2nd Infantry Division, US Air Forces in Iraq, 2007. Photo: Flickr/ Sgt. Stacy L. Pearsall 2nd Infantry Division, US Air Forces in Iraq, 2007. Photo: Flickr/Sgt. Stacy L. Pearsall

Lindsey German on imperialist blowback and today’s strikes

Twenty years on from the war in Iraq, there is plenty of media coverage and political comment. The war tends to be characterised as a misadventure or mistake, because those responsible were misled or were unable to know the truth. What’s remarkable is how little of the commentary acknowledges the mass informed opposition that existed long before it started, and how much of it distorts or doesn’t understand either the run up to the war or its bloody consequences.

This was a war of choice by the US and UK governments in particular, planned by George W Bush and his closest advisers in the days following the 9/11 attacks on the US (even though there was no evidence of Iraqi involvement in them). Its cheerleaders were the crazed right-wing intellectuals of the Project for a New American Century. Labour prime minister Tony Blair was fully behind every move made by Bush and determined to take Britain into the war. The aim of the governments, regime change, was illegal under international law, so they cooked up a series of spurious reports and dossiers which alleged that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was in possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction which could supposedly hit British interests in 45 minutes. Such was the threat of these WMDs that invasion by the biggest imperialist armies in the world was justified.

Blair was never a reluctant ally of Bush but a full-blooded supporter of this war. He dragooned his own MPs to vote for war and, despite a huge 139-strong rebellion, many of them did, alongside the Tories. The Murdoch press was particularly gung-ho, but so too were most of the media – only the Mirror engaged in anti-war campaigning. The supposedly impartial BBC told its employees not to attend marches, and anti-war voices were few and far between on its flagship programmes. The whole debate in liberal media tended to be framed as to whether the war could take place legally if it was backed by a UN resolution. Yet millions of people rejected the war with or without a UN resolution.

Their arguments included that the evidence of WMD was dubious if not derisory, that invasion and occupation would come at great cost to the Iraqi people, that the imperialist powers would not solve the problems of Iraq but would exacerbate the threats of war in the region, that it would make the world a much more dangerous place. These arguments came from a range of sources, including weapons inspectors themselves, diplomats, former heads of state like Jimmy Carter, as well as trade unionists, the Muslim community, peace campaigners and socialists. There was a huge movement of school students against the war.

My key political activity as a socialist and anti-war campaigner through 2002, 2003 and beyond was opposing the war and trying to hold the government to account. It never ceases to amaze me how the views and activities of those like me are ignored when assessing what went wrong with the invasion and occupation. There were, after all, many millions of us around the world who very accurately predicted its outcome and who argued very strongly that we were being taken to war on a lie.

There are few who now justify this war. But the supposedly impartial, rational and objective coverage of it now allows a whole new set of distortions to creep into a media and political narrative which cannot admit the real truth, or its own role in hiding that truth. The difficulty for them over Iraq is that so many knew the truth, so many demonstrated, so many stood up against the war, that it puts to shame the pundits, commentators, journalists and politicians who in some ways justified the war and allowed it to continue. Better therefore to ignore them.

The consequences of the war were catastrophic, leading to a bloody invasion and occupation with millions dead, injured or displaced. We saw the scandal of Abu Ghraib, where the US military degraded, tortured and humiliated Iraqi prisoners. We saw the siege of Fallujah where the US troops used phosphorus weapons. We have seen the destruction of a country, the rise of ISIS (in British occupied Basra prisons), and the continued presence of US troops 20 years on as war continues in parts of Iraq. We still see many Iraqi refugees fleeing in often very dangerous conditions.

But many of us pointed out then that war would have much wider implications. We have seen in those same decades a doubling of military spending world-wide. We now have a proxy war between imperialist powers in Ukraine, both Russia and Nato armed with nuclear weapons, and a dramatic escalation of US and allied military power in the Pacific with the Aukus pact and Japan’s big increase in armament.

Perhaps most sickeningly, the architects of this war have suffered not a jot. Blair is extremely wealthy, gained at least in part from advising dictators not too dissimilar from the one he wanted to overthrow in Iraq. Alastair Campbell is feted in the media. No ICC warrants for them to appear in the Hague for war crimes. The lesson of Iraq is to stop the imperialists and warmongers before they take us into more wars. Instead, they are at it again – and this time the stakes are much higher.

No one left behind

It looks like we are coming to the end of the current phase of industrial disputes, with government and employers now keen to settle – but on terms as unfavourable to our side as possible. The health workers’ settlement is far lower than they could have got and is by no means guaranteed as coming out of new money rather than existing NHS budgets. The UCU dispute – despite claims of historic achievements – offers virtually nothing to post-92 universities in particular, and no extra pay than the pathetic rises rejected earlier. The CWU Royal Mail workers look like they are getting a deal – which probably won’t be good.

The truth is the bulk of union leaders also want to settle and the danger is they will do so getting far less than they could have done. They are happy to compromise even though this will mean wage cuts in real terms for their members. There is also too much talk of changes in conditions as part of the settlements, meaning we pay for wage rises by working harder. This is one reason we need to build much stronger organisation among the rank and file of the unions.

There will be real pressure on teachers and other groups if these settlements go through to also go for less. We should resist this pressure. Any movement at all from employers is the result of strike action. Rejection of these deals should be coupled with a commitment to more extensive action, with lengthier strikes and more coordination between unions. The tremendous turnout on budget day shows the potential for such action, and it’s some of the bigger unions that seem to be dragging their feet on encouraging this.

But, as PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka also made clear on Wednesday, we don’t want a series of separate settlements which leave behind some unions. Solidarity means not accepting less, but sticking out and organising together to get more. It also means no one should be worse off, or working harder, by the end of this year than at the beginning. There’s a lot of militant feeling among working-class people at the moment – we can’t let it be dissipated by poor compromises. This is an important running point. Whatever happens, I think that we have embarked on a new wave of union militancy which will continue in various ways, regardless of the settlements of the national disputes. But that militancy can only be strengthened by getting the best possible deals now.

This week: I’m speaking at a London meeting to mark the Iraq anniversary, then on Saturday in Manchester at a Wages not War event. Spurred by the Lineker controversy I’m also rereading Gabriel Kolko’s very good book Century of War which puts the Second World War into its true perspective. So a lot of war and some UCU picket lines!

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.