Stop The Wars London demonstration on 19 March 2005 marking the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq attracted between 45,000 and 100,000 marchers, according to the different estimates of the police and the organisers. I wasnt among them.
Two years ago, on 15 February 2003, it was a different story. So what has changed?
That day, my journey to join the immense Stop The War march very nearly faltered at the bus stop across the road from my flat.
A fellow protestor was waiting for the number 55 into town. She was carrying a placard. It declared: There has never been a good war, or a bad peace. The temptation to turn around and go home was extraordinarily difficult to overcome. So was the urge to seize the placard and slap her vigorously about her dreadlocked and indiscriminately pierced head with it, perhaps while instructing her in the basics of (to pick just one perfectly good war and one completely lousy peace) the Allied liberation of France in 1944, and the Treaty of Versailles.
Nevertheless, I went to the march, was glad that I did, and remain so. I believed then, and believe now, that Saddam Husseins ghastly regime was ripe for removal by subversion or, failing that, assassination. The dunderheaded absolutism epitomised by the banner at the bus stop, and of much of the Stop The War coalitions rhetoric these last few years, wasnt much heard on the day, subsumed as it was by that extraordinary mass of calmly affronted Middle England.
The Stop The War march of 15 February 2003 in London passed into legend precisely because it wasnt just another outing for the usual suspects. Most of the people I spoke to had never been to a demonstration in their lives. They simply objected to being lied to by their government, to their money being spent on the destruction of foreigners who meant them no harm, and they were determined to be heard.
They had made a thoughtful, rational decision. The preponderance of such people was the reason there was refreshingly little chanting.
The non-chanting tendency will have been conspicuous by its absence from Stop The Wars London demonstration of 19 March 2005 to mark the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. This is a guess: I wasnt there either. I suspect, however, that the woman we met in the first paragraph was in attendance, tooting on her infernal whistle, joining lustily in the fatuous mantras about blood and oil, nodding with expressions of grim resolve at the speeches. As for the banner shell carry, unless her idiotic good war/bad peace effort has weathered the last two years, or unless shes thought of a statement even more stupid which would necessitate a breadth of imagination I cannot claim to equal - it might well be one of Stop The Wars official placards. These read Bring The Troops Home.
Its a shame they dont make banners large enough to include the parenthetical addendum: and leave the Iraqi people millions of whom recently risked their lives to vote to the mercies of Baath party recidivists, opportunist gangsters, and Islamist yahoos. The moral arithmetic of Stop The Wars slogan is easy to appreciate it was wrong to send troops to Iraq two years ago, therefore it must be right to withdraw troops from Iraq now but it is the most depressing example yet of Stop The Wars failure to engage constructively with anything that has happened in the last three and a half years. Its sole stock response has been to complain about any and every deployment of American or British military force, whatever the circumstances, whatever the reality.
In Iraq right now, the reality is that despite a rebellion by a ruthless and unpleasant assortment of Baathist holdouts, foreign adventurers and religious dingbats masquerading as a resistance, elections have been held, a government is being formed, institutions are being built. There is absolutely no plausible way that any of this indisputable progress would survive the withdrawal that Stop The War are demanding.
The view from Basra
Two years to the day since I marched against the invasion of Iraq in London, I was hunkered in the back of a Land Rover belonging to 2 Company, 1st Battalion the Welsh Guards, as they made the rounds of local police stations in Basra, southern Iraq.
This is what 2 Company do all day: establish relationships, supply equipment, share knowledge, build trust. It isnt easy. 2 Company have been sniped at, RPGed, rocketed, mortared, had one vehicle blown up by a roadside bomb and seen three men evacuated home wounded. For all that, in the four months of their deployment, not one soldier in 2 Company had fired his rifle. The British armys tactic of not yelling and shooting at people where it can possibly be avoided as opposed to the approach taken by the Americans, who seem to have learnt everything they know about working in occupied Arab territory from the Israelis is slowly paying off in Basra.
I wouldnt wish it on any of the soldiers I met, but more than once I found myself thinking that if more British troops had been sent to Baghdad early on, Iraqs capital might be less of a Mad Max sequel now. If, ten or twenty years hence, Basra is a gleaming, modern, oil-rich Babylon of the order of Kuwait or Dubai, much credit will be due to the soldiers the Stop The War movement wish to remove.
The war that London protested against two years ago the invasion of Iraq and the toppling by force of Saddam Hussein was effectively over within weeks. The war that is being fought in Iraq now is different. It is by no means morally pure, in conception or execution though Id be willing to bet that the alleged resistance has killed many more Iraqis than have occupying soldiers. But it is being fought, meeting by meeting, reform by reform, for Iraqis who, at dreadful risk to their own safety, are voting, and attending political gatherings, and joining their police forces. It is being fought against people who, on several documented occasions, have seized groups of such Iraqis, bound them, shot them and left them dead in ditches.
It may not be what Tony Blair intended, and it may not be easy for those of us who opposed the invasion to accept, but two years on, the war in Iraq is a war that Britain should not be ashamed of fighting, or of winning.
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