks today, it is worth remembering that before the U.S. government under Bush could get to Iraq, it had to go face to face, toe to toe, with People Power the world over. The millions of concerned citizens who stood up nonviolently and joined the anti-war protests on 15 February 2003 in countries all over the globe did the honorable thing. They stood for the best in humanity. They could not stop the war from happening in the end, yet they were the true heroes of that unjust war, and that is exactly the way history will tell their story many years into the future.

blog comments powered by Disqus