Fifteen years ago, on February 15, 2003, the world said “No to War”: Some 10 million to 15 million people, in hundreds of cities and dozens of countries all over the world, embraced the same slogan, made the same demand, in scores of different languages. A war against Iraq was looming, with Washington and London standing virtually alone in their false claims that Baghdad had amassed stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
As we look at the consequences of that war today—Iraq still in flames, wars raging across the region—we need to remember.
Throughout 2002 and into 2003, while George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terror” raged across Afghanistan, Washington continued to build support for a war against Iraq. We need to remember how the mainstream media obediently fell—or eagerly jumped—into line with the propaganda churned out by the Dick Cheney–Donald Rumsfeld policy shops. The most influential papers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, led the way, helping to legitimize the spurious predictions of Iraqis welcoming US troops with sweets and flowers, of yellowcake uranium from Niger, of aluminum tubes that could “only” be used for nuclear weapons. Some among the liberal and independent media collaborated as well. Even Patrick Tyler of the Times (who coined the term “second superpower” to describe the February 15 mobilization) acknowledged years later the “grand deception in which we all share in the responsibility…. The military-industrial complex has its analogue in the press, the media-industrial complex.”
Bush had identified Iraq as part of his “axis of evil,” claiming that it, along with Iran and North Korea, was “arming to threaten the peace of the world.” Then–Secretary of State Colin Powell, just 10 days before the massive global protests, lied to the United Nations Security Council and the world regarding the so-called “WMD” claims, with CIA director George Tenet sitting behind him stone-faced and silent. The day before the protests, the UN’s weapons and nuclear inspectors told the Security Council directly that they had seen no evidence of such weapons. We need to remember that the UN refused to endorse the war, aligning instead with the global protesters.
As millions of Iraqis remember so clearly, a little over a month after the protests, US bombers tore through the skies over Baghdad, laying waste to a vast modern city and its sanctions-devastated population. “Shock and awe” was under way. We need to remember how the overthrow of Iraq’s government, the dismantling of its military, and the eradication of its civil service set the stage for years of military occupation, imposition of a US-controlled sectarian political system, and 15 years of death and devastation for the Iraqi people. We need to remember that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, perhaps over 1 million, died in the US war and occupation—and that doesn’t even count the hundreds of thousands already dead from the 12 years of brutal sanctions that preceded it.
We need to remember not only because we still owe an enormous debt to the people of Iraq. We need to remember because the war’s goals remain in place: expanding US military domination, controlling oil and pipelines, building an empire of military bases. And because the wars raging across the Middle East today find their origins in the Iraq War.
We need to remember that it was Bush’s occupation of Iraq that gave rise to ISIS. The terrorist organization germinated in the cells of Camp Bucca, one of the myriad US prisons holding thousands of Iraqi detainees. In 2004, when the torture scandal in Abu Ghraib, another US prison, became public, there were 140,000 US troops occupying Iraq. We need to remember that fact as we work to end the Global War on Terror, now expanded beyond Afghanistan and Iraq to envelop Yemen, Libya, Syria, and beyond. Drones, air strikes, and special-operations forces have replaced the massive numbers of ground troops, but we need to remember that the wars, and the killing, continue.
In Syria, the civil war has become the occasion for a regional and global struggle involving multiple conflicts: Saudi Arabia versus Iran, Turkey versus the Kurds, the United States versus Russia, Israel versus Iran, the United States versus Turkey, and more. These battles are being waged over resources, military bases, the expansion of power—but what they all have in common is that it is mostly Syrians who are doing the dying. Washington continues to escalate its threats against Iran and also North Korea. We need to remember, even as we work to defend the rights of the refugees fleeing these wars, that the most important thing we can do is to prevent and end the wars that create refugees in the first place.
We can’t afford to leave behind the lessons of Iraq. Our multimillion-strong global protest in February 2003 wasn’t able to prevent one war. But it’s part of the reason we’re not at war with Iran already, and it taught a generation that global protest is actually possible. It helped inspire uprisings and resistance around the world. Today’s wars don’t look just like the Iraq War, and future protests won’t look just like the one in 2003. But as we build new movements for peace, we need to remember.