On September 21, the International Day of Peace, you will be able to watch online the new film “We Are Many,” and you darn well should. The topic is the single biggest day of activism on earth: February 15, 2003 — an unprecedented statement against war, too often forgotten, and far too often misunderstood.
On every continent (yes, Antarctica included) in 72 countries and 789 cities people turned out by the tens of millions. In many cases, this was by far the largest demonstration ever seen in particular cities and countries, as well as on this particular planet. Its message was crystal clear: No to war. No to a U.S.-led war on Iraq.
Everything peace activists would tell you in subsequent years about the need to appeal to people’s selfishness, to make it about dollars and veterans, to not sound too moralistic — none of that was anywhere to be found when extended families and neighbors flooded the streets. Like most activism, this was a passionate stand taken on behalf of unknown masses of people hundreds or thousands of miles away — faceless people whom most demonstrators never expected to meet or even to learn “humanizing” details about. This was a rejection of mass murder because rejecting mass murder is what decent people do.
There are faces and voices in this film of some of the most decent people one could ever hope to know, and I feel privileged to have known many of them in the struggle against war. Countless amazing activists and related details are necessarily missing, but many are in this film, including some no longer with us in the world. They speak in this film looking back from years later, but also in footage from that time. And it is the footage from that time that is most powerful. To have video of people clearly warning of catastrophe, with accurate detail, and to be able to play it back post-catastrophe; this is as powerful a use of video as capturing the crimes of police or the confessions of candidates.
The Iraq war lies were typical war lies in their dishonesty and malevolence. But they were atypical in how poorly they were told and in the length of the period over which they were told. The U.S. government spent many months escalating the bombing in Iraq, seeking to kickstart a war, hyping up pro-war sentiment, pretending to be trying to avoid war, and telling quintessentially obvious lies that would have justified nothing even if true. Nobody ever mentions it, but I think much of the public recognized that the lies about weapons and connections to 9/11 were, like all war lies, not just lies but also off-topic. The governments threatening war over weapons, themselves openly possessed those weapons. Participation in a crime is not typically grounds for committing a larger crime, but for criminal prosecution. So, people turned out en masse, not just to say “They’re lying,” but fundamentally to say “No war.”
There was indignation, outrage, and, yes, anger at the politicians pushing the war. There was also belief that the war could be prevented. This was a response to activist organizing, but more so to the actions of governments as presented in corporate media. The global day of action planned for February 15th grew by word of mouth — it was not organized top-down by a global organization. In Rome that day there were so many marches, all marching for the same cause, that two of them ran head-on into each other.
Included in the film, importantly, are some who got it wrong — even some who have still got it wrong. People in power in the United States and United Kingdom proposed a war for democracy, while blatantly opposing anything resembling democracy. While millions marched against war, officials had the unfathomable arrogance to believe they knew better. And some of them, shown in this film, still keep up that pretense years later, either supporting the war or claiming they were fooled and would have acted more wisely if they’d known then what they know now. But how did I and all my friends and wall-to-wall crowds of people pressing through New York streets know then what people given special insider reports were incapable of knowing? Through the exact opposite of democracy, I would say.
Now, the crowds in the streets were not the whole of the United States. And they were certainly not given appropriate coverage in corporate media. And while we may have been many, we were not as many as we should have been. And we were constantly led to falsely believe we were not many at all. But that was the power of the huge marches. They showed people that they were many. There should have been another march every week, and on weekdays, and disruptive of business as usual, with creative and escalating nonviolent action. But to the limited — yet significant — extent that there were such follow-up actions, they were largely inspired by the big marches, not made possible by the failure to march another time.
When the war was launched despite all the protests, that was a moment to increase the activism, not give up. A lot of people, mainly those least involved, gave up, or latched onto the support-the-troops propaganda that makes it so much harder to stop a war than to prevent one. In the U.S., many opponents of a Republican war were maneuvered by Democrats into supporting the war. Only those who opposed war regardless of political party kept working against the wars.
The war on Iraq was launched. The war was horrific. This movie shows that horror. There can be no denying it. But there is little doubt the war would have been even worse without the resistance. There is no question that various additional nations would have joined in. Clearly, the United Nations refused to approve of the war because of the public pressure on various members of the United Nations. And it became possible to oppose numerous newly proposed wars more easily. “We Are Many” includes the 2013 drama in which the U.S. and British governments were again pushing similar propaganda for a similar crime, this one a war on Syria. The Parliament and Congress rejected that war, largely because of public pressure and the memory of and accountability for the votes on attacking Iraq. It had been 231 years since a British Parliament had said no to a war when it said no to war on Syria. A war on Iran has been similarly stopped more than once since the war on Iraq wasn’t.
Countless other positive developments have come out of the activism shown here, some of them included in the film. February 15th inspired people in Egypt who held an unprecedented public demonstration the day after the war began, and who built from that new-found power straight to the overthrow of Mubarak in 2011. The struggle for justice in Egypt, as everywhere, is ongoing. It is understood by many of those in it as something no corporate media outlet would ever tell you: an offshoot of a global movement to prevent war.
One key lesson offered by “We Are Many” is this: If people ever again pack the world’s streets and squares by the millions to say no to war, it will be difficult to ignore the fact that the first time they did it they were defying the political establishment and they were 100% indisputably and unvanquishably right.