Moving On: The Anti-War Movement Ten Years Later

By Andrew Yeo

Millions of citizens around the world mobilized on February 13, 2003 to protest the impending U.S.-led invasion in Iraq.  It was arguably the largest anti-war protest in history.[i]   One month later, the United States and the coalition of the willing rolled into Iraq, initiating a war which would drag on for eight years.  As we now know, the Iraq invasion did not sustain the global anti-war effort as perhaps imagined by some of the earlier organizers.

Looking back, it is easy to dismiss the protests and broader anti-war movement (and by extension the peace movement[ii]) as ineffective and naïve.  It is also tempting for social movement scholars to respond by qualifying what defines movement “success,” and argue that anti-war mobilization, while failing to end (much less stop) the war, generated other intended or unintended social and political consequences. This includes raising public consciousness about the human effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; drawing support for center-left candidates or opposition parties; or building new transnational ties and networks.

Rather than assess movement success or shortcomings, my essay reflects on the trajectory of the anti-war movement in the aftermath of the 2003 protests.  Although mass protests never led to a sustained social movement, it did help spawn several new campaigns, ultimately expanding the scope of the larger global peace and justice network.  Activists committed themselves to a range of other issues: exposing light on the treatment of prisoners in U.S. detention centers, demanding the return of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, opposing NATO, and calling for the abolition of U.S. bases abroad. These were just a few of the specific campaigns and actions which (re)emerged as the initial wave of anti-war protests dwindled.  In other words, the anti-war movement helped build new movements or merged with existing anti-war related campaigns through processes of diffusion and movement spillover.[iii]

To illustrate this point, I briefly highlight the global No Bases movement since it is the campaign I am most familiar with.[iv]   The No Bases movement – the transnational campaign to abolish foreign (but primarily U.S.) overseas military bases – has its roots in the peace and anti-nuclear movements. A small network of anti-base activists had been in existence for over a decade, but prior to 2003, the notion of building an international anti-base movement remained remote. The Iraq War and anti-war mobilization provided an important political opportunity for anti-base activists. In fact, efforts to organize a wider anti-base network can be traced to two anti-war conferences held only months after the Iraq invasion: the Hemispheric Encounter against Militarization, held in Chiapas, Mexico from May 6-9, 2003 and the Jakarta Peace Consensus, on May 19-21.[v]  Here, anti-base activists participating in the global anti-war movement acted as movement brokers, underscoring the link between military bases and war. At the Jakarta conference, activists proposed building an international campaign against U.S. military bases as a priority action of the global anti-war and justice movements.[vi]

The onset of the Iraq War injected life into an existing small anti-base network. More specifically, anti-war demonstrations contributed to the horizontal spillover process by enabling anti-base activists to utilize anti-war frames to draw in activists previously unaware and outside of the anti-base movement. By 2007, the No Bases network had organized its own international conference in Quito, Ecuador. The anti-base movement opened another avenue for peace and anti-war activists to continue their struggle against war, militarism, imperialism, and injustice.

In addition to anti-base protests, the anti-war movement continued to live vicariously through a series of smaller, more issue-specific campaigns. Some supporters of the global anti-war movement returned to their domestic roots, demanding their national government to bring home troops stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan. For instance, Philippine activists organized mass demonstrations in 2004 calling for the return of Philippine troops in Iraq to save a Filipino overseas worker held hostage by Iraqi insurgents. South Koreans mobilized in 2004 to oppose the deployment of an additional 2,200 South Korean soldiers in Iraq and the renewal of the Iraq mission in 2005. Other anti-war activists directed their energies to new or developing campaigns such as the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011.  For example, a group of anti-war protestors participating in Occupy DC stormed the entrance of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum to protest the Pentagon’s use of drones in overseas wars.[vii]   Most recently, peace and anti-war activists organized the NATO counter-summit in Chicago. The ineffectiveness of anti-war movements in stopping global wars did not necessarily spell the death of the anti-war movement. Instead, the movement became manifest in several other campaigns, many with the direct or at least implicit goal of ending war and global violence.

[i] Stefaan Walgrave and Dieter Rucht, The World Says No to War: Demonstrations against the War on Iraq (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 1.

[ii] For sake of brevity, in this essay, “anti-war movement” also includes the broader peace movement. Although the common goal of anti-war movements is to stop war, the movement itself is heterogeneous; it contains multiple alliances and coalitions, and like many other social movements, may fracture and fragment across campaigns and over time. See Kevin Gillan, Jenny Pickerill, and Frank Webster. Anti-War Activism: New Media and Protest in the Information Age (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), Ch. 4.

[iii] One might also argue that without a clear target the anti-war movement merely splintered after the initial Iraq invasion.

[iv] Andrew Yeo, “Not in Anyone’s Backyard: The Emergence and Identity of a Transnational Anti-Base Network.” International Studies Quarterly 53, no. 3 (2009): 571-94.

[v] Yeo, “Not in Anyone’s Backyard,” 581.

[vi] Bal Pinguel, Herbert Docena, and Wilbert van der Zeidjen. “Report on the Strategy Meetings of the International Network against Foreign Military Bases.” Porto Alegre, 2005, 18.

[vii] The Occupy DC movement had two different factions. One group occupied MacPherson Square. Another group, launched by anti-war activists occupied Freedom Plaza. See Emma Brown and Del Quentin Wilber, “Air and Space Museum closes after guards clash with protesters,” Washington Post. October 8, 2011. <>

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, The Iraq War Protests: 10 Years Later

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