In the second of a series on war propaganda, Chris Nineham looks at how war critics are pilloried

Those calling for peace in Ukraine are regularly slandered and abused. This is nothing new. In times of war, governments do everything they can to suppress discussion and debate about the causes, conduct and consequences of conflict.

Wars are always a gamble for the ruling class. They are fought to extend power abroad and they are great opportunities for flag waving and drum banging. But if either the real motivations or the brutal reality of war were widely understood, popular support for most wars would crumble.

This is why governments place draconian restrictions on war reporting. It is also why critics of wars are deliberately marginalised, ridiculed and denounced by politicians and the media and sometimes persecuted by other arms of the state.

During the terrible carnage of the First World War, anti-war activists and conscientious objectors were denounced as cowards or traitors and often imprisoned or deported. In the US thousands of leftists were rounded up and thrown into jail. In Britain, as author Adam Hochschild has written, along with many conscientious objectors, several distinguished people were imprisoned, including, “the nation’s leading investigative journalist, a future winner of the Nobel Prize, more than half a dozen future members of Parliament, one future cabinet minister, and a former newspaper editor who was publishing a clandestine journal for his fellow inmates.”

‘Twisted individuals’

Demonisation of anti-war voices continued throughout the twentieth century. Here is a writer for the Sun newspaper describing a London demonstration against the ‘first Gulf War’, the US led invasion of Iraq in 1990:

‘As the UN deadline passed, out crawled the usual collection of ‘students,’ Godbotherers, Guardian readers, gays, communists, Trots, men with beards and duffle coats, men with ponytails, wimmin in men’s shoes and old hippies with worn-out Country Joe and the Fish EP’s’.

The ‘left-leaning’ Daily Mirror was equally insulting, arguing in an editorial, ‘We cannot allow ourselves to be deflected by misguided, twisted individuals always eager to comfort and support any country but their own’.

The movement against that war was modest in size, but it was vindicated by the horrors that followed, and it laid the basis for a much bigger movement against the second Iraq war. In the run up to this even more catastrophic invasion in 2003, the main line of attack was that opponents of war were apologists for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and therefore didn’t care about the Iraqi people, unlike the Western leaders who launched the war that would kill at least a million of them.

In the US at least three high profile reporters were sacked for questioning Western war aims. In Britain, anti-war journalists like John Pilger were smeared as ‘pro-Saddam’. Liberals joined the chorus of denunciation, accusing the whole movement of being soft on Saddam. Here is Peter Tatchell writing in the Guardian a few months before the invasion of Iraq:

‘The leaflets and posters of the Stop The War coalition do not mention Saddam’s repression of his own people. There is not a word about the brutalities of detention without trial, torture, execution and the ethnic cleansing of Kurds and Shiites.’

A Lie Repeated

A similar line of attack is being pursued now against critics of the West’s involvement in the war in Ukraine. Apparently, because we oppose a war that has already led to the deaths of 150,000 Ukrainians and 200,000 Russian troops, we are automatically ‘Putin apologists,’ “Putin supporters’ and so on.

This is a deliberate lie. It takes a few minutes for anyone who is genuinely interested to find that the movement has had ‘No to the Russian invasion’ or ‘Russian Troops Out’ in all its articles and statements, banners and placards. Unlike the Western supporters of the war, the anti-war movement in the West has done everything it can to support peace protestors in Russia. Unlike Tony Blair who, as Prime Minister, welcomed President Putin to Downing Street saying ‘I want Russia and the West to work together to promote stability and peace’, at the height of Putin’s murderous attack on the Chechens in 2000, the anti-war movement has always opposed Putin’s foreign interventions.

These then, are not serious or evidence-based claims. They are examples of name calling used to try and delegitimise anti-war voices and to block any serious discussion about war aims, plans and outcomes. They are used as justification to keep critics off the mainstream media despite the fact that 55% of the population oppose British troops going to Ukraine and 37% oppose UK involvement in co-ordinating air strikes on Russian forces in Ukraine, both things that are already happening. All the more reason then why no-one on the left, whatever their views, should go anywhere near them.

The Left Joins In

Unfortunately however, these slurs have become the basis for the actual banning of anti-war views from Labour, the main party of opposition. At the start of the war, Labour leader Starmer demanded eleven Labour MPs to withdraw their names from an anti-war statement, warning MPs ‘There will be no place in this party for false equivalence between the actions of Russia and the actions of Nato.” The intimidation has worked. For the first time in the party’s history there are now no Labour MPs prepared to publicly criticise Tory war policies.

More worrying still is the fact that even on the wider left and in the unions they are being used to muzzle debate. Recently, an anti-war resolution was passed at the annual congress of the lecturers’ union the UCU. It caused a big row in the union and beyond, with an organisation called ‘The Ukraine Solidarity Campaign’ complaining bitterly about the decision. There are plans to get the democratic decision overturned. This furious reaction shows how threatened pro-war forces are by calls for peace, but it is a real danger for the movement.

When the ‘pro-Putin’ line starts to look crude, other insults come in to play. People calling for peace in Ukraine are sometimes accused of ‘Westsplaining’, or looking at the conflict from a Western point of view. This suggests that people in the NATO countries should have no say over whether their governments ramp up military spending and pump cruise missiles, tanks, drones and depleted uranium into a war zone which has witnessed the death of approaching half a million people. It implies that people in imperialist countries shouldn’t campaign against imperialism. If such ‘logic’ had been applied to the Iraq war the biggest anti-war movement in the west would never have happened.

A Suffocating Consensus

Despite the fact that most countries in the world oppose the war, anti-war voices in the West have to deal with a situation in which the ruling classes driving the Western war effort have the support of almost all political parties, the vast majority of liberals and significant parts of the left. The result of this unprecedented pro-war consensus is an atmosphere in which supporters of the war feel confident enough to try and physically close down debate. A series of venues from Quaker meeting houses to Union HQs and churches have been contacted and urged in very blunt terms to pull peace meetings.

In the most serious case so far, a trade union venue that was set to host an international peace conference in Vienna last weekend cancelled the booking days before the conference under direct pressure from the Ukrainian embassy in Austria. The reasons given included the fact that two participants, the prominent US economist Jeffrey Sachs and the former dean of India’s Jawarharlal Nehru University, Anuradha Chenoy, have in the past given interviews with the TV station Russia Today.

Another issue for the venue was apparently that “Noam Chomsky, who will speak at the summit via video, for example, believes that NATO has ‘marginalized’ Russia for too long.”

Not only did the venue admit it was doing the wishes of the Ukrainian embassy, but the Ukrainian ambassador to Austria tweeted that peace activists were the ‘fifth column and henchmen of the Russian government.’ Whatever your position on the conflict it is simply unacceptable that a government fighting a war can decide who should or shouldn’t have the right to debate it in other countries.

One of the many ironies of the situation is that the West is sending billions of pounds of deadly hardware to Ukraine supposedly to defend ‘western-style freedoms.’ Closing down discussion about the most deadly conflict in Europe since the Second World War should be opposed not just by the anti-war movement, but anyone who values democratic debate.


15 Jun 2023 by Chris Nineham

Sign Up