Peace Museums and Peacebuilding in Changing Culture, Part II

By Vladimir I. Ionesov

Visualization of Peace and War in Museum Practices: New Imperatives for Creativity

In contemporary cultural practices of exhibiting peace, the traditional understanding of memory visualization as a mirror fixation and representation of the past in images of war, violence and their victims is still widespread. However, today the transition to a new expansive – culturological – interpretation of heritage screening as a creative experience and a symbolic practice is increasingly evident. There is a need to address the cultural experience of memory visualization, which significantly push the boundaries of the historical legacy of war and peace in modern culture. Thereby, the task is to consider the experience of the past as a field of creativity and as new visual communication practices.

A considerable part of museums for peace owe their origins to events that are far from actually peacebuilding activities. At the heart of their expositions prevails the history of violence, the chronicle of combat victories and defeats, the evidence of war crimes and demonstration of victims of armed conflicts. The images and plots of the main museum show-cases are designed to show the depth of human disunity and endless social cataclysms in the history of society. Of course, despite the striking differences in the sectoral specifics and the thematic focus of various kinds of activities, all of them, in one way or another, are ultimately focused on the cultivation of the values of nonviolence, mercy, concord and peace.

However, the ideas of peace and humanism are expressed here more in contrast to the destructive consequences of wars and violence. In the discourse of this visual contradistinction peace itself is very little in it. Peace is shown here as the projection of the military paradigm, and is understood as the continuation or absence of war and deterrence of violence. The importance of this memorial peacekeeping practice or of the modern culture of opposition to war is beyond any doubt. It is important to the extent that the United Nations Peacekeeping Forcesare important for the cessation and containment of war, which in the interpretation of the Charter of this international organization is a specialized military contingent with the aim of preventing or eliminating the threat to peace and security through joint enforcement actions (military demonstration, military blockade, etc.).

Thus, museum peacebuilding practices often act as certain peacekeeping forces to relieve military tension and to tame violence. In this way, peace here is positioned rather in the form of a triumphant end of the war, a victorious event or a meaningful truce.

One of the most dangerous challenges to modern culture is the globalizing syndrome of value disorientation.  Modernity is increasingly being positioned as an era of substitution, mixing and destruction of values. Moreover, in this process of total mixing – the promotion of peace is often accompanied by the expansion of the culture of war. “Today’s great mixture, writes J. Baudriard, is a mixture of evil and misfortune! The unification of evil with misfortune and, consequently, good with happiness… The ideology of happiness, which, in fact, is absolutely unhappy!” (1).

In fact, the images and plots of war significantly prevail in modern culture over peacekeeping pictures. Thus, the number of Internet queries with the word war exceeds almost 2.5 times the number of queries with the word peace. There are far more museums of war and victims of violence than museums dedicated to the culture of peace. In addition, even peace museums traditionally screen mainly scenes of war and violence in their exhibits.

With regard to the museumification of the culture of peace, it is necessary to distinguish two important divergent attitudes. 1) Collecting of examples of peacemaking allows the peace museum to retain positive experience of the past (heritage), whereas 2) the deployment of heritage in the direction of modernity (to the public/ audience) makes it possible to generate new values, to solve the pressing problems of contemporary culture. The dual focus of the museum activity – in the memorial past and the actual present, makes the peace museum not only a platform for versatile cooperation, but also an extremely important and effective tool for social transformations (2).

After all, when everything changes, that which does not change grows in value. When everything is split and fragmented, grows in value that which connects i.e. the aspiration to get closer and cooperate. In the museum design of peacemaking activities, it is necessary to show two sets of values which perform the functions of retention (values ​​of constant value/ significance) and promotion of culture (values of innovative nature/ character).

The values ​​of constant value include: memorial artifacts, collections, archives, traditions of representation of exhibits, knowledge and experience, universal human values, ceremonial-symbolic actions, social stereotypes of behavior, customary functional-target settings and so forth. The values ​​of innovative nature (character) include creativity of action, form-building visual-communicative experimentation, subject-attributive openness and mobility, new dialogue with artifacts, broad social involvement, principles of participation and co-participation, new information and technological methods of object screening, art-design solutions, language and event design, etc.

In the current situation of splitting cultural values, it seems important to compensate for the loss of cultural property by “increasing the value of what did not have it before” (3). This process of value regeneration allows to talk about two vectors of cultural valuation of peacemaking artifacts. 1) Peace museum (artifacts of heritage) has been incorporated, attached to everyday life (“from the value to ordinary experience”) and 2) samples of everyday culture are attached to the peace museum, thus acquiring the status of a cultural value.

Looking at modern peace museums, one cannot but agree with J. Baudrillard that “our culture is a culture of despondency and suffering”, and at that “happiness and unhappiness, depression and ecstasy are connected …exclusively with objects” (4). As the French philosopher shows, the border-line that has divided good and evil and that has divided objects is the same.

Meanwhile, the cessation of war and the retention of peace is only one side of the current peacekeeping practice. However, there is another, probably more significant one, defined as the culture of peace itself, written and interpreted in the UN documents as a strategy for change. The culture of peace is, above all, an experience of creative transformation of social reality on the principles of free humanistic creativity. Peace is creative and diverse, and thanks to its creative resources, a new cultural landscape of the society is being constituted, the boundaries of human freedom and communication are expanding, social responsiveness and civic engagement is growing seeking a solution for the most urgent challenges of the present (5).

If the museum memorial practices of peacebuilding liberate culture from war, the museum strategies of the culture of peace provide freedom for peacebuilding, thereby transforming peace into an active catalyst for social change. Liberation from war and freedom for peace are two opposing though interrelated, processes. In the first case, we are talking essentially about archiving of violence, its commemorative taming or symbolic neutralization with the aim of preventing the repetition of war. In the second case, the process of generating and constructing a new culture of peace is launched on the way to the maximally possible humanistic transformations.

In the practice of museum design of a culture of peacemaking, it is necessary to take into account possible provocative syndromes of visual adaptation of artifacts. By themselves, these artifacts give little food for thought even if labels and comments are attached to them. To see in the museum brutal scenes of violence does not mean at all to be imbued with the idea of the need for positive actions. Contemplation of human suffering requires understanding and refraction of the visual experience into actual socially significant practice. As it is precisely noted S. Sontag: “Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers” (6).

References

  1. Baudrillard, Jean (2006) Paroli. Ot Fragmenta k Tselomu Passwords. From the Fragment to the Whole (In Russian). Yekaterinburg: Faktoriya. – P. 101
  2. Ionesov, Vladimir I. (2018) “Can Peacemaking be a Peace Maker?” in Peace Review. A Journal of Social Justice. 30:4, 527-536
  3. Groys, Boris (2015) O Novom. Opyt Ekonomiki Kultury / About the New. The Experience of Cultural Economics (In Russian). – Мoscow: Ad Marginem Press (Garage Pro). – P. 134
  4. Baudrillard, Jean (2006) Paroli. Ot Fragmenta k Tselomu Passwords. From the Fragment to the Whole (In Russian). Yekaterinburg: Faktoriya. – P. 130-134
  5. Apsel, Joyce, eds. (2012) Museums for Peace: Transforming Cultures. Hague (The Netherlands): INMP. – 270 p.
  6. Sontag, Susan. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. – New York: The Wylie Agency. The Estate of Susan Sontag. – P.91

Vladimir I. Ionesov is professor, chair of department of theory and history of culture at Samara State Institute of Culture and Director, International School for Advanced Research in Cultural Studies. He is founder and chairperson of Samara International Society for Cultural Studies. He has 30 years of experience in culture of peacebuilding in the international programs of the Samarkand International Museum of Peace and Solidarity (Uzbekistan) and of the Samara International Society for Cultural Studies (Russia). Author of over 350 scientific works, including five monographs and over 30 edited books. Some of his articles were published in Current Anthropology, Peace Review, Scientific Culture and Ristumeikan Journal of Kyoto Museum for World Peace on the topics of ritual and symbolic practices in changing culture. His current interests: anthropology of war and peace, culture in transition, social innovations in cultural process, visualization of memory, creative museum practices. 

Peace Museums and Peacebuilding in Changing Culture, Part I

By Vladimir I. Ionesov

Reevaluating the Peace and War in Museum Practices

One Samarkand parable says that War and Peace once met on the country road. War immediately began to praise itself and to persuade Peace that it is the most important thing for people, because it is just war that people dedicate memorials, erect monuments, build arches to, name in its honor museums, arrange holidays, establish awards… Peace, after having calmly listened to War, quietly uttered: “Yes, that’s right, but do not forget that people do all this just to eventually meet me”.

Indeed, humanity owes a great debt to Peace. And although the meeting with Peace is a cherished dream of people, we notice its value at times only when we begin to lose it. And that’s why peace is always a test. And although not every person is destined to go through it with dignity, Peace gives everyone a chance for the rescue.

The path of war is wide and crowded, the way of peace is narrow and very individual. War is faceless and devastating peace is personified and life-giving. War is loud and intrusive. If you don’t notice it, it will remind you. Peace is laconic and imperturbable, it is always nearby, but it’s hard to catch its eye. However, it looks at you until you see it and it is Culture that makes it visible. It is thanks to culture that Peace finds its face, its vital force and social significance.

This reminds me of another assumed common story when, during World War II, the United Kingdom’s budget was brought to Winston Churchill for his consideration. Having flipped through the document, he asked:

“And where are the costs of culture?”

“But the war is going on! What culture?”

“If there is no culture, then what are we fighting for?” asked an incredulous Churchill.

I intentionally allowed myself to make a digression from the given topic in order to mark the main ideas in the understanding of war, peace and culture that are related to the museum practices, which will be discussed further.

Museum practices demonstrate that in modern museum design there is a post-conceptual understanding of peacemaking or a paradigmatic shift towards culturalization (i.e. filling with culture) of the concept of peace. The post-conceptual intellectual turn has freed the artifacts of peacemaking from their habitual specific existence (Peter Osborne) and disavowed their sacral symbolic confinement, extending the subject-aesthetic and socio-communicative properties of things to the entire system of the life activity of culture. If earlier the museum exhibit was perceived only as a static sacral elite artifact of the exhibition presentation, then today it is increasingly positioned as a communicator, a recorder of important messages and a participant of the actual conversation, co-creation and transformation. Exhibits of the museum in this case are storytellers, initiators and designers that motivate viewers prompting the audience to refract their stories into their own experience of social creativity.

The challenge is posed to re-qualify the concepts of war and peace in the context of cultural knowledge. Modern researchers, in general, emphasize the need to progress to new communicative strategies in designing the peacemaking process, to the actual relevant technologies of visual modeling and creative experience of representation of peace as a cultural value and museum exposition. These issues are considered in the works of Ikuro Anzai, Joyce Apsel, Clive Barrett, Peter van den Dungen, Henry Jenkins, Ana Peraica, Lisa Schirch, Nina Simon, Susan Sontag, Kazuyo Yamane. The authors point out the significance of expanding the art-object and eventful screening of the peace, in which things and people will act as participants of a big conversation about the pressing needs of the present.

First of all, the peace museum should be viewed as a cultural reality, in the space of which the artifacts of peacemaking are gathered into a certain memorial-specified visual composition. This composition is being built into a certain text, a collection of stories, events, portraits, and it serves as a way of public demonstration and relaying of socially significant messages. Peace museum is a specific social institution for the cultivation of knowledge, experience and values ​​of peacemaking, as well as instructive examples of overcoming historical and modern wars and conflicts.

The most sensitive to the ongoing changes are those museums that are called upon to articulate and relay through their exhibits socially significant topics, including war and peace, violence and peacemaking, crisis and viability etc.

Publications and projects of the main strategist and coordinator of the museum activities in the field of peacemaking – the International Network of Museums for Peace/ INMP (see https://www.inmp.net/) appear to be very helpful in the study of the actual practices of museumification of peace (1). The activity of INMP today unites many museums and organizations from around the world cultivating ideas of peace and non-violence. The Network accumulates both theoretical and practice-oriented research concerning the problems of peace, regularly holds international forums and thematic discussions on the development of museum peacemaking movements. The main thing is that the International Network of Museums for Peace has managed to form its culture – its recognizable image, its philosophy of the world order, its traditions, social and artistic practices, educational projects, publications, symbolic attributes and even its language of professional creativity (2). The creation of its culture is in itself a great asset, because the organization has acquired the necessary effective tools for the implementation of its peacemaking mission and the promotion of socially significant initiatives.

The modern peace museum strives to be a communicative laboratory and institution for preservation and cultivation of successful visual practices in exhibiting the instructive experience of the past (3).

Meanwhile there are too many themes of war and violence in the peace museums and too little of beauty, goodness and peacemaking. In this projection, it is apparent that peace strongly resembles what it opposes, turning it into a museum of war, conflict and violence. Therefore, it is necessary to distinguish: 1) museums for peace/containment of war and 2) museums for peacemaking/culture of peace. No matter how different are their histories, collections and functions, they have one current and urgent task: to let into museums as much peace as possible and through its culture construct within the museum an atmosphere of real peacemaking, creativity and communication.

Each peace museum is created in a specific society and functions in a specific cultural environment in accordance with the prevailing mental attitudes, stereotypes of perception and behavior. For this reason, the peace museum cannot be understood beyond the cultural and national contexts. Without taking these contexts into account, one cannot achieve the effective operation of a modern peace museum.

Thus, the modern museum is undergoing radical transformations in the ways and practices of visualization of artifacts. The transition to a new communicative space is being traced (seen/ targeted), in which museum exhibit artifacts will perform not only memorial and educational functions, but also be included in a more complex process of object-symbolic exchange and art design. In this process, the status of a thing changes and the imperative of creativity of action comes to the fore.

References

  1. Anzai, Ikuro. (2019) “Towards the Development of Cooperation between Peace Museums in Asia” in Ritsumeikan Journal of Kyoto Museum for World Peace 20:3-12,171; Apsel, Joyce (2016) Introducing Peace Museums. London and New York: Routledge. – 236 p.; Barrett, Clive and Apsel, Joyce, eds. (2012) Museums for Peace: Transforming Cultures. Hague (The Netherlands): INMP. – 270 p.; Engelkamp, Stephan, Roepstorff Kristina. & Spencer Alexander (2020) “Visualizing Peace – The State of the Art” in Peace and Change. A Journal of Peace Research 45:5-27.
  2. Sikander, eds. (2008) Museums for Peace: Past, Present and Future / The Organizing Committee of the Sixth International Conference of Museums for Peace. Kyoto (Japan):  INMP, Kyoto Museum for World Peace, Ritsumeikan University; Ionesov, Vladimir I. (2019) “Ideas on Peacebuilding in Asia: How to Create Peace in the Region (Reflecting the Experience of the Samarkand International Museum of Peace and Solidarity and Its Partners)” in Ristumeikan Journal of Kyoto Museum for World Peace / Kyoto University, Japan. 20:48-63; van den Dungen, Peter and Yamane, Kazuyo, eds. (2015) Special Issue: Peace Education Through Peace Museums. Journal of Peace Education (December): 213-284; van den Dungen, Peter (2016) “Abolishing Nuclear Weapons through Anti-Atomic Bomb Museums” in Peace Review, 28:3, 326-333.
  3. Ionesov, Vladimir I. (2018) “Can Peacemaking be a Peace Maker?” in Peace Review. A Journal of Social Justice. 30:4, 527-536

Vladimir I. Ionesov is professor, chair of department of theory and history of culture at Samara State Institute of Culture and Director, International School for Advanced Research in Cultural Studies. He is founder and chairperson of Samara International Society for Cultural Studies. He has 30 years of experience in culture of peacebuilding in the international programs of the Samarkand International Museum of Peace and Solidarity (Uzbekistan) and of the Samara International Society for Cultural Studies (Russia). Author of over 350 scientific works, including five monographs and over 30 edited books. Some of his articles were published in Current Anthropology, Peace Review, Scientific Culture and Ristumeikan Journal of Kyoto Museum for World Peace on the topics of ritual and symbolic practices in changing culture. His current interests: anthropology of war and peace, culture in transition, social innovations in cultural process, visualization of memory, creative museum practices. 

“We Are Many”: A Documentary Looks Back at the February 15, 2003 Antiwar Protests –and Looks Forward, Too

By Robert Shaffer

“We Are Many” is a 105-minute documentary about the massive global, coordinated protests on February 15, 2003 against the impending war in Iraq.  Perhaps 30 million people marched and rallied in almost 800 cities, on every continent, in what one activist called “the largest mobilization of people in the history of humanity, bar none.”  This documentary, directed and produced by veteran BBC film-maker Amir Amirani, first aired at a British film festival in 2014, but its premiere in the United States and much of the world came in a video livestream on September 21, 2020, during the annual celebration of the United Nations-supported “International Day of Peace.”

            The documentary, like the February 15 demonstrations themselves, is an impressive achievement, featuring contemporary footage from the protests along with later interviews with activists from Britain, the United States, Spain, Egypt, and elsewhere.  Amirani also includes revealing, on-the-record interviews with some British and American government officials, as well as with Hans Blix, who in 2003 headed the U.N.’s Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission, and whose visits to Iraq at the time had found no evidence of current or prospective possession or production of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.  “We Are Many” deserves wide distribution both as a record of global activism in the streets and of the perceptive analysis by activists even before the war began – not just after the fact – as to its illegitimacy.

            “We Are Many,” despite its laudable international scope, is unmistakably a British project, with more attention to the 1-1/2 million-strong demonstration in London on February 15 than to the not-quite-as-large one in New York City, and with more intricate analysis of Blair’s machinations in the British parliament than to Bush’s manipulation of the U.S. Congress in the drive to war.  That perspective, while challenging to American viewers who may have difficulty discerning, say, the significance of Labour Party leaders like Tony Benn or Lord Falconer, also works in the film’s favor for Americans, as it reminds us of the significance of Blair’s partnership with Bush and as it decenters the antiwar movement from American shores.

            Even the film’s title, seemingly universal in its encapsulation of the massiveness of the protests, has a particularly British origin.  It comes from the last stanza of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s influential 1819 poem, “The Mask of Anarchy,” written in response to the Peterloo Massacre, the British government’s savage attack on an enormous, non-violent rally in Manchester for political rights and economic justice.  “Rise like lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number,” Shelley wrote, concluding passionately but perhaps over-optimistically: “Ye are many – they are few.”  And therein lies the problem posed by the February 15 protests and by the film: the protesters, while many, were not, in the end, “unvanquishable.”  As Amirani himself stated in an interview with The Guardian in 2015, at first glance the protests appeared to be a “heroic failure.”  Protest organizers Leslie Cagan, Phyllis Bennis, and others describe on camera their optimism in the days following February 15: surely the war would be stopped.  Bennis quotes New York Times reporter Patrick Tyler – who Amirani then interviews as well – that “global public opinion,” expressed in these marches, had become a “second superpower,” rivaling the United States government.  But this euphoria turned to introspection and even despair a month later when Bush and Blair, indeed, began the bombardment of Baghdad.  One antiwar leader asks, “Why did we fail?”  Others lament that the movement “didn’t finish the job.”  Amirani concludes, as we will see, that the protests did have a long-term salutary impact, after all, although in an unexpected manner.

            For younger viewers, and even for those who may have forgotten just how transparently false the Anglo-American case for war against Iraq was, the early scenes of the film – on the tragedy of 9/11, Bush’s January 2002 “Axis of Evil” speech, and the British government’s fact-free announcement that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction could reach that nation within 45 minutes – will be especially helpful.  Interview segments with British spy novelist John Le Carré, U.S. State Department former second-in-command Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, and Blix himself take Amirani’s investigation beyond the familiar ranks of the antiwar movement; these men referred to the war as based on “lies,” “a hoax,” and unproven accusations.  Le Carré, who marched in London on February 15, calls the war “the crime of the century,” and Wilkerson regrets that he did not resign in the wake of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s February 5, 2003 speech to the U.N. based on phony “intelligence.”  Wilkerson penitently states as well that Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld should be tried for war crimes, even if that meant that he – Wilkerson – had to face such charges, too.  Philippe Sands, British authority on international law, exposes Blair’s mendacity, presenting in a few minutes here some of what he expounded upon in his scathing 2005 book, Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules.

            Equally effective are interviews with antiwar activists who describe how and why they organized the February 2003 protests.  Many will be familiar to American viewers: Vietnam veterans Ron Kovic and David Cortright; the late Tom Hayden; Jesse Jackson; British film-maker Ken Loach; musician Brian Eno (who provided music as well as interviews for “We Are Many”); movement strategist Bill Fletcher; actor Danny Glover; Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin; left-wing Labour Party M.P Jeremy Corbyn; and many others.  British organizers describe how their Stop the War Coalition began meeting as early as September 21, 2001, bringing their call for global demonstrations to the European Social Forum in November 2002 and then to the World Social Forum two months later.  Longtime U.S. antiwar activist Leslie Cagan, later a leader of United for Peace and Justice, recounts how she and others in New York City picked up the call, timed to coincide with the U.N. Security Council debate on the issue. 

            Many viewers will likely respond even more favorably to the unexpected activists who present their stories in recurring interviews.  Tim Goodrich describes his pride in being in the U.S. Air Force to fight back against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, only to become suspicious of U.S. military plans when he saw, in 2002, troops and supplies moved in to threaten Iraq – a nation which had no connection to 9/11.  Goodrich courageously participated in the February 15 march while still on active-duty.  He went on to co-found Iraq Veterans Against the War; later film footage shows IVAW members throwing back their service medals, in a scene reminiscent of protests by antiwar Vietnam veterans in 1971 and 1972.  Colleen Kelly, whose brother died at the World Trade Center on 9/11, explains how she came to oppose war in Iraq as a leader of September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows.  Andy Young, one of the seventy or so scientists and mechanics who brought the February 15 protest to the snow and ice of Antarctica, discusses his pride in doing so despite losing his job as a consequence.  (Amirani, not surprisingly, does not miss the chance to include footage of penguins here.)  Also in the southern hemisphere, British researcher Will Saunders, with an Australian colleague, not only participated in the protest but responded the following month to the outbreak of war by painting “NO WAR” in huge letters at the top of the iconic Sydney Opera House, facing not only arrest but deportation as a result.  (Capsule biographies of those interviewed, as well as some other background materials, appear on the film’s useful website, www.wearemany.com.)

            And then there are the Egyptians, who provide, for Amirani, the segue from “heroic failure” to success of sorts.  Veteran activists in Cairo express their embarrassment that there was only a tiny protest in their city on February 15, and that the Arab world was largely silent that day.  Taking inspiration from the global demonstrations, however, tens of thousands faced down the military police in Tahrir Square in mid-March, on the first day of war.  This demonstration, they assert, served to germinate the Egyptian revolution that would bring down Hosni Mubarak’s U.S.-backed, authoritarian government in 2011. 

            Amirani measures also as a mark of February 15’s success the defeats in Britain and the U.S. of plans in 2013 to intervene militarily in Syria in retaliation against the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons.  One British official states that Members of Parliament voted against going to war with Syria because they – and their constituents – were “scarred by the Iraq invasion.”  Blix adds that the disastrous consequences of the Iraq War would lead many nations to be more wary about going to war in the future.  During a livestreamed discussion following the film’s September 21, 2020 broadcast, Phyllis Bennis stated that an “Iraq War syndrome” – an updating of the “Vietnam syndrome” for our new historical circumstances – prevented Bush and Trump from going to war against Iran.  The slightly updated 2020 version of “We Are Many” interweaves in its closing credits footage from even more recent American mass demonstrations: the 2017 women’s marches, the 2018 “March for Our Lives” for gun control, the climate action rallies of 2019, and 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.  The concluding lines of the documentary return to its heroic mood, with longtime radical M.P. Tony Benn declaring that “anger and optimism coming together” – as they did on February 15 – “are a very powerful force.” 

            Even at 105 minutes there are omissions in “We Are Many.”  While there is footage of protests from many cities, the interviews with organizers and participants are limited primarily to those in English-speaking nations, along with Egypt, and a few snippets from Spain, France, and Poland.  A film chronicling what it bills as the largest globally-coordinated protest to date deserves a more global presentation and analysis, with voices, say, from Japan, South Korea, India, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and wider sections of Europe. 

            Moreover, the documentary’s argument that the February 15 protest was more than a “heroic failure” is not wholly convincing – that “anger and optimism coming together” was evidently not as “powerful” as it needed to be in 2003.  A million and a half people massing in London failed to affect the British parliamentary vote on the war, and even the failure of Bush and Blair to win over the Security Council – which, in essence, aligned with the protesters outside in the New York City streets – did not deter the rump “coalition” from launching its misguided but long-planned war.  Moreover, the British orientation of the film, and perhaps the British origin of the protests, overlooks the key American date in the move to war: the October 2002 Congressional vote authorizing military force against Iraq.  The Democratic Party split on that vote, as did the Blair-dominated Labour Party, allowing the war to move forward. 

            Those splits, by the way, may have contributed to significant later shifts in party direction, unmentioned in the film.  That is, Jeremy Corbyn, appearing numerous times here as a leader of Labour’s antiwar wing, became the party leader in 2015.  Barack Obama, who did not speak at a February 15 rally but came to the attention of antiwar activists through his earlier, October 2002 speech in Chicago against Congressional authorization of war, became not only the Democratic leader but President of the U.S.  Despite their flaws, whether in opposition (Corbyn) or power (Obama), their tenure as leaders might be considered a legacy of the activism of February 15.  (To be fair, Amirani had completed the film as a whole before Corbyn’s accession to leadership.)

            While the Egyptian activists interviewed in “We Are Many” make a convincing case that their March 2003 demonstrations helped set the stage for the 2011 revolution, the long-term results of that revolution – Egypt is once again under tight authoritarian and military control – do not bear out the optimism of Shelley’s poem. 

            While I agree with the film’s judgment that the rejection of war against Syria by Britain and the U.S.  in 2013 were positive achievements, and at least partly due to echoes of February 15, there is no way to disentangle the impact of those antiwar demonstrations ten years earlier from the revulsion against the prospect of another war in the Middle East based on the debacle – for Iraqis, Americans, British, and the Middle East region – of the Iraq War itself.  Was the “Iraq War syndrome” which Bennis enunciated a testament to the antiwar movement, or was it simply a reaction against a failed war, as Blix’s comment suggests?  One might add – as the film did not – that the evidence of Assad’s use of chemical weapons in 2013 was far stronger than the Anglo-American case for war against Iraq in 2003, where the alleged weapons of mass destruction did not exist, and antiwar forces – along with U.N. weapons inspectors – had already debunked the rationale for war.  One need not agree with Obama’s efforts to involve the U.S. in yet another Mideast war to acknowledge that he at least had a plausible case, as George W. Bush did not.

            The global nature of some of the recent marches and movements included in the closing credits of “We Are Many” surely owes something to that 2003 template.  However, their flowering may demonstrate more the continuing struggle against injustice than the causal influence of a particular precedent, even if some of the same people who organized and marched in 2003 played such roles again later.

            Regardless of its shortcomings, “We Are Many” is an inspirational film and an important historical document.  It is, perhaps, long for classroom use, but, because of the pandemic, it might become available for streaming, and thus can be assigned to students outside of class.  It presents a story that deserves to be remembered and better understood by those who participated in and lived through these events, and to be known by a new generation of students and activists.  Earlier documentaries on the Iraq War, such as “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004), “Why We Fight” (2005), and “No End in Sight” (2007), were largely devoted to exposing the flimsy case for war and its harsh consequences for Iraqis, the value of which was and is undeniable.  “We Are Many” accomplishes these goals, too, but in the clear framework of highlighting the work of activists who brought into being, at least for a time, a “global public opinion” in opposition to an unjust, even criminal, war.

Robert Shaffer is Emeritus Professor of History at Shippensburg University.