Twenty years ago this week, I and millions of others, marched against the Iraq War. But recently watching Michael Palin’s Into Iraq made me ask myself – was I wrong back then?
It was twenty years ago, on Saturday February 15th 2003, that I took part in the largest demonstration the UK has ever seen. An estimated two million people marched through London on that day to protest against the War in Iraq. There were other anti-war marches around the world, in 600 cities, and it made the Guinness book of records as the largest-ever protest – it was the day the world said ‘no’ to war. But as we know, the war did happen.
In March 2003, the United States and its allies, including Britain, Australia, and, bizarrely, Poland, invaded Iraq. It was all in the name of ‘weapons of mass destruction’, a claim that was later proved to be false. Bush and Blair spun the tale that it wasn’t about oil or regime change. The war turned into a 21st-century version of Vietnam, and the years of chaos, torture, insurgents, and the rise of Isis that ensued after the war, made me feel vindicated.
But then last week I watched Michael Palin’s latest travel documentary – Into Iraq, and my long-held views were challenged. This series, presented by the legendary Monty Python comedian and traveller, was filmed in 2022. Palin, now aged 79, travelled from Turkey into Iraq, passing Mosul, Samarra, Baghdad and down the Tigris River to the Persian Gulf. An inspiring series, it shows the dangerous side of Iraq but also the magnificent side with the ancient ruins of Mesopotamia, one of the world’s oldest civilizations.
In one episode, Palin asked his Iraqi guide what he thought about the 2003 war, and the guide said he was happy when the US fighter jets arrived because it meant the end of Sadam Hussein’s rule and harsh economic sanctions. The guide’s remarks made me think – had the war actually been good for Iraq? Was I wrong to protest against it in 2003? Answers to such questions become complicated.
On the one hand, the war could seem justified as it overthrew the brutal dictatorship of Sadam Hussein. But on the other hand, many soldiers and civilians were killed. The death toll of US troops surpassed 3,000 by 2007, more than all the victims of 9/11. Estimates of the Iraqi death toll range from 150,000 to 650,000 by 2006, some say over a million until today. Even Sadam wasn’t killing at that rate. Whether it’s the smaller or larger number, either way, that’s a lot of people killed by violence, not a natural disaster.
I guess that’s what the protest was about back then – ‘No blood for oil’, ‘Not in my name’. We simply didn’t want our elected governments to approve bombing and killing civilians, many of whom were innocent victims, many of whom were children (I couldn’t find accurate figures for the amount of children killed). Could Sadam have been overthrown in a different way? Could he have been killed from within like Gaddafi? Could his reign have ended in the earlier war of 1991? The protest was also about the bloody lies we were told by our leaders.
So, yes Sadam needed to be overthrown, but I’m still proud that we protested against a war based on false pretenses. After all, I was a pretty naive guy in my early-twenties, who had just read books by Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, and Gandhi. I remember writing my own placard that said, ‘One Human Race’ and marching alongside Quakers, hippies, crusties, church-goers and peaceniks. I thought back then, that protests could be pro-peace, rather than anti-war, anti-America, or anti-whatever. But I also recall there were anti-Israel placards. I remember thinking that this protest was against the war in Iraq, not about the Israel-Palestine conflict, which was in the middle of an Intifada.
It showed me that not all of those two million protesters were there for the same reasons. Protests can be hijacked by other agendas, other groups, or individuals. Indeed, after the 2003 protest, I realized just how different I was to other protestors in England at the time. I joined the protests for unity and peace, but for others, it was about anger, destruction, and well, just an excuse to show off. There’s a term for that now, virtue signaling. It’s a term I don’t really like.
Virtue signaling, according to (excuse my research) Wikipedia, is an ‘expression of a moral viewpoint to highlight one’s good character’. It includes greenwashing, armchair activists, or people expressing their moral views on social media. This brings us to today’s protests in Israel. As many left-wing or centre Israelis take to the streets and social media to defend democracy, they are facing criticism from the right. Indeed, the nation is split between those who support Bibi’s right-wing coalition and those who don’t.
But if we zoom out from the immediate issue of the Supreme Court, what we are really witnessing here is a battle for the soul of the nation. Should Israel be a racist, sexist, homophobic, angry country or an open, modern, progressive, pluralistic one? Unfortunately, it seems like the former won in the last election. But did they? The Likud party won the most mandates but the majority of people in the centre of the country in Gush Dan voted for Yesh Atid. That’s why it seems unfair to many Israelis that radical politicians like Itamar Ben-Gvir are in power, yet again due to a failed electoral system that allows extremists to be part of coalitions. Ben-Gvir’s views represent an angry minority, not a national majority.
Protest movements like the one happening in Israel right now and the 2003 anti-war marches may seem ineffectual, but in the long-term they represent the power of the people, who refuse to be controlled by the decisions of outdated, hateful politicians.
Interestingly, Ben-Gvir’s father is Iraqi and his mother’s family came from Kurdistan. And this brings us back to Michael Palin’s Into Iraq. In the first episode, Palin meets a young girl in the Kurdish city of Mosul. Surrounded by homes destroyed by Isis, Palin says, “My name is Michael.” The girl, who only knows a few words of English, says, “Beautiful”. Palin, visibly moved by this, turns to the camera and says these ordinary children were affected by a war that had nothing to do with them.
And that’s what the protests were really about. Children. Children. Children. Never again should an innocent child be murdered or maimed because of the conflicts of their fathers or grandfathers. And this applies to Israeli, Palestinian, Iraqi, Syrian, Ukrainian, Russian, and all children. It’s not virtue signaling, or fake, but a genuine goal that humans can aspire to.
With megalomaniacs like Putin in the world, armed with nuclear weapons, the news can seem apocalyptic, but a peaceful future is also possible. One of my favourite banners from 2003 read, ‘Another world is possible’. This ‘other world’ is the one we are striving for.
Michael Palin’s series, which also visits a ridiculous megalomaniac palace built for Sadam, highlights the futility of war. While looking at Sadam’s ruined palace, Palin says, “What did all this fighting achieve?” Absolutely nothing. Say it again.