The 2003 invasion of Iraq, from a peculiarly British and, often, Mancunian viewpoint: Unusual and powerful commentary I read/heard at the time.

It seems odd to be writing about press coverage and discussion of the invasion of Iraq, and its immediate aftermath, in 2011. But during the course of writing ‘Screaming In Public’ (mainly 2001-2006, with extra edits up to 2009) it became increasingly obvious that the story would have to reflect not only a particular musical and cultural scene, in Manchester and beyond, but also local, national, and often international events. I started writing what would become the final version of the story (earlier versions, going as far back as 1995, need not be discussed here) in August 2001, about 3 weeks before 9/11, and would say that whilst I had no desire to write a novel about 9/11 and its consequences, to an extent I didn’t really have much of a choice. I chose not to dwell on 9/11 much in itself for the simple reason that, like the majority of the world, 9/11 was something both I and my characters experienced only remotely on T.V.

When it came to writing about the period immediately before and after the invasion of Iraq, this remoteness wasn’t an option, and as such the discussions, machinations, spin, lies, politics and protests all had to be acknowledged, given that they all had much more obvious day to day impact on the everyday Stopfordian and Mancunian than 9/11 did. Whether you were pro or anti war, whether you felt it was inevitable or preventable, you simply couldn’t escape from it. And you were expected to take sides.

As a student at MMU at the time, at the height of much student anger and discussion about the war, I happened across a piece of polemical writing, which had been casually littered across the English department, presumably in the hope that people would pick it up and read it. It wasn’t signed, merely dated 10/2002, and headed ‘An Invitation’.

In 1990 a 15-year-old girl appeared on TV receiving wide media coverage to say that she had witnessed an atrocity carried out in Iraq in a children [sic] hospital in Kuwait. When it turned out to be a fake story it was ignored by the media. It was invented to change public perceptions and go to war. This was 1990’s concrete evidence. Today’s evidence must be more attractive to sell the war to the public! But, how much does it help feeding people with lies, hate and fears unnecessarily. After all, who crossed the Atlantic Ocean equipped with the latest technology and mighty power? With thse destructive technologies they bombed everything including sheep. Sheep are totally innocent animals.

Another reason for attacking Iraq is to hide war crimes, that were committed in 91 and 98, by installing a puppet government to help bury appalling evidences. Dragging other nations to their knees in such a humiliating way is immoral. This letter is to avoid further wars and collective punishments. It’s in remembrance of the many who had no hand in political life. But, suffered for so long and then finished in silence in this world that is characterized by communications and fast information exchange. This is an invitation for peace. Thank you.

Feelings were running high, with a number of Stop The War coalition groups active in Manchester throughout 2002 and 2003, something reflected by City Life columnist Danny Moran’s regular forays into the world of the angry activist. In early February 2003 he wrote of an attempt to ‘flan’ New York mayor Rudi Giuliani at a book signing at Waterstones (City Life, 5-20th Feb 2003) along with a number of examples of civil disobediance, and clashes between police and anti-war protesters at rallies on Oxford Road. In March of that year he talked to an activist planning to fly out to Iraq as a human shield, and attended anti-war coalition meetings in town, concerned with planning actions for the day of the invasion, and the bombing campaign known as ‘Operation Shock And Awe’. He wrote of his great hope, on the 8th March 2003, that the protests would work, that the city would be shut down, chaos and press coverage ensue, and that ultimately the government would have to back down. But it rained instead, and protesters dwindled away.

On the day British and American troops invaded Iraq, school kids and students across Manchester walked out of schools, colleges, and universities, and joined the anti-war marches. This is often forgotten, and it also doesn’t seem to have occurred to many people in recent months that some of those schoolchildren, say for example Big Issue columnist Robert David’s then 11 year old son, who marched that day, would now be in the 18-21 kind of age group, and that a number of those young anti-war veterans may well have been engaged in more recent bouts of student activism, specifically the Gaza occupations at a number of universities in 2009, and most recently the protests against the rise in tuition fees and the abolition of the EMA. City Life also reported on the large number of students and schoolkids who walked out on March 19th 2003, the subheading to the piece being “GMP exasperated as Riot Squads face school uniforms on Albert Square Peace Demo.” As the article reported:

While police estimated 600-700 protesters on the march, hundreds more held vigils and sit-ins on school premises. Manchester’s Stop The War Coalitions only involvement was a flyer posted on their website, with recruits gathered through a flyer, email and text campaign. Planning meetings, meanwhile, maintained a stringent under-18 entry policy. (City Life, 2-9th April, 2003)

A similar example of youthful precociousness was reported in the same issue of the late listings mag, when Radio 1 DJ Sara Cox appeared in Bolton as part of the stations On The Road music roadshow event. A Q&A went badly off message when, as columnist Citizen put it, the normally “intellectually demanding posers as ‘who’s your favourite popstar?’ and ‘Do you prefer wearing thongs or knickers?’ were followed by ‘Do you think Blair was wrong to go to war without full UN resolutions?'” Cox’s response was indicative of the BBC: She was highly embarrassed and refused to answer on the grounds of maintaining impartiality.

Once ‘Operation Shock And Awe’ had begun, and the protesters had returned home embittered, angry, and in some cases with letters home from irate school teachers, media coverage went into even further overload. Private Eye, in typically cynical mode, wrote of the operation as being defined by the concept of ‘Event TV’, with media pressure for “a quick win” on the basis that war was perceived to make great T.V. (Private Eye, 4-17th April 2003) It added:

Admittedly cynics argue that the media wanted a war because ratings for news shows rise during conflicts. There was a lift in the figures at the beginning but ratings were falling sharply by the second half of the week. This suggests that theories about ‘stripping’ are correct. The audience has a shorter attention-span: one-day cricket, five-day war.

Of course, it was never going to be a 5 day war, but the coverage of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad on 9th April 2003, widely reported at the time as ‘The End’ of the war, despite appearances to the contrary, bear out this theory that there were two wars really: the media war and the real one.

Private Eye was especially good in its reporting of the reporting, capturing both the hysteria and the hyperbole that overtook many news channels and newspapers, plus the sheer tedium and unhelpfulness of much of the information for the average viewer and reader. By April, much left wing media coverage was fixed on the ‘reconstruction’ of a supposed post-war Iraq, with much cynicism as to profit making opportunities for U.S firms. By July, the target had become Guantanomo Bay and Camp Delta, formerly Camp X-Ray, which would itself inspire a group of artists in Hulme to stage a living, breathing replica of it later that year.

Chapter 34 of Screaming In Public reflects a moment in the fictional narrative where real life events quite simply swamped the story, and as such had to be inserted, and made part of the story as best they could. This does happen once more, at another, later, point in the story, and I’m aware that a similar explanation of real life events will be necessary then as well.

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