What’s anti-war?

The public meeting 'Stop the war before it starts' on 21 September raised more questions than it answered.

Josie Appleton

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There was clearly surprise that so many people had turned up to ‘Stop the war before it starts…No revenge attacks’, a public anti-war meeting in London on Friday 21 September.

‘What an incredible show!’, exclaimed journalist and green activist George Monbiot. The 1200-capacity room at the Quaker Friends House filled to brimming, so people spilled over into two satellite meetings and speakers were rushed from one to the other.

Perhaps partly because they were rushing around so much, speakers seemed to feel that something big was happening. Editor of International Socialism Journal John Rees foretold that the meeting was the ‘beginning of a great movement’; while Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn claimed there wasn’t this much opposition against the Vietnam War. Really? I wasn’t even born during the Vietnam War, but I know that protests against it mobilised more than a couple of thousand people.

Helen John from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) said that she wished she could have talked to people ‘in such a receptive mood’ in the early 1990s. Back then, apparently, she was looked at as if she was ‘slightly mental’.

Demonstrations of anti-war mood are rare today – and usually they are to be welcomed. But this one raised more questions than it answered – namely, what does it mean to be anti-war? Behind the feeling of something happening, there was little sense of what: what the anti-war movement stood for; why, indeed, several thousand people had bothered to come along.

Some speakers made concerted attempts to evade the question, which didn’t help. When novelist Will Self said that the anti-war movement shouldn’t present war ‘as a partisan issue’, but needed to ‘reach out to a population that is confused’ – ‘turn to people on the bus, talk to people in the street when you make a transaction’ – I’m not entirely sure what he meant.

Indeed, the whole set-up of the meeting avoided the question of what it means to be anti-war. Speakers simply presented their – sometimes conflicting – points of view; there was no debate among them to resolve a common position, and no discussion from the floor. Some dissident members of the audience could not contain their opinions (one shouted ‘End capitalism! It’s the only answer!’, another defended the hijackers – ‘Why is it a crime to fight back?’). While these guys were clearly off-beam, the chair’s response was to impose a law of consensus that only added to the sense of incoherence: people may not agree with everything being said, she reprimanded, but they must have ‘respect for one another’.

Rather than conveying any positive political stance, the speakers emanated their feelings of guilt for being Western. Helen John asked: ‘Why were the twin towers attacked?’, and she answered that it was to do with the ‘un-level playing field’ between rich and poor. ‘We are responsible, each and every one of us.’ Monbiot made the anti-war campaign sound like therapy for the world: ‘I understand the feelings of Americans’, their ‘frustration’ and ‘great hurt’, he said, but aggression is not the answer. Instead, we should go to the Muslims of Afghanistan, saying, ‘we’re offering you kindness’ and ‘love’ ‘instead of hostility’. Socialist Alliance’s Liz Davies (formerly a member of the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee) continued the theme, talking about the sense of ‘common vulnerability’ and the ‘universality of loss and pain’, feelings that an anti-war movement can ‘mobilise’.

And although the speakers were against the West going to war, they were certainly not against the West intervening in the affairs of the third world. CND’s Bruce Kent and Liz Davies both demanded the establishment of an International Criminal Court, and Monbiot called for ‘Nuremberg-style trials’. It seems that intervention in the third world is okay, so long as it is domination-by-diplomacy. Leaving aside the question of whether there is much ‘justice’ exercised by international bodies like The Hague, the speakers are deluding themselves if they think that bringing people to trial is possible without (often military) coercion. In this, the speakers clearly distinguished themselves from the ‘hands off’ anti-war campaigns of the past.

Veteran anti-Vietnam War campaigner Tariq Ali made a closing statement – a poem written about the stone-throwers of the Middle East – that stuck out from the general calls for restraint and mutual appreciation. Addressing the young stone-throwers, the poet told them not to listen to the political calculations of adults, their additions and subtractions. ‘The age of political reason has long departed/So teach us madness’, he concluded.

The ‘madness’ of the stone-throwers in the poem bore more than a passing similarity to the senseless and nihilistic smashing of passenger jets into the World Trade Center. Was Ali condoning acts of madness? Was he explaining them? Was he asking us to commit them?

Again, it just wasn’t clear.

Josie Appleton is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

Read on:

More to it than anti-war, by Brendan O’Neill

The piece movement, by Brendan O’Neill

No politics please, we’re peace campaigners, by Brendan O’Neill

Anti-globalisation, anti-war, anti-everything, by Josie Appleton

Judging the war, by Sandy Starr

spiked-issues: After 11 September

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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