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No Blood for Oil: Examining the Movement Against the Iraq War

Black Bloc protesters against the ongoing War on Terror, Washington, March 21, 2009

Book Review

David Cortright, A Peaceful Superpower: Lessons from the World’s Largest Antiwar Movement (New Village Press, 2023)

On February 15, 2003, a month before the United States launched its ill-fated “shock and awe” military campaign against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the world was witness to a massive, coordinated mobilization of citizens worldwide, the likes of which had never been seen before in opposition to waging war. Fifty-four nations were home to some 600 marches. As Brian Sandberg has noted in a recent HNN piece, Canada and the United States witnessed 250 protests, Europe had 105, 37 took place in the Middle East and Asia, 8 occurred in Africa, Latin America had twice as many as Africa, Oceania saw 34, and, of all places, Antarctica lay claim to 1. Cities throughout the world, large and small, became epicenters for antiwar protestors. All in all, nearly 10 million global citizens said no to war.

Of course that did not stop the Bush II Administration from going to war, insisting that in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and Hussein’s possession of “weapons of mass distraction,” the United States had the moral imperative and righteous cause to democratize the Middle East and win this “War on Terror.” Of course, many did not agree with this assessment. In fact, five months prior to the invasion one antiwar group, Americans Against War with Iraq, ran a full page ad in the New York Times with blaring headlines, “Bush’s Weapons of Mass Distraction: War with Iraq,” which was endorsed by hundreds of American citizens urging their elected representatives to reject the invasion. Other groups such as NOT IN OUR NAME, International ANSWER,  Win Without War (the author helped found this organization), Code Pink for Peace (reminiscent of the work of Women Strike for Peace during the Vietnam War) and United for Peace and Justice sponsored large scale demonstrations with protestors carrying signs reading “No Blood for Oil” and “Bring Them Home Alive.”

Once the military invasion was underway and the number of US soldiers killed in action mounted there were other novel forms of protest. One of the most moving was “False Pretenses.” The traditional pacifist organization American Friends Service Committee first introduced the idea of a memorial by placing 500 pairs of boots at the Federal Building in Chicago to symbolize graphically the number of American soldiers killed at that point in the war. Other protestors constructed mock coffins and blocked street traffic in order to get their point across. Most dramatic, and in the true spirit of civil disobedience, was Grandmothers Against the War, a local group based in New York City. On October 17, 2005, a number of headstrong grandmothers made a valiant effort to enlist in the military at New York City’s Times Square recruiting station. When they were refused entry, all seventeen of them, ranging in age from forty-nine to ninety, promptly stat down and begged to be arrested. They were, but all charges were subsequently dropped.

Adding to the uniqueness of the evolving antiwar movement was the appearance of a grassroots international antiwar community. Acting as a decentralized network known as heterarchies, led by MoveOn and WHY WAR?, news and shared strategies with political activists rapidly shaped the movement’s organizing and campaign activities. The internet proved powerful when linking with other more grassroots organizations, especially Veterans for Common Sense, Operation Truth, and Iraq Veterans against the War. As events moved quickly, so, too, did these groups get the word out to counter false narratives and misinformation on the part of the warring power.

No one is better equipped to discuss this movement, its successes, its failures, and its social movement perspectives than scholar-activist David Cortright. Like me, David is a Vietnam War veteran; he understands the sacrifices and cost of military service. As a scholar in his own right he has authored a number of commendable works on peace history and peace activism. Now retired as Professor Emeritus from the University of Notre Dame, he has, in terms both of us would understand, earned his spurs. His book is engaging and he draws from his own personal experiences, which rely on comparisons between the Vietnam and Iraq antiwar movements. He is the right author to compose the first scholarly analysis of the antiwar movement from a personal and objective perspective involving the nation's longest-running military conflict, Afghanistan included.

What Cortright seeks to unwrap for readers is explaining that the Iraq antiwar movement represents “a continuation of multigenerational struggles for peace that emerged from networks dating back to the Vietnam era.” He expands his focus to address some of the global opposition to the war, though his primary focus is on the US side of the equation, while explaining how new digital forms of mobilization helped modernize the peace movement and the “landscape of political activism more generally.” He considers the groups that became part of the movement, especially religious communities, trade union, business leaders, people of color, military members, the Hollywood crowd, women’s organizations and others. What helped facilitate their activism, of course, was the Internet. In striving to make the antiwar movement respectable, moreover, these groups banded together to call for constructive alternatives such as international policing and cooperation through the use of nonmilitary means to counter terrorism. Urging peacebuilding and diplomacy, respect for international law, and attempting to legitimize the role of the United Nations—today a tall order given Putin’s savage attack on Ukraine and China’s unquenchable appetite for military supremacy—the key role that the antiwar movement in the United States sought to achieve was calling for honesty and transparency on the part of the nation’s leaders as well as an expanded voice “for civil society in shaping policy decisions.” 

It is fair to state that in the fog of war, as Cortright knows only too well, the crumbling towers smashing down in lower Manhattan, the penetrated walls at the Pentagon, and Flight 93 crashing in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, were still burning in the collective memory of the American public, providing convenient cover for the national government to extend its “war on terror” and once and for all do away with this emergent and pesky threat. But although it was difficult for peace groups to stop the war from happening Cortright admirably shows how opponents of this war utilized the tools of digital messaging to foster community-based contact in order to create sustainable organizations. In some respects, even though the war would drag on needlessly—some felt endlessly—Cortright’s book shows how mobilization for social change can work and why it is so critical in building political power for change. What both means of  mobilization accomplished was helping to change public opinion over time.

But changing public opinion to prevent the war, despite the unprecedented scale and breath of the movement, proved insufficient at the beginning and, like all previous antiwar movements, illustrates the futility and frustration committed peace activists have always faced in efforts to duplicate the war government’s success when it comes to capturing the larger media and developing the effective media strategy to sway public opinion. It is in this vein where Cortright ably defines how difficult communicating for peace can be while at the same time demonstrating that, unlike the Vietnam antiwar movement, for instance, this movement did have some notable successes, the most obvious being not disparaging the troops themselves. One of the most valuable lessons the Iraq antiwar movement learned from Vietnam was to oppose the war itself but show respect to the individuals fighting it. After being separated from Active Duty in 1970 while traveling back to JFK International I know only too well how I was treated by a flight attendant while in uniform—this despite the fact that the “spitting image” was way overblown. Equally significant, the current movement did not support Hussein, and among Hollywood opponents of this conflict one would be hard pressed to find a “Hanoi Jane.” Where the movement could have scored more points with the confused public would have been to address its public concerns about the Iraqi dictator. Even Cortright admits that had that been done it “might have helped to attract greater participation from the Jewish community and would have acknowledged the widespread perception of Saddam as evil incarnate.”

Even among the less enthusiastic African American community, however, which saw few participate in antiwar protests, the movement did succeed in terms of rejecting the appeals of military recruiters. Generally, the military had increasingly relied on appeals to social and economic opportunities, including educational benefits, to fill the ranks of the All Volunteer Force by attempting to penetrate the inner cities and less-privileged communities. And women’s groups, long a critical component of the peace movement dating back to the formation of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom shortly after World War I, became a powerful force in the Iraq antiwar movement. With Code Pink at the helm, leaders admirably captured the spirit of Jane Addams and Emily Greene Balch and steered the peace ship against the rising tide of the “Bush administration’s ‘testosterone-poisoned rhetoric’.” 

Tragically, and this is where the movement grew in popularity and strength as the conflict continued, the organizers of the antiwar movement kept driving home the point that the Bush administration squandered the “international empathy and support that flowed to the United States in the wake and the terrorist attacks of September 2001.” By invading Iraq, the US lost not only the endorsement of the United Nations but also a number of valuable military allies. And as the number of American casualties mounted and the number of Iraqi civilian deaths mounted, the antiwar movement did help forge a Democratic Party consensus for withdrawal of troops, which ultimately led to Barack Obama’s election and a gradual end to military conflict. It turned out to be a mixed bag as the withdrawal of troops dragged on for three years while Obama’s policies in Afghanistan were marked by drone warfare and an expanded military presence in that country thus earmarking it as the nation’s longest war.   

Much of what Cortright describes is based on his own long, personal involvement in the antiwar movement and the events surrounding it are also known by peace historians. But what makes his account so valuable is the lessons he seeks to convey in the hopes of creating a more peaceful world. He bemoans the fact that “the movement made little or no progress on the larger agenda of creating a more peaceful US foreign policy.” Sadly, that has always been the case throughout our history. But what he does take satisfaction in pointing out is that war opponents, using the Internet and community-based action, did generate enough political pressure to bring a gradual end to the conflict. To some degree it highlighted the power of social action necessary for shaping the course of history.

But in light of the war in Ukraine and China’s saber-rattling are we any closer to establishing “effective” peaceful foreign policies? The fact that the US is working with its NATO allies without boots on the ground in Ukraine indicates that Cortright’s analysis of the movement’s continuing influence should not be so easily ignored. But it also comes with a mixed message. Indeed, the fact that after twenty years 61% of the American public now think the invasion was wrong while 60 to 70% of Iraqis agree that toppling Saddam was worth it despite the present hardships and loss of 200,000 lives should lead one to believe that there is a better option when it comes to creating civic order in our universe. As Merle Curti, the late Pulitzer-prize winning historian and first chronicler of the American peace movement so ably put it: “beyond these means of active and passive resistance to war is the perpetual dilemma of what to do when the values of peace are in apparent conflict with decency, humanity, and justice.” 

Where the real lesson may lie for challenging the war habit is writing about and including in school texts the history of peace movements in the nation’s past. The sad fact is that historians have not done a very good job of writing about or explaining to their students what peace movements are actually designed to do as agents of social change. Instead they fall victim to allowing defenders of the status quo to denigrate their actions, especially in time of war, while ignoring all the positive things these movements have achieved, socially, economically, and politically, over the past two centuries. The inability to draw attention to the role of the peace movement and its peace organizations when supporting abolitionism prior to the American Civil War, the role it played in assisting Native Americans with aid and educational means on reservations, the influential role Jane Addams played with the Settlement House movement at the height of urbanization and immigration at the turn of the twentieth century, the efforts of A.J. Muste during the labor organizing drives between the world wars, the influential and substantial contribution that peace advocates made during the modern civil rights struggles—and yes, MLK, Jr. was a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation—and the involvement peace groups played in organizing and carrying out nonviolent direct action strategies when challenging the construction of nuclear power plants and their threat to the environment are just some examples to consider.