Resist: resisting the war on Iraq!

IssueMarch - May 2003
Feature by Elke Steven

For some time now the US government has threatened to expand the “war against terrorism” - suggesting that more “rogue states” will face war. On the US defined “axis of evil”, Iraq is the primary target, with a war being threatened since May 2002.

Activists from a variety of German peace groups wanted to organise against this war - a war which we believe is in breach of human rights and international law - and in autumn 2002 we came together to develop forms of resistance to the war at an early stage. Inspired by the US “pledge of resistance” campaign from the early 1980s we created our own pledge. After publicly announcing it we called on others to sign the pledge, which states that, “In the event that the US government starts a war against Iraq, I declare today that I will participate in protests, demonstrations, and/or acts of civil disobedience in front of US military installations, US consulates and/or the US embassy in Berlin.”

Prepared to disobey

Shortly after the US attacked Grenada in 1984, activists in the US developed a “pledge of resistance”. They threatened to use acts of civil disobedience on the one hand; and legal actions, demonstrations, vigils and support to those who wanted to commit civil disobedience on the other. This threat was supposed to prevent the US government from a military intervention in Nicaragua. When it became more and more obvious that the US was already involved in this smouldering war, pledgers realised that before an “official” declaration of war, protests had to be made loud and clear.

In Nicaragua the CIA supported the contras; they received financial support from the US, and Nicaraguan ports were mined. Important dates and decisions in the US Congress, suggested timings and causes for action. In less than a year 75,000 people had signed the pledge and large and small actions took place all over the States. Sometimes, thousands were arrested and in doing so, they emphasised their preparedness to disobey the state, when the state is prepared to commit injustice. Under such circumstances, their conscience forbade them to be obedient. Beyond the actions to influence Congress, the campaign also wanted to win over public opinion, that of “normal” citizens. They called it an “ongoing struggle for the hearts and minds of the American people”. The “official” war against Nicaragua did not happen. Many analysts say that the pledge campaign was one important factor (See Kristin Flory, Widerstand gegen eine amerikanische Intervention in Nikaragua - Die Pledge of Resistance Bewegung in den USA, in: gewaltfreie action,68/69/70 (1986, S. 68-74)).

Whose responsibility?

The latest pledge campaign here in Germany - “resist - resisting the war on Iraq!” - builds on this success. Though whether it is possible to prevent a war remains an open question. In the beginning, some of the initiators called for more signatures to the pledge. Although the wording was open, and invited people who were not prepared to commit civil disobedience to also sign, most who signed wanted to make it clear that they would be very committed to engaging in protest against this war.

The numbers of pledgers are not as impressive as they were in the US back in the 1980s. Nevertheless the campaign has achieved a lot of public attention in a short time. At the end of January 2003 5,000 people had already signed the pledge. In December, a first demonstration in front of the US Rhein-Main airbase in Frankfurt took place. Speeches at the event focussed on criticising the policy of “preventive war”, protest against the militarisation of our society and on German government policy which, in given the increased threat of war, then refuses asylum to even more Iraqi refugees.

On the one hand right from the beginning resist emphasised the responsibility of the US government, as the main protagonists of this war. That's why actions in front of US military installations have been announced. We demand that the US government ends all threats of war, that it stops all war activities, and that it lifts the sanctions against Iraq. But it was also always important to the initiators to stress the responsibility of the German government and to address the demands to them too. The German government has proved in the past that it too is prepared to fight wars to pursue its interests. Their critical stance towards this war, which is in itself based on other interests, does not match its practical actions. Soon after being re-elected the German government began to change their opinion and to make more and more concessions. On the one hand they publicly speak out against the war, and on the other they offer support to the war. That's why resist demands: no overflight rights for war planes; no use of US or British bases or command facilities in Germany; the withdrawal of German troops from the region - Fuchs tanks in Kuwait, navy units at the horn of Africa; no participation by German soldiers in deployments of AWACS reconnaissance planes; no protection of US military bases by the German army!

Actions follow words

From the beginning of 2003 it became more and more clear that the public launch of the resist pledge had to be quickly followed by actions, to increase public pressure and to reach out to the wider public, people who should been couraged to participate in acts of civil disobedience. At first this took the form of restricted sit-down blockades at symbolic places. This enabled and represented the different forms of involvement and took place at the end of January/early February. At the AWACS base at Geilenkirchen a protest took place against the participation of German soldiers in the AWACS's flights, something which serves the war directly. The soldiers were called on not to act against the law, to refuse orders to participate in the war, and to desert otherwise. The German defence ministry was blocked to emphasise the demand that overflight rights should be denied to those forces that take part in the war, and that protection to military transports should be denied. At the Grafenwöhr military training ground, where US soldiers in Germany trained for the war in early February, a go-in took place. All these actions were calm and peaceful and in all of them people participated who had not previously dared to commit civil disobedience. To many people, breaking a law seems to be a significant barrier, the behaviour of the police and potential legal consequences act as a deterrent. But it became clear that such actions are possible. Even a go-in at the base where the US military carry out their “war games”, which don't have anything to do with games, and are in fact deadly serious, was possible.

Keeping up the pressure

The next action will be a sit-down blockade at the US airbase in Frankfurt for several hours on 22 February 2003. If, in spite of all the international protest, a war starts, there will be protests and acts of nonviolent resistance at many places. For the second Saturday after the start of the war resist calls for a big joint action of civil disobedience at the US airbase in Frankfurt.

Such a campaign has, above all, the purpose of preventing war already, through public pressure. If thousands declare that they will disobey their government in the event of war, then political pressure against the war increases. To convince people to carry out this kind of action is both easy and difficult. On the one hand the great majority of people in Germany - as in most countries in the EU - is opposed to the war. While the last wars were justified by the governments with the paltry excuse of defending human rights - and many believed these lies - this time the justifications are not met with belief. It is too obvious that this war is about powerful interests, and too obvious that a peaceful solution to the problem is possible. On the other hand more and more people have given up the hope of influencing politics through protests. Resignation spreads.

Be a spanner in the works!

For this very reason it is important to create possibilities for action that actually throw a spanner in the otherwise smooth running military machine. Because - and this is again the hopeful and positive side - more and more people want to send clear signals against the deadly deeds of their states. There is lengthy experience of civil disobedience, and this has spread more and more. In a variety of settings and circumstances people have had these experiences: from protests in the peace movement to the anti-nuclear movement and the anti-globalisation movements. Resist builds on this.

It is important, that these actions of civil disobedience are nonviolent and organised democratically and based on respect for the other, indeed for all others. This is why nonviolence training is on offer, and participatory structures are being created and used. The campaign wants to create support and confidence, to show that those who act are not alone in doing so. The big and joint actions are also there to foster courage and inspiration for the many small actions that can, and do, take place at the many locations where this war is being prepared for and carried out from. Irish war resisters managed to make Shannon airport a site which can no longer be used by the US as a refuelling and supply base for US soldiers in the Gulf region without serious disruption. Seventeen planned troop transports will be transferred from Shannon to Frankfurt. It is to be hoped that they won't take place uninterrupted there either.