My life 10 years on
I’m not the only person who has spent the last fortnight reflecting back over ten years of conflict in Iraq. A military conflict as controversial as Iraq is likely to continue to provide discussion fodder for the media for years to come, and more so when government files regarding the conflict are ‘unlocked’ in decades to come. But for myself, its also a very important personal anniversary to look back on.
I recently saw Bruce Kent, former Catholic priest and long time peace activist, speaking about his introduction to the peace and anti-nuclear movements. Apparently a lot of people have begun asking him what it was like on the very first Aldermaston protest all those years ago. His answer is very different to the one they expect: he was a priest at a church on one of the high-streets through which the march passed, where he was attempting to carry out two weddings amidst the traffic chaos. Other than that less than amicable encounter, he hadn’t been there.
I wonder if people will eventually start asking me what February 15th 2003 was like, as 2 million marched through London. Most of those who would be asking now were probably there. They’d have a much better answer themselves; I was on a day trip with my family – I can’t remember where, but it certainly wasn’t London. Was I against the war at that point? Yes. Did I know there was a protest planned? No. Would I have gone if I’d known about it? I really couldn’t say. London was a long way away, and in total honesty, I rarely ventured outside the city without my family. I’m not actually sure that any of my friends at the time went of the march, either.
What that march did do was to plant in my mind the idea that maybe being thankful that other people were doing this stuff wasn’t the right response. I had already decided the Iraq war was the wrong plan, and deeply mistrusted the American motivation for invading. The only argument I could see for Britain joining in was to moderate the Americans, though I was also aware the Americans probably couldn’t ‘do’ the war without British help. The future deserved to belong to the Iraqi people, and not a group of Western oil execs. You can’t create democracy with a gun.
It was announced that York Against the War, a name I’d probably read a couple of times in passing, would be holding a march through York, and expected that thousands would attend. I remember Mum asking if I was going to do some specific other thing on that Saturday, and I realised I couldn’t put off saying it any longer: I was going on the march. I can’t actually remember what she said, but it didn’t succeed in putting me off. I have too many memories of the day to list here.
The following week was full of new and bizarre experiences, and not just for myself. I attended my first ever activist meeting, in which I’m fairly certain I made some less than helpful, if well meant, ‘contributions’. On the Thursday, we awoke to news that the invasion had begun, and so I knew it would be a busy day. I took the longest lunch break as I dared to so I could attend the demonstration in town, and wished the school students well as I shot back to my desk. After work I ran home, dropped my bag, grabbed a sandwich and picked up a placard I’d stowed, then ran back to town for the evening rally. An hour of speeches later, and we set off chanting ‘Ouse Bridge? Our Bridge!”. There were too many of us to fit on the bridge!
After some toing and froing over whether to stay or go, we marched through town, ending up on the junction by the museum gardens and Lendal Bridge. For some reason, I thought sitting at the front, with the police 3 feet away, was a good idea. Another protester, who I vaguely recognised from college the previous year, turned and said “this is fucking incredible”. I agreed, and we’ve been best friends ever since. I got home, tired, hoarse, hungry and a mix of emotions that’s hard to sum up.
I think its fair to say two things about those last two weeks of March – first, that I did plenty of things I would cringe at if people remembered them (and annoyingly for me, they do) and second, that it was probably that period when I became an adult.
Looking back, it all feels like a massive blur of emotions – anger and powerlessness mixed with a sense of immense possibility and hope. The movement as a whole may not have achieved its objectives, but my life was profoundly different by the time it was over. I started some amazing friendships, many of which continue and set a course I’m still travelling a decade later. It seems that life never was the same again.