What I found impressive in last weekend’s anti-war protests was less their size and range, or the way they were often biggest in countries whose regimes support an attack on Iraq (a million in London; 250,000 in Sydney; a million in Madrid and Barcelona). It was their sophistication.

Let me explain by comparison. During protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and ’70s, there was a certain romanticism about good guys versus bad: an overmatched national liberation movement combatting the imperial USA. Some (though not all) marchers would chant,“Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF is going to win.” It made it easier to identify, to get your butt out there and your head cracked. Among the millions who marched on the weekend, it would be hard to find any with a good word to say for Saddam Hussein and his meretricious government, or who don’t dearly desire his departure. Yet they have clear-headedly distinguished the key point: An attack will make things worse for Iraq’s suffering people, for a decent world order, and for their own security. I call that sophistication.

Take another example. The peace movements of the ’50s and ’80s focused on avoiding a nuclear meltdown between the U.S. and the Soviet Union but were sometimes still infected by Cold War politics. Western Communist parties, with secretive ties to the Soviet Union, often played a role, without being frank about their goals, so those movements were partly infused with hidden agendas. This could lead to confusion among people who had got involved simply to avoid destruction of the planet. (What I have just said would have been called redbaiting in those days, possibly by me among others; it was a tough situation to navigate.) The current movement is unaffected by any noteworthy hidden agendas.

So here is a movement with no illusions it will have to get disillusioned about, and no off-stage players to manipulate it. It has no hero and, in fact, has a villain — Saddam Hussein — it is reluctantly connected to. That’s pretty subtle. It was finely put by a banner at the London march: Down with this sort of stuff. You can’t get much less doctrinaire or rhetorical. It involves people who go to Iraq to act as human shields on their own recognizance; and those (to me) incredibly impressive folks: the relatives of victims of Sept. 11 who declare, Not in our name.

To appreciate its sophistication, consider the blizzard of B.S. this movement must battle through. For instance, just recently:Ignorant coinages such as “coalition of the willing,” i.e., the standard model of international rivalry and alliances of convenience that brought us two world wars in the first half of the 20th century and that were the precise reason for the creation of the U.N. as an alternative.

Reckless deployment of terms such as appeasement and Munich. As Robert Fisk has noted, who has been appeased if not North Korea by a U.S. that keeps retreating from its nuclear challenge? As for Munich, that was about a huge power demanding the right to invade a small, weak country. The point is not that the U.S. is like Nazi Germany and Iraq is like Czechoslovakia; the point is there is no analogy. The prize, though, goes to Canadian historian Jack Granatstein, who says our support for Britain in 1939 is “a perfect description of our current situation” with respect to the U.S. What gets me isn’t the comparison, it’s the perfect.

It’s fascinating how this protest movement has turned the issue of Iraq from a matter of war or peace into one about democracy. Many of the hugest opposed majorities exist in nations backing a U.S. attack: the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Australia. Even in the U.S., sixty per cent, by a recent poll, want a chance for inspections to work. This predictably freaks out the punditti. Andrew Coyne in the National Post fumed over “the pacifist mobs who coursed through city streets on Saturday.” I take it he means: those representing the majority. Writing in the Globe on Tony Blair, who most Britons now view as “Bush’s poodle,” Marcus Gee said: “Few leaders in today’s world would dare to challenge public opinion so directly.”

Actually, I’d call it the norm, at least between elections. Scorning the views of those who elected you isn’t a sign of courage; it’s a sign of who you really feel beholden to. The great revelation for politicians, as the vote expanded in the modern era, was that you could get elected by the masses and still continue to serve the mighty, just by varying your pitch at campaign time. (And so we say goodbye to Jean Chrétien.) In this regard, Iraq is similar to globalization, the previous Great Debate that got sidetracked by September 11. It was supposed to be over trade, wealth, economics — in fact, it was about whose voices count in the matter of running the world.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.