Ten Years Of Shock & Awe

I recently moved house. As you do when moving house, I had a clear out of old boxes. Sifting through the miscellany of my life, I stumbled upon some old notebooks. Leafing through the pages of one from 2002-3, I found a two-column list: one column was bullet points of a political speech; the other began as notes to myself on these points, which, further down the column descended into a panoply of expletives.

In early 2003 I was writing for my college newspaper, The Voice. One of my first assignments was to listen to George W Bush’s State Of The Union address and write an opinion piece in response. It was the first time I ever listened to Bush speak for any length of time. What an eye-opener.

I guess I’d always just unconsciously assumed that politicians were a bunch of lying bastards who did stupid things and made a mess of the countries they were administering to. Bush’s 2003 State Of The Union address made me realise that I knew nothing of politics. The sheer outrageousness of the President’s vague assertions about Saddam Hussein’s secret weapons programme, and the intentions they conveyed, turned my stomach.

Bush’s message was crystal clear. His administration planned to invade an economically crippled, internationally isolated country on the most unlikely pretext imaginable: that Iraq posed a threat to the United States, and that pre-emptive action needed to be taken to protect Americans from harm.

In the run-up to the invasion, the official line shifted from Saddam Hussein’s WMDs being a security threat, to the necessity of sacrificing American lives to liberate Iraqis from the iron grip of a bloodthirsty tyrant — one who, 20 years previously, was given WMDs by an administration peopled with many of the same schemers now busy orchestrating  his overthrow.

Two things at this time amazed me. The first was how anybody could believe this bullshit — because, unfortunately, many people did and still do. The second was worse: if the Bush administration could lie so blatantly, so unscrupulously, in order to commit a crime that would mean the death of thousands upon thousands of people under the false pretence of keeping Americans safe — could anything make Americans less safe? My feeling of security was shaken to the core; I felt terrified and horrified at this monumental skullduggery being committed in my name.

On the weekend of 15-16 February 2003, millions of people around the world seemed to feel the same. A co-ordinated demonstration in almost every major city in the world took place, unprecedented in its organisational complexity and sheer scale. In Rome, an estimate 3 million people marched in protest — the largest recorded demonstration in history. It’s in the 2004 Guinness Book of World Records. All over Europe, similar protests took place: 2 million people in Madrid, a million in London, and millions across the US.

I reported on the demonstration of the 15th February in New York City for The Voice. The train to Grand Central Station was overloaded with protesters standing in the aisles. The station itself heaved with people and placards. Outside on the street, walking through a dense and colourful crowd, I arrived at a stage where the actor Danny Glover delivered a rousing speech. Police stood watching, some in riot gear, some mounted on horses. Protesters sang and chanted anti-war slogans.

We marched downtown and I spoke to as many people as I could. Many of the protesters I met were “normal” people: middle aged or elderly; schoolteachers, doctors, office workers, parents with their children — not what you’d call the protesting type. Most had never been to a demonstration before. They felt outraged that the US would embark on what they considered an illegal and immoral war. The themes of the day were “Not In My Name” and “No Blood For Oil”.

I asked a policeman how many people he estimated had turned up. The police estimate was 500,000. I asked an activist the same question, and his organisation estimated it was more like 1.5 million. At one point, I scrambled to a fourth story window and watched the endless stream of bodies and banners pouring down the straight Manhattan streets as far as I could see.

When I tried to go home around 2pm, the full impact of what was taking place hit home: buses and trains were severely delayed or cancelled altogether. The city was saturated; the march must have been ten streets wide and 60 streets long. And this was happening all over the globe. I felt blessed to be witnessing a towering moment in history.

Not that it mattered. They invaded anyway, as you know — popular opinion be damned. Ten year ago today, my friends and I sat in my living room in Connecticut and listened to George Bush utter the words “shock and awe”. The rest is history. No WMDs. The world is not safer and the word “truth” means less than it ever did. Many Iraqis and Americans have been killed, while survivors have had their lives ruined. Car bombs and suicide bombers are the norm. Iraq is in shreds, and the shredders have bankrupted their own countries in the meantime. Shock and awe indeed.

Now Tony Blair is some kind of special envoy for peace in the Middle East, which makes about as much sense as a shit-covered penis deploring the befouled nature of anal sex. He probably makes millions. I hope he spends it plugging up the void where his conscience used to be. I hope he bought his pal George a good chef to prepare the word “victory”, uttered atop a press-friendly aircraft carrier, in a delicious sauce.

Although the aftermath of the Iraq War provided the bulk of the carnage, it’s the initial program of Shock & Awe that stands out in my memory today. My friends and I sat there quietly, sick at heart. For my money, the French poet Arthur Rimbaud summed it up beautifully in a single phrase from his Illuminations: “Behold: the time of the assassins.”

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