Too soon to tell: Iraq, 10 years on

Nina Hallas looks back at the war that should never have been

Cartoon: Bryant Apolonio

This March marked 10 years since the invasion of Iraq. The anniversary passed rather unceremoniously. No minute of silence. No pinned poppies. No 21-gun salute. The war, unpopular since its inception, marred by extraordinary misgivings, ambiguous justifications and wildly unsatisfying outcomes, has never been an ideal candidate for glorification.

Its architects, unable to defend their original reasoning for the conflict, instead deny deliberately misinforming the public about them, and the public, in return, receive their unapologetic excuses with little more than lazy cynicism.


“I say ‘Howard’, you say ‘fuck off’. ‘Howard!’ – ‘fuck off!’, ‘Howard!’ – ‘fuck off!’” It’s 7pm on a Tuesday in April and a small crowd has assembled outside the Intercontinental Hotel where former Prime Minister, John Howard, gives his reflections on the war. Admittedly, the creativity and energy for long winding chants was wearing thin.

The crowd, unsuccessfully deterred by the (terribly kept) secret change of venue, consisted of the usual suspects, the familiar, rally-worn veterans of various left persuasions. A Tony Blair impersonator walked amongst them, a shit-eating grin plastered on his rubber face, a placard reading “war criminal” hung from his neck. Bush would have joined him, I’m lamentably told, but was alas trapped on the dusty shelves of a comrade’s locked out garage.

Another day, another key opportunity for inciting revolution lost.

Thatcher had just died, and the featured signage wasn’t shy to herald it. “Howard, you always said you wanted to be like Thatcher: finally we can agree on something”. A menacing threat to her political allies indeed: a natural death in old age. Yet to many, shock value seems the only (legal) channel available for retribution. Despite calls for an inquiry into Australia’s involvement in the Iraq War, championed by prominent figures like Malcolm Fraser, it seems unlikely any repercussions or accountability will be bestowed upon its advocates, especially with the increasingly likelihood of an Abbott government.

A line of weary-looking cops stand on guard. One yawns. Another checks her phone. A hundred people were there, perhaps. Sixty, if you account for typical protest figure inflation. Their practiced lungs were loud, but not quite loud enough to feature predominately in the mainstream press. This was it. The remainder of vocal anti-Iraq war activists – or so called ‘anti-democratic minority’ by event host and Lowy Institute director, Michael Fullilove – holding a rally that a decade ago would have been a hundred times the size.


February 15, 2003 saw the biggest demonstration on Sydney streets in decades. It was part of a wider movement across the world, with millions taking to the streets to show their opposition to the war. They encompassed the broadest parameters of the population – seasoned protestors marched alongside first-timers; small children came with their grandparents; out came the unions, the students, a series of public and political figures.  The protests engulfed six to eight city blocks.

They were indicative of a wider culture of dissent. Images of “NO WAR” painted on the Opera House the night Bush publicly announced war became instantaneously iconic across the globe. The cops, in a rare act of solidarity, graciously waited for the culprits to finish before they were brought down and arrested. Opera House staff formed a guard of honour, and cheered at their bravery as they were escorted to the back of the wagon. T-shirts and other paraphernalia featuring all sorts of anti- war witticisms were trending highly. Indeed, many polls indicate that the Iraq War met with more public opposition before its commencement than any other conflict in history. The people, united…they were defeated. On March 20, Australian soldiers were deployed, as planned.


Ten years later. A different government. Two new Prime Ministers. Indeterminable leadership spills. Life, by and large, has moved on. The huge demoralisation of the defeat tittered out to apathy. Protests grew smaller by the year. Public opinion, though largely unchanged, had significantly dulled.  Old adages about war being for the rich’, or other such related variables, ‘for oil’, ‘for greed’, ‘for profit’ have become hollowed truisms that everyone seems to know, and mostly reluctantly, regrettably accept. What else is there to do or think, when even protests of that extent can fail so magnificently?

When, unsurprisingly, no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction – an ironclad assumption based on evidence that was always, at best, sketchy – turned out to be false, and opponents vindicated, Howard argued that solace could be found in the fact that at least a dictator was toppled and a people ‘freed’.

It’s true; Saddam Hussein led an oppressive regime, and many of his policies are indefensible. His toppling, in and of itself, is not cause for lament. However, Iraq after the occupation is arguably much worse than what it ever was under his reign. The instability the war and the subsequent insurgency caused has essentially transformed Iraq from a secular state to a fundamentalist theocracy.  Politicians cannot do anything without consulting religious clerics first, and the damaging impact the amalgamation of Religion and State has on civil liberties, particularly for women, is extreme.

Political conflict between Sunnis and Shiites are highly inflamed, and violence between the two groups escalates annually. The continuing Iraqi insurgency edges the country closer to civil war. Democracy remains farcical, and protest is violently suppressed. Human right violations are rampant. Poverty is abundant, and employment limited. Ethnic minorities are becoming extinct. The environment has been desecrated, where the depleted uranium and white phosphorus employed during military assaults has seen an alarming increase of cancers and mutations, especially in children. Hundreds of thousands have died due to the conflict directly, most civilians. Millions more from indirect impacts. Millions have fled to bordering states or else become Internally Displaced Peoples living in slums.

Though foreign troops have now been removed, with them, foreign aid, which gets increasingly lower despite the exuberant costs of reconstruction. The country, by all qualitative and quantitative measures, is in ruins. The actions undertaken by troops at the orders of their respective governments were not reasonable. It begs the question as to whether we, the opponents, responded to them too ‘reasonably’. “Wars don’t cease by occasionally protesting on the weekend”. Arundhati Roy makes a fair point.


“If anything, our actions in Iraq reinforced the reputation of Australia as a nation that stands by its friends, even in difficult circumstances.”  Howard, ever the loyalist, stresses the importance of being there for your mates even if they’re a bit of an US-hole. His unwavering commitment to the United States, even to the point of following them into unsanctioned war, screamed of a foreign policy in complete lockstep. If Howard, by duty of the office, was required to act in the nation’s best interests (which he somehow mistook as America’s best interests), it’s pertinent to uncover where exactly America’s interest lay.

The pre-emptive attack on Iraq signified a new direction in US foreign policy. The ‘threat’ doesn’t have to be real, it just has to be perceived, and ‘perceived’ in such a way to be politically and economically beneficial to its investors. Another prize the Iraq war can claim for itself is being the most privatised in history. Estimates dictate that private contractors, employed providers of essential military services, from food, uniforms and even security, have reaped up to $138 billion worth of profit from the war. The frequency with which these contractors have dubious connections to parliamentarians is alarming to the point of being endemic. The most notable example would be former Vice-President and CEO of Halliburton, the biggest contractor profiteer, Dick Cheney. He stepped down from his position in the 2000 elections. He received a $30 million package and continued to be a shareholder.

If the interlope between US Congress, the largest military in the world and private enterprise sounds dodgy, it’s because it is. As Eisenhower forewarned in his Farewell Address to the Nation, the military-industrial complex has become the most malignant form of corporate welfare. Taxpayer funds are used to subsidise initiatives of private contractors like Halliburton, whose operations prima facie, are suspect, made worse by widespread allegations of overcharging and underproviding.


Politics of tactics are a necessary part of any protest movement. Inevitably, there are disagreements. Commonly they centre on how far actions should go, many reluctant to be ‘radical’, fearing such actions will alienate the movement into a fringe group of extremists, rather than get the public onside.  Without the public onside, it follows, government will not be pressured to act or concede. The peace rallies largely centred on raising awareness of the injustice of the war, rather than direct action to stop it.

In some ways, these politics of persuasion were successful. Opinion polls continued to rise against the war. The delegation Australia sent was relatively small, and future considerations to engage in military interventions will assumedly be met with much more scrutiny. However, they fell short of completely stopping the war for several reasons. Howard was in the middle of his term, and pressure to appeal to public opinion was accordingly low. They were also faced against a much more pervasive sculptor of public opinion: the media, markedly uncritical of the flaky intelligence underpinning the war or any ulterior agendas.  Accordingly, the Labor Party trod lightly.  As their platform vetoed any engagement in non-UN sanctioned interventions, they opposed the war but negligibly, fearing being cast as ‘soft’ or ‘anti-troop’. The Greens, and other anti-war minor parties, were too politically insignificant at the time to hold any sway.

Efforts to stop the war completely needed to be more than just persuasive: they needed to be disruptive. Tactics need to be weighed against the enormous, underlying economic and political incentives fuelling the occupation, and pressure proportionally applied where it hurts.


Yet more radical approaches were not engaged. Industrial actions – especially of those workforces that assisted the war effort – were not carried, neither was any attempt made to foster the facilitation of strikes, like hosting major rallies on working days, during working hours, not weekends. Efforts to host sit-ins, occupations or lock-ins to Pine Gap, the American base in the Northern Territory, were discarded almost as soon as discussed.


“It’s too soon to tell,” so goes the famous reply Mao allegedly gave Nixon when asked about the consequences of the French Revolution. Though the imparted wisdom was an inaccurate account of the exchange (he was referring to the revolt of 1968, not 1789), its unintentional pertinence cannot be diminished.

The Iraq War was unique in many aspects, and its trajectory so far unveils a new, arguably more malignant era of warfare, the full consequences of which remain unknown, to be unravelled for many generations to come. A changing of the guards, from Bush to Obama, has been insignificant, foreign policy wise. Obama continues to employ – if not amplify – the former administrations tactics, which is indicative, perhaps, of the greater underlying powers that be.

If anti-war movements want to prevent another Iraq fiasco, it will take more than waving around a few placards, no matter how bold the slogans.