LONDON — This, we were promised, would be the most politically correct war in history. Harlan Ullman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says the strategy of conquering Iraq by “shock and awe” bombing, was devised simply because this is the most unpopular war in history.

The aim, like Adolf Hitler’s blitzkrieg against Poland, was to devastate the Iraqi will and ability to defend itself without causing human loss of life. The destruction would be of the Iraqis’ morale and ability to function as integral human beings, without actually killing them.

This strategy, and the American ability to implement it, has been acclaimed as a wholly new form of warfare: few dead, with fighting and killing over before Mrs. Ordinary has time to pick up a placard, and American triumph assured.

The new generation of programmed missiles makes this strategy feasible, while the army of journalists in Iraq, beaming back graphic reports of corpses, destruction and horrible accidents, makes the strategy necessary.

It is no longer possible for even the most gung-ho Briton or American to ignore the cruelty and pity of war. Military attacks must, in the 21st century, either be brief and spectacular — shock and awe — or hidden — covert operations by special forces. Such warfare should also keep troop morale high and the spirits of civilians back home at least quiescent. This makes it difficult for those who oppose the war to get a toehold in the grim human business of prosecuting war.

Nonetheless, tens of thousands of British people took to the streets last Saturday to shout, wave and parade their opposition to the war. The size of the demonstration — estimates range from 100,000 from the police to over a quarter of a million from the organizers — surprised most people.

What was the point of marching to stop a war that had already begun? Just that opposition to war, as much as a war itself in the 21st century, is a psychological campaign. Both are fighting for the future, and the opponents need to demonstrate the illegitimacy of the war leaders. This also keeps up the pressure here and now to limit the war.

Ironically, the power of protesters against war to clip the ambitions of war leaders has been a potent factor in creating the politically correct war of 2003. The ability to fight limited but effective wars does, indeed, make war more likely, more user-friendly.

So the masses arrived to march again, at the end of a week, including children all over Britain who, with little nudging, walked out of school to demonstrate. War retains its unique potency to touch the sense of injustice and anger that often lies dormant in most people. People from an extraordinary range of ages and races arrived, without much organization, often bearing handmade placards and banners.

“Drop Blair not Bombs,” someone had written on the official Stop The War poster. One young woman’s placard read “This Little Girl’s lost her faith in democracy.” Hundreds of more pithy comments, from the obscene and violent to the plaintive, swirled and bounced down the roads to Hyde Park. Perhaps the simplest was “Ex-Labour voter” worn by one middle-aged woman.

This baroque flowering of the protest demonstration accompanies the virtual disappearance of old-style political discipline. There were, and are, organizations at work in the antiwar protests. The largest is the Stop The War coalition made up of recycled old-left organizations — mainly former Communist, Trotskyist and labor leftists. This group has primarily a coordinating role; it can do little to initiate political activity because its Trotskyist core members tend to drive away the tentative masses.

CND, or the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a prominent national group in the 1950s and again in the ’80s, has revived again to be a leading group in the antiwar campaign. The only other significant national organization is the relatively new Muslim Association of Britain, which campaigns under the twin slogans “Don’t Attack Iraq” and “Freedom for Palestine.” Also marching under their identifying banners were Quakers and Jews, and a myriad local peace groups.

Apart from the public service workers’ Unison and a number of teachers’ groups, though, there were very few trade unions formally present.

Although the cause of opposing this war has the power in itself to pull together hundreds of thousands of different individuals, it only does so because there are scores of different reasons for opposing the war, and it doesn’t matter which one of those reasons impels someone to march.

For some it is an illegal war; for others all wars are wrong; for some it is an evil war directed against Muslims; for others it is a greedy imperialist war; for some it is a shocking waste of public money. For some, any action initiated by U.S. President George W. Bush is tainted and wrong. For others, with serious knowledge of the Middle East, nothing good can come from such a dangerous outside intervention in the area.

In the weeks leading up to the war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was compelled to become every more explicit in his reasons for supporting a war. None of these included the principles of the supreme value of diplomacy, or of the United Nations, or of developing a common EU foreign policy.

At best, the reasons Blair did enunciate will give people demanding democracy and protection from dictators reasons to expect decisive British help. At worst, the reasons will reduce Britain, in the words of one of those homemade placards, to a “poodle puppet to a Texan muppet.”

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