Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Why we didn't stop the war


Iraq War protestOn the weekend of 14–16 February 2003 more than half a million Australians participated in protest marches around the country against Australia's involvement in the looming Iraq War. This, the largest coordinated protest action in the nation's history, was the result of months of organisation and campaigning by coalitions of anti-war organisations and a reawakening of the once-influential peace movement.

One poll at the time found that 90 per cent of Australians opposed the war without UN authorisation.

For a brief moment, it appeared as if the peace movement might in fact keep Australia out of the war. However, Prime Minister John Howard resisted the pressure and on 20 March Australia formally invaded Iraq as part of the 'Coalition of the Willing' with the United States of America and the United Kingdom. What went wrong?

The movement benefitted from and contributed to a massive global uprising, the lack of UN authorisation, and hesitant but real opposition from the Opposition. But the timing of the campaign, during the middle of the electoral cycle when governments are least vulnerable to public pressure, reduced its chances of success.

The movement also suffered from a lack of social infrastructure: for all intents and purposes there were no 'peace movement staff' in the country before 2003, and even at the height of the campaign the union movement allocated only one person to work on it full-time. Researchers have demonstrated that coalitions need to mobilise and apply significant human resources in order to build enough power to win.

And while the wide and loose nature of the coalition helped mobilise large numbers of Australians, it constrained discussion and implementation of more disruptive tactics. Despite the unpopularity of the war, there were no concerted attempts at large scale noncooperation or intervention, such as strikes or acts of civil disobedience.

Before the war began, there were only two cases of nonviolent intervention across the whole country — the famous scrawling of 'No War' on the Opera House by two individuals, and a Greenpeace action to place the Prime Minister under symbolic 'house arrest' in the Lodge.

Some union leaders in WA did call for strikes to block the shipment of supplies, but were quickly silenced. All other tactics could be categorised as 'public persuasion' attempts, such as street marches and lobbying of MPs.

It could be argued that movement leaders were constrained in their choice of tactics by anti-terrorism laws and the culture of hostility to radical politics in the wake of the September 11 and Bali attacks. But nonviolent conflict researchers have identified that the more 'disruptive' tactics such as widespread actions of non-cooperation or intervention are crucial to success, even in democratic contexts.

Crucially, there were no large scale tactics anywhere in the country between the February uprising and the start of the war. The movement failed to build on its success by continuing to apply pressure on the Government.

It appears that the unspoken strategy of the movement relied on mobilising large numbers to express their opposition to the war, with a consequent effect on opinion polls concerning the war, which the 'democratic' government could not ignore and would therefore back down. The assumption was that if enough people opposed the war, the government would not risk going to war. This assumption proved false.

I say 'appears' because the most obvious problem for the anti-war movement is that neither of the two main coalitions actually developed a clear and coherent strategy for stopping the war. As such, tactics seem to have been chosen on the basis of familiarity and individual group preference rather than as part of a coordinated plan. That, ultimately, was the movement's greatest mistake.

The movement did succeed in many ways: it created an environment in which 90 per cent of people polled opposed the war, pressured the Labor Party to oppose the war, almost certainly restricted the scale of Australia's involvement, and indirectly but significantly contributed to all but three countries refusing to participate in the invasion and thus to the lack of authorisation for war at the United Nations.

Perhaps most importantly it led to widespread agreement that the war was unjust. Iraq was the first war in history to be declared unjust by the people and by almost all Christian leaders in the West before it had started.

We will never know if mass disruption in the form of strikes and civil disobedience would have forced the government to bow to public pressure. But we do know from decades of research into protest movements that two marches in each capital city in a four month period was bound to fail.

The failure to build on the success of the huge marches across the country on the weekend of February 14–16, due to internal friction in the very large coalitions, by lack of human and financial resources, and by a lack of effective strategic planning, meant an incredible opportunity was lost. As one anti-war organiser in the USA said, 'How can we think we are actually going to overtake a mindset of war by just waving some signs around?'

With thanks to Brian Martin and Ben Spies-Butcher.

Justin Whelan headshotJustin Whelan has been researching and teaching about nonviolent social movements for the past eight years. His Masters thesis examined the anti-war movement in Australia in the lead up to the Iraq War. 

Topic tags: Justin Whelan, Iraq war, anniversary, John Howard



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thanks for this reminder and analysis. Like many who attended the marches, I've often wondered what else we should have done. These days it's hard to recall that there was a time when opinion polls _didn't_ dictate the policies of the government of the day. Is this a case of "we may not have liked his policies, but at least Howard did what he believed was right"? And does it suggest that the strategies of 2003 might be more effective in today's poll-driven political climate?

Shawn | 19 March 2013  

Thanks for your thoughts on this issue.
you raise some really interesting questions here for Christians. Most of the leaders of the Christian communities spoke out against the war initially and then went quiet. Were they threatened by the Government of the day with a withdrawal of funding or priviliges? Were the Christian leaders half-hearted in speaking out in the first place. Were they bullied into silence by the Government. It would be to the advantage of all Australians if the media and interested writers looked into these issues as they could affect future decisions about voicing opposition to morally questionable engagement of Australia's defence forces.
Where were the voices of Australian women aired in this so called "war of the willing"? The use of the Hebrew Sciptures" by George Bush and other prominent Catholic voices in the USA and English media were certainly reported widely in the press to the exclusion of opposing voices. Why was this?

Carmel Sheehan | 19 March 2013  

Unless there is an attack on Australia or a domestic insurrection the prime minister should not have the authority to put the Australian military into action without parliamentary authorisation and/or a referendum. I marched but expected the march would be ignored.

M D Fisher | 19 March 2013  

This is a very useful analysis of what the peace movement might have done better. That is not to undervalue the efforts of everyone at the time. However, coming up with protests that truly capture the public imagination and change minds are key to preventing conflicts. Just as importantly, effectively organising to have maximum political impact is probably the hardest but most important factor.

Gavin Hanbridge | 19 March 2013  

It didn't help that: (a) voting to stop the war (by the time the next election came around) meant voting for Mark Latham - not the most obvious way to show solidarity with Muslims or adherence to non-violent resolution of disputes; (b) many of the most prominent figures in the anti-war movement had spent the 1960s and 1970s opposing the Vietnam War (and then evaded any responsibility for the rise of the Khmer Rouge or the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who their lives to flee life under Kindly Uncle Ho) and the 1970s and 1980s supporting the Soviet Union right up until the moment it imploded. Apologists for Czechoslovakia 1968 are not particularly credible witnesses; (c) many prominent anti-war figures didn't content themselves with saying "most Iraqis actually prefer living under Saddam, and eventually Uday and Qusay, to being killed by US bombs or occupying troops" but went further and praised Kindly Uncle Saddam. Not just far-left sects like the Healeyites or Galloway but supposedly mainstream figures like the disgusting Michael Moore with his mendacious "kids flying kites" scenes in "Fahrenheit 911" (d) Finally, a certain amount of the anti-war sentiment was not left-wing idealism but right-wing "realism" ("Arabs don't want democracy like us. They respect a strongman like Saddam") which I found abhorrent at the time (notwithstanding that it turned out more accurate than Dubya Bush's sunny optimism that post-Saddam elections would usher in Iraqi democracy). So my two cents is, in future, keep the Cuba cheerleaders and the "Sharia will rule the West" sheiks away from the megaphone at the next antiwar rally and focus on arguments more like "Why waste the blood of Australia's sons and daughters trying to force democracy on a foreign country whose people don't want it?" This approach worked extremely well for Arthur Calwell during the 1960s, although admittedly he was helped by dislike of conscription (once the draft was abolished, Australians, like Americans, were happy to elect warlike leaders again) and his message didn't resonate with the electorate until after he was replaced by Gough Whitlam.

Rod Blaine | 19 March 2013  

I believe well-organised protest movements (like GetUp! and others) can develop strategic scenarios to pressure governing parties, like nominating lower-ranking Senate candidates of that party for negative/nil preferencing in the next election on a specific issue. Loss of senate numbers is where governing parties (even if re-elected) can really be squeezed. GeoffDB

Geoff D Bolton | 20 March 2013  

Thanks to ES for two more excellent articles today by Donna and Justin - Es readers now have a terriufic trifecta of hard advocacy information! John Howard is to speak on the Iraq War at the Lowy Institute in April. Go along if you can get in, tell him what you think of this war. By way of preparation, look also at sources on the CIWI website http://iraqwarinquiry.org.au/. As I noted yesterday, this is not just academic history. It could all happen again, under a Labor or Coalition government, in alliance with the US in an unprovoked attack on Iran. We could take part in the destruction of that country,with huge suffering to its people, as we helped to destroy Iraq. Both major parties have declined to pursue a public inquiry into Australia's role in the Iraq War, because both major parties want the freedom to do it all again as Howard did it, if our US ally calls on us. Street demonstrations did not stop Australia's entry into the Iraq War - our rulers ignored 'the mob' then, and would ignore it again. CIWI, the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry, has been set up to mobilise political concern now, so that Australia might learn the important lessons for the future of our role in the Iraq War. CIWI has an eminent and wide-ranging list of founder members. Please check out its work.

tony kevin | 20 March 2013  

Howard purported to go to war in Iraq but committed hardly any troops. He sounded bellicose but he was really cynical -- there were NO Australian fatal casualties in Iraq. What does that tell you? That we pretended to the world we were fighting Saddam but really made only a token gesture so that Bush could say that he had the support of the "man of steel". Farcical really...

Hugh Dillon | 20 March 2013  

Helpful analysis and probably applicable to my USA as well. However I doubt civil disruption would be helpful; the only thing politicians fear is losing office, so the only solution is the slow process of throwing them out.

rewinn | 08 April 2013  

Similar Articles

Watching as Iraq crumbled

  • Donna Mulhearn
  • 19 March 2013

I sat with my Iraqi friend in his photo store. I was his last customer, he said; the bombs would begin tomorrow. And then he began to weep. I remember thinking that his life, and the lives of others like him, would not be given a second's thought once the invasion started. The next day, the bombs began.  


Post-Saddam Iraq defined by division

  • Kerry Murphy
  • 19 March 2013

One Christian engineer remembers celebrating religious festivals with his Muslim neighbours. They in turn would celebrate Christmas with him. Such interfaith experiences are almost unknown now. Iraqis tell me that at least under Saddam you knew where the boundaries were. Now there is uncertainty and indiscriminate violence.