Exactly ten years ago, I gathered with hundreds of thousands of others, on a freezing cold day in New York City, to take part in an anti-war march. I was still hungover from a friend’s book party the previous night. We marched, got corralled into pens, felt our extremities freeze, jousted with policemen, lost friends, made new ones, read angry, witty, colorful banners, shouted slogans, marched some more, and then finally, late in the evening, exhausted, numb, hungry, finally stumbled off the streets. (In my case, straight into a bar, to drink a couple of large whiskies. Yes, the hangover had worn off by then, and my rapidly dropping blood circulation seemed to call for rather vigorous stimulation.)
The march ‘didn’t work’: it was perhaps the visible zenith of the anti-war moment; an illegal, unjust and cruel war kicked off five days later. (I joined another protest march on the night news of the first bombings came in; it was pure unadulterated misery in cold, freezing rain, one only made barely palatable thanks to the running induced by attempted escapes from over-enthusiastic baton-wielding policemen.) Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Americans would die, and the next stage of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld nightmare began. Whatever its ramifications for the US, those for the Iraqi people were much worse: sectarian warfare would be the least of them.
I learned several important things that February 15th, ten years ago: massive mobilization of anti-war sentiment was possible some seventeen months after 9/11; a government committed to war is perhaps the most intransigent of all; policing of demonstrations was entering a new restrictive phase, one in which the First Amendment would be merely paid lip service and in which protest was to be as attenuated as possible. The first one was heartening and awe-inspiring; I learned later of the massive amount of organizing that the march required. The latter two were harbingers of further atrocities to come. (I also learned protective clothing for winters needs to be considerably enhanced if sustained, long-term exposure lies ahead; I had worn long-johns, a heavy coat, gloves, and a hat, and I was still frozen after merely thirty minutes outside.)
Ten years on, war continues. The spectacular shock-and-awe bombing raids, the rumbling tanks, are gone, replaced by special forces operations and silent drone attacks, conducted from the US and felt far away. But non-combatants continue to die. The motivation for the war remains mysterious; the expenses for it steadily pile up, bankrupting budgets and national priorities. Two presidents got themselves elected to second terms using as a central campaign prop, the promise that they would pursue war as vigorously as possible. The Constitution took a battering; torture was defended; ‘rendition’ entered our vocabulary; war criminals were let off, and we were urged to move on. Veterans came home, sometimes in body bags, sometimes in wheelchairs; some committed suicide, others went off to try to adjust to ‘normal life.’ In their case, as with the dead children and civilians, we were urged to look away.
All war, all the time. Ten years of it. I’ve seen better decades.