Letter to the Editors
Ten years ago a crowd estimated at between fifty thousand and a quarter million people gathered in San Francisco to protest plans to invade Iraq. The Believer was to debut a few weeks after the protest and decided to cover it. By then the invasion was in motion and the protest was moot. By most publishing logic the story was a waste of space. In hindsight, it’s turned out to mostly be a portrait of a failure, and that was not the intention. The fact was inescapable, though: the march had occurred under the assumption that it would not stop the war.
“You have to pretend you’re a free person, even when you’re not,” Jason Mark, one of the march’s organizers, says in the 2003 story. He was trying to paraphrase the late Václav Havel’s famous statement on heroism, but mangled the job, so it comes out sounding like hopelessness. I’d been told the working title of the magazine was the Optimist. This seemed, at the time, optimistic, but in the end the case seemed to fold. Not the march’s organizers, not its participants, and not the politicians in charge of the policies it opposed, thought it was more than a notary act, to make the existence of opposition clear for the future public record. At a reach, I called a congressional staffer who’d sat in on debates over the war; on the record he said the protests mattered; off the record he said everyone with the power to stop the war thought the marchers were right, but unable to prove themselves so. A bunch of clowns was the phrase I avoided including in the story. The bombing of Baghdad started a few days later.
Still, optimism: despite the movement’s failure, most of the people I interviewed back then are still involved in similar forms of politics today. They stuck to their guns, and they turn out to have been right about almost everything. But they disappeared anyway, as the war not only came, but stayed, and stayed, and became the national narrative. Ten years after the marches, the heroic figure of the American imagination isn’t the soldier who comes home urging less aggression in the future, but the Navy SEAL who tells the technical details of violence’s application. They lost, that is, not just the political argument but the cultural one. January 2003 had seen the largest series of coordinated protests against a single idea—the war—in the entirety of human history. Millions and millions of people had taken to the streets across most of Europe’s great cities, the Middle East, the Far East, North America, Australia. And yet: once the troops crossed the border from Kuwait, the discussion was, in any public sense, over for the next five, seven, ten years. Bringing us to today, looking for some lesson in all of this.
For what it is worth, the lesson I take away ten years later is the same one I was told then: American protests work better when they follow examples that worked—civil rights, the suffragettes—and abandon the more free-flowing, late-’60s model, which didn’t. This hardly seems controversial, and some of the Occupy efforts seem to have taken similar lessons from 2003’s failures and applied them. Particularly, and encouragingly: a protest like 2003’s, that participants see as an act of conscience more than of politics, and probably futile, is harder to imagine today than it was then. People now really do believe they can reform banks, or at least carry themselves as if they do, in a way that’s more credible than the 2003 claims that they could stop a war.
Ten years on, I doubt the story was worth publishing. This magazine was founded in optimism, and it’s hard to find any in the story of the Iraq protests, which was among the longer stories in the very first issue. It’s a bit embarrassing to have been the cynical voice then. But facts were facts: the 2003 organizers failed and then they went home and stayed there, empty of ideas. The subsequent decade was, honestly, kinda long. So, documentary impulse aside, one has to wonder about the appropriateness of the whole exercise. It’s striking how forgotten it all is now: that there was ever an attempt to organize opposition to a pointless war. Ten years is not much time, which tells you something when the whole thing already feels so quaint.
What did you think?
Write a letter to the editor