Everyone Lost: Protest Art and the Iraq War

In the fall of 2002, when George W. Bush made plain his intent to launch a second Iraq war — on November 11, just after the midterm elections that Bush had used the specter of war to win — Dylan appeared at Madison Square Garden and again offered “Masters of War” as an answer record to real life… The song sounded like a curse dug out of the ground.

Greil Marcus, ‘Stories of a Bad Song’, Threepenny Review, Winter 2006

Anniversaries are generally pointless; they are nice round figures and nothing more, bearing little significance to the event other than those we have assigned. So it’s worth remembering that ten years is not an 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, 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. Those 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, teenaged – but the young people of Iraq were forced to grow up hurriedly. Meanwhile, the culture around us began to mutate in response to the war that had polluted it.

It was poetic that, for my peers and I, our adolescence º 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, but when faced with the horror of the Iraq War, that task became monumental.

I remember hearing whistles, drums and shouted slogans that grew more profane during protests. 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 used again. Some of this music was moving, some cringeworthy, and some catchy. We weren’t 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, cherry-picked what we wanted from those who had come before, and tried to emulate our anti-war predecessors as best we could.

Looking at the art the western world makes under such circumstances is a good way to gauge that creeping transformation of mass ignorance to cultural awareness. 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 decent songs were sung, insightful films were produced, or appropriate art was inspired? When did poetry ever stop a war?

Blind faith in your leaders, or in anything, will get you killed.

– Bruce Springsteen

There’s 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 the war in Vietnam and almost always find our era lacking in comparison. Some have noted that competing with the era of the Beatles is tough. Even now, 45 years after Chicago police broke skulls outside of the 1968 Democratic Convention, the United States is still fighting the “culture wars” that found 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, which 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 the war in Vietnam or even the myriad militarist bungles of the Reagan years, which acted as the Vietnam era’s hangover. Maybe that’s because the two wars are not equivalent: the war in Iraq polarised America, but the war in Vietnam traumatised it.

As it seemingly always does, it was in music that protest found its most prolific outlet. The bands and songwriters who chose to address the war in Iraq ranged from the predictable to the bizarrely uncharacteristic, which added to and reflected the endearingly schizophrenic quality of the antiwar movement in general.

Neil Young used the war and the protest movement it inspired as background for the epically ambitious Greendale (2003), his most interesting album since Sleeps with Angels. Bad Religion, the politically-charged California punk band for those too smart for Black Flag, mounted a near-return to form with ‘Let Them Eat War’. Green Day, who had largely slipped from the public eye, used a newfound antiwar radicalism to propel their comeback album, 2004’s American Idiot. The Dixie Chicks dared to voice an opinion, and the sky fell on their heads.

Steve Earle reminded us that this was a “Rich Man’s War”, while Tom Waits sang mournfully of soldiers dreaming of returning home in “The Day After Tomorrow”. Eminem summoned an imaginary revolution with “Mosh”, and Conor Oberst asked what happens “When the President Talks to God”. Tori Amos, Pink, the Offspring, Lamb of God, Muse, System of a Down, Bruce Springsteen, Nerina Pallot, Alabama 3, Dream Theater, and many more produced songs of protest. And unlike the ’60s model, there was little in the way of shared style or genre. This was not just a bunch of hippies, as told of in ’60s legends; it was a fractured, multifaceted culture stretching itself into the possibilities of the new millennium, but which was forced to turn its various hydra heads towards a common goal awkwardly.

The music scene and the arts, in general, could not hope to oppose the war with any kind of army of its own; instead, it had to make do with what it had. It was not a well-disciplined force – it was a mass mobilisation of minds, but those minds were not thinking in unity. They were a rag-tag mix that used whatever weapons were available. They cannot be blamed for that.

In stark contrast, cinema has been oddly timid in its portrayals of the war. However, Hollywood has always had a bad record in this area: the only film of note made during Vietnam that acknowledged the war was the turgid John Wayne fantasy The Green Berets.

For much of the film industry – Iron Man, the superhero franchise that dances around politics but never fully engages with them, being a prime example – the safe route was to focus on Afghanistan, seen by most as a less controversial conflict. In The Stunt Man (1980), Peter O’Toole’s best film, in which he plays a megalomaniacal director filming an anti-war epic set during the First World War, there is a scene in which his cynical screenwriter mocks him with the fact that the studio wouldn’t let him film his impassioned polemic until five years after Vietnam had ended, thus robbing it of relevancy. That truth seemed to hold just as true with Iraq.

The Stunt Man has a further ominous insight: After the film was completed, O’Toole explained to the protagonist the dangers of making art out of atrocity: “I knew a man who made an anti-war movie – a good one. And when it was shown in his hometown, army enlistment went up six-hundred percent.” Intentionally or not, the glories of art can too often be reflected onto its subject, even if what it portrays is a grubby, dishonest war of greed and idiocy.

Even The Hurt Locker (2008), probably the most critically acclaimed Iraq war movie yet produced in the West, scrupulously avoided engaging with the rights and wrongs of the conflict, something which set the pattern for director Kathryn Bigelow’s cowardly and uncritical approach in her recent propaganda exercise Zero Dark Thirty. Paul Greengrass’s Green Zone (2010) took a braver stance, being one of the few films to acknowledge and deal with the falsity of the war’s supposed justifications. Still, many others used the Middle East’s latest warzone as a convenient backdrop for a summer blockbuster (like 2011’s The A-Team) or smaller, more personal dramas (such as 2008’s American Son).

In comics, only Brian Wood’s DMZ, detailing life in the fictional demilitarised zone of New York during a second American civil war (spurred, in part, by the US government’s overseas military adventurism), grappled with, if not the actual subject of Iraq, then all the issues it stirred up: torture, insurgency, government lies and chaos. Despite its critical acclaim, DMZ has not yet received the credit it deserves as one of the decade’s bravest pieces of political fiction.

At its most ambitious, American television offered interesting failures like Generation Kill and Over There, which dealt with American military personnel stationed in Iraq but quickly descended into soap opera territory. Once the showbiz politico du jour, Aaron Sorkin seemed distinctly wary of engaging directly with the war and avoided doing so in any of his self-created, self-congratulatory television jeremiads. David E. Kelley, on the other hand, brought it up in Boston Legal so often that in one episode, before James Spader’s character Alan Shore launches into another courtroom tirade, he takes out a small crate and stands on it. When the judge asks what he’s doing, Shore responds: “Climbing on my soapbox, Judge. I do it once a week.”

Other than Jon Stewart – the perpetual exception – television entertainment stumbled into Iraq with as little foresight as America did, eventually admitting (after exhausting every other option) that since the war was now a daily reality for the United States, it would appear strange not to admit its presence in their programming. The argument is perfectly logical: it would have been ludicrous for film and television fiction to occur in an alternate world where the war did not exist (though a few tried for a while); it had to be shown. Showing it demanded engagement, and that is where most of the culture fell. Most took the path of least resistance and assimilated it into the fabric of pop culture with barely a second thought, and that mirrored the crime we were all guilty of: we accepted the reality of the war too easily.

There comes an hour when protest no longer suffices; after philosophy there must be action; the strong hand finishes what the idea has sketched.

– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

The art that comes from protest has high standards to live up to, and it does not pay to underestimate its potential effect: Les Misérables changed the entire French penal system. Wilfred Owen may not have stopped the First World War—or even survived it—but no one who read his poem, “Anthem for Doomed Youth,”, could bring themselves to call that war “just” ever again.

When we marched against Iraq, we wished to live in a world where a response, in any form – in a song with a message, a movie with a conscience, a book of fiction furnished with truth – might have some impact on the flow of history we found ourselves caught up in. But wishing does not make it so, and we bitterly discovered we did not live in such a world. “Create all the art you want,” said the world. “Be as angry as you want. Your leaders will continue to lie and kill. They will smile while doing so and tell us it was all for our benefit.” Stronger medicine was required; next time, more radical measures will be necessary.

In any retrospective of protest art, there will be a few cynical words to say about ineffectual celebrities and their well-meaning, pointless platitudes and entreaties that ultimately do not save a single life. I may have said some of those words myself once upon a time. No, I won’t call the movement against Iraq, or its artistic dimension, a complete failure. But we needed to do better. Art did all it could, but it could not stop the war. We failed. We lost. It was Iraq, the war that everyone lost.

If there was a clear difference between the Western world’s cultural reaction to Iraq and the artistic protests of generations past, then it was that the anti-Vietnam protests, Rock Against Racism, and similar uproars emerged from lively, open backgrounds of intellectual inquiry. In the early days of the 21st century, Western society had largely lost that contest – many musicians, filmmakers, and writers did not have the political background that existed prominently a quarter century ago.

The effect of war on art should be well understood. The iconoclasts of Dada were triggered into action by the understanding that if culture as we know it had produced the abomination of the First World War, then it had failed in every important respect and needed to be destroyed. A new art was necessary to forge a new age. The revolutionary creative instinct was admirable; the instinct to scorch the Earth, on the other hand, looked slightly less attractive after the advent of Nazism. Iraq similarly radicalised many but never imbued them with a sense of transformative potential. We lacked the hubris to believe we could change the world.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous claim that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” gets a lot of flack these days; nice idea, Percy, but the men who rule the world are not inclined to verse. This, I always felt, missed the point of Shelley’s defence: no, art and the artists who make it does not result in a cabal governing the world in secret according to aesthetics. Although it is a darkly delightful idea. Visions of Vladimir Nabokov guiding the destiny of nations from behind a discreet screen will haunt me in my dreams. But it is, and always will be, a form of loyal opposition that almost – but not quite – transcends ideology.

When the political class fails, the artistic class can usually be relied upon to illustrate how it has done so, to make it look foolish, weak, and venal by comparison. Some will complain that none of us can live up to the example of art. That doesn’t mean that we should stop trying.

Political consciousness is not a weekend obligation of the arts; it does not suddenly reactivate when it is called upon, and remain on standby in times of debatable “peace”. Today, in much of the Western world, the arts have been radicalised by the economic fight for survival they find themselves in. With luck, all those involved who bear witness will remember that if it does not remain vigilant and involved, the arts will not only become politically impotent but may cease to exist as a socially significant force of any kind at all.

Iraq was, hopefully, the last time for a long while that the Western world – or anywhere in the world, for that matter – will pussy-foot around artistic engagement with both its politics and its organized, legalized acts of mass murder. All art is political, though not all art is agitprop or its similarly unsubtle brethren. Art must always be conscious of politics, not just when it feels obliged. When that sense of awareness slackens, so does the discipline that comes with it, and when we find ourselves facing a new nightmare, we may find ourselves wondering why, once again, we didn’t do enough to try to stop it.