While people were killing and dying, what did it matter whether there were decent songs being sung, insightful films being produced, appropriate art being inspired? When did poetry ever stop a war?
Anniversaries are generally pointless; a nice round figure and nothing more, bearing little significance other than that which we have assigned. So it’s worth remembering that ten years is not the outrageous number. The true outrage, as always, is the eight-plus years over which the vast crime of the Iraq war was committed, vandalizing an entire era in the process.
Nevertheless, the fact that 2013 marks a solid decade since the illegal invasion which unleashed so much self-replicating atrocity has prompted many to reexamine the conflict, and that is no bad thing; if anniversaries have any virtue, it is to remind us of things we should not forget so easily. And anyone who lived through those unpleasantly interesting times probably wondered what hindsight would look like, after the smoke cleared. Grim, as it turns out.
I have memories and a lot of records. Sometimes, I get them confused. When our leaders told us we were at war (as Spike Milligan would say, “I loved the ‘we.’”), I was still in high school. Iraq, after a fashion, taught us how to protest; on our first school walk-out, a friend of mine brought along a gas mask, which—should the need arise—several of us would share, back and forth, like in Terminator 2. Eventually, we stormed Edinburgh castle (sort of), made the local news, and then went home again. A few weeks later, there was another demonstration, and another, and another.
In the New Statesman, in her article, “Ten years ago we marched against the Iraq war and I learned a lesson in betrayal” Laurie Penny wrote,
“My generation’s lack of faith in the political process has often been mistaken for apathy. It is only now, with ordinary people across the world putting their energies into movements that bypass mainstream politics, that the betrayal of Bush and Blair’s wars is beginning the be understood. We have known since we were at school that it’s not enough simply to make our voices heard. We have to make sure that we are listened to—and we’re still working out how to do that.” (14 February 2013)
Our reactions may have been insolent, irreverent, half-baked—in a word, teenage—but they were forced to grow up with haste. Meanwhile, the culture around us began to mutate in response to the war that had polluted it.
It was kind of poetic that, for my peers and I, our adolescence—which made no sense, at least to us—had, as its background, a conflict that was just as nonsensical. Then and now, I tried to make sense of the world through its arts—books, music, movies, whatever was handy—but when faced with the horror of Iraq, that task became monumental.
I remember there were whistles, and drums, and slogans that grew steadily more profane. There were also a lot of songs—by John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Joe Strummer, Billy Bragg, Bob Marley, Woody Guthrie and countless more—dredged and borrowed from history to see if they might be made use of again. Some of it was moving, some of it was cringeworthy, some it was just catchy. We weren’t particularly picky. For a lot of us, the political consciousness awoken by Iraq heralded a crash-course in nostalgia: taken unawares by how quickly the world could go insane, we had to learn how these things were done, and quickly. While a new anti-war counterculture grew slowly and organically out of our shared discontent, we looked back and cherry-picked what we wanted from those who had come before, and tried to emulate as best we could.
Chances are, you’ll find this slice of recent history familiar, if not fresh. You were there, and so was I, and I’m still trying to figure out what that did to us all. Looking at the art our society produces under such circumstances is usually a good way to gauge that creeping transformation. Yet the cultural response mirrored the war itself, a fractured mess run through with nonsense and red herrings. What did it achieve? Could it have done better?
Ask a further, cruder question: Why should anyone care? Ultimately, while people were killing and dying, what did it matter whether there were decent songs being sung, insightful films being produced, appropriate art being inspired? When did poetry ever stop a war?
In these matters, there’s always a temptation to act with a certain level of hipsterish snobbery (though there are certainly worse things to act on). Inevitably, we look back to the ‘60s and the cultural response to Vietnam, and almost always find our own era lacking in comparison. As some people have noted, it’s tough to compete with the Beatles. And even now, 45 years after Chicago police broke skulls outside of the 1968 Democratic Convention, the United States is still fighting the ridiculously named ‘culture wars’ that find their origin in the decade of Kennedy and Nixon. Everything we have now can sometimes seem like a shadow, an aftereffect, or an imitation.
However, this superficial perception clashes with the reality. The heady days of 2003 and after were not small potatoes; too few remember that the Iraq invasion provoked the biggest anti-war demonstrations in the history of the world. On 15 February 2003, a coordinated day of global protest, over three million people marched in Rome. One and a half million did the same in Madrid. Some 50,000 of us even managed to trudge through Glasgow, and that’s something nobody should have to do unless it’s for a really good cause. Looking back, it’s clear that the response from our artists and entertainers was equally varied and widespread, and deserves recognition for that. Sooner or later, the Iraq war seeped into every crack of the common culture.
And yet, it’s still hard to imagine that, years or decades from now, the cultural impact of the war will endure on a scale approaching the artistic legacy of Vietnam, or even the myriad militarist bungles of the Reagan years, which acted as Vietnam’s hangover. Maybe that’s simply because the two wars are not equivalent: Iraq polarised America, but Vietnam traumatised it.