“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.

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