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How Hollywood Fought Against the Iraq War


Susan Sarandon Peace Rally 2003 - H 2013

On the 10th anniversary of the surprise invasion that launched the costly struggle, a look back at the stars who spoke out against President Bush’s controversial war.

Though car bombs continue to explode and ethnic tensions remain unresolved, many in the United States are using the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq to reflect on how the messy conflict ever happened in the first place.

The news media, oft-criticized for its failure to dig deeper into claims made by the administration of President George W. Bush, has in many quarters admitted a mistaken willingness to go along with the drumbeat on the road to war; Howard Kurtz of CNN and wrote recently that many reporters took convenient, ready-made scoops from the war’s prosecutors, while "pieces questioning the evidence or rationale for war were frequently buried, minimized or spiked."

Hollywood, though, can claim an early opposition to the war that has taken the lives of over 4,500 American troops and anywhere between 110,000 and 650,000 Iraqi citizens.

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Perhaps the best-known protest came from Michael Moore, who used his acceptance speech at the 2003 Oscars, just weeks before the invasion, to declare, "We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons. Whether it’s the fictitious duct tape or the fictitious orange alerts, we are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you."

He was booed and played off the stage, but undaunted; his next documentary, , explored and condemned the case for war. And Moore was certainly not alone in his activism that Oscars night: Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins flashed the peace sign to photographers, while Andy Serkis carried a placard that read "No war for oil." Gael Garcia Bernal stated, "If Frida [Kahlo] were alive, she’d be on our side, against the war" when he presented a song from the film about the famed Mexican artist.

Robbins and Sarandon’s opposition to the war was more than just hand gestures; he was outspoken enough that the Baseball Hall of Fame canceled a screening of their film in response to his activism. It began a public spat between the Hall’s president, Dale Petroskey, who was a former member of the Reagan administration, and a defiant Robbins, who declared in a letter, "Long live democracy, free speech and the ’69 Mets: all glorious, improbable miracles in which I have always believed."

In 2004, Robbins staged a play called that lampooned the war.

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Sean Penn, a world-traveling activist, headed to Iraq in 2002 to investigate the scene for himself.

"I cannot conceive of any reason why the American people and the world would not have shared with [Iraqis] the evidence of the claim to have weapons of mass destruction," he said. "I think that the more information we push for, the more information we are given, the better off we are all going to be, and the right thing will happen."

That trip followed a public letter sent by Artists United to Win Without War, which was signed by Martin Sheen, Kim Basinger, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson and Jessica Lange.

In appearances overseas, other movie stars spoke out. At an awards ceremony in London, Dustin Hoffman said, "This war is about what most wars are about: hegemony, money, power and oil," while at the film festival in Berlin, Richard Gere urged, "We have to say ‘stop,’ there’s no reason for a war. At the moment, Hussein is not threatening anybody."

The most costly protest was by The Dixie Chicks, the country trio whose lead singer, Natalie Maines, said during a concert in London that she was "ashamed" that Bush was from her native Texas. The group returned home to hostility and country stations pulling its records, but Maines held her ground.

"We’ve been overseas for several weeks and have been reading and following the news accounts of our government’s position," she said. "The anti-American sentiment that has unfolded here is astounding."

Later, films would tackle the war, from the Oscar-winning to and many others. They often examined the psychological impact on soldiers who returned rattled from Iraq, an issue that has gone underreported even as nearly all service members have come home.

Long-known for its dovish tendencies and outspoken liberalism, it was in some ways to be expected that the industry would speak out; after the scandals of "Hanoi" Jane Fonda in Vietnam and the country’s post-9/11 identification with a Texan conservative president, celebrities were heard but unheeded.

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