The story of the (fake) end of the Iraq War

Here's a sketchy timeline of the Yes Men's most mammoth project, a collaboration with the Anti-Advertising Agency and many other groups and individuals. Click "open all" to read the whole thing as a narrative.

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The idea began as a celebration in Times Square, of the end of the Iraq War while it was still raging. The idea was to spread a message of possibility. One of the props was to be the front page of the New York Times. Eventually we scrapped the party idea and just kept the Times.

We raised a budget and hired an editor. Our first self-deadline was a few months before the election. That blew up when the editor didn't work out, and we had to find someone else to edit the paper. That ended up being... ourselves.

Our new deadline: one week after the election, which we were counting on Obama to win. And there was a new goal: to let people know that pressure on Obama would always be needed, so that he could be the "change" he was advertising. Without public pressure, nothing.

We asked twenty or so people to write articles for the paper, all of which ended up in the paper in edited form. Each article was to be about something achievable, and each article had to describe the public pressure that led that something to be achieved. Each article was then edited for consistency with the rest, and then edited some more for the layout. There were also ads and other content.

The papers, dated July 4th of the following year, were headlined with long-awaited news: "IRAQ WAR ENDS". The edition, which bore the same look and feel as the real deal, included stories describing what the future could hold, if we forced Obama to be the president we'd elected him to be: national health care, the abolition of corporate lobbying, a maximum wage for CEOs, etc. (Less momentous, but poignant, was columnist Tom Friedman's letter of resignation, full of remorse for his consistently idiotic and fact free predictions about the Iraq war.)

"We wanted to experience what it would look like, and feel like, to read headlines we really want to read. It's about what's possible, if we think big and act collectively," said Steve Lambert, one of the project's organizers and an editor of the paper. (Please visit Steve's page about the paper for more paper, videos, and details.)

Two presses accepted the job printing 80,000 copies of the paper, but both rejected it at what felt like the last minute.

We needed hundreds of activists to spread through the streets on distribution-day. But how to promote something to our list without fully revealing it, and in spite of a couple of nudniks trying to pierce through our story? That was the challenge, but we did it:

  • We created a special sign-up list, and recruited people to it through our mailing list, calling the day (which is all we revealed) "Big Event."
  • We kept recruiting to the list, and from time to time sent out short reminder emails, reminding people of the date and time (from 5 a.m. on!) they'd be needed. The second-to-last reminder was probably a day or two beforehand.
  • Finally, the night before, we let people know where to show up and when. We had something like 5 distribution points, all in Manhattan; we instructed people to choose one based on some arbitrary criterion, perhaps their last name.

The day of the distribution, five moving vans full of papers were stationed at strategic spots beginning at 5 a.m. At each spot, the van driver had a tiny instruction booklet for each distributor — PDFs here, outside, inside. The driver also had a number of old-style newspaper bibs to hand out.

At two of the spots, in Midtown and Wall Street, distributors were also given special instructions on media outlets to "target." Several distributors made sure to enter media outlets with stacks of papers and place them directly on desks — or, failing that, gave stacks to security guards to offer people who entered. We also managed to get a few papers to Los Angeles, to be given directly to Los Angeles Times reporters, for maximum illusion.

We blasted out a press release at some point during distribution-day, but not at first. For the first couple of hours we allowed reporters the joy of puzzling it out by themselves; the paper promoted itself and quickly made headline news. Finally, after our blast, when one TV producer asked one of our partners how many copies we'd printed and in how many cities, the partner went rogue and said "Oh, 1.4 million? In ten cities?" And that became the story.

It was, of course, a lie, and one of the very few times we've lied to the media: in fact it was just under 100,000 and in only one part of one city, Manhattan.

In response to the spoof, the New York Times said only, "We are looking into it." Alex S. Jones, former Times reporter who is an authority on the history of the paper, says: "I would say if you've got one, hold on to it. It will probably be a collector's item."

"Is this true? I wish it were true!" said one reader. "It can be true, if we demand it."

Our fake newspaper — with its proposals for the ambitious programs that someone like Obama could have been pressured to institute — made a big splash. Unfortunately, however, it remains a sad gravestone for the hopes of that era. Stunts, no matter how huge, only work as parts of campaigns, and there weren’t yet movements like Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter calling for much of what our paper imagined. (Once those movements did emerge, for all that they did to affect public consciousness in the short and long term, they weren’t quite enough to hold Obama’s feet to the fire.) 

Progressives had, by and large, let themselves be lulled into complacency by the clever marketing of “change” and “hope.” As a result, they’d failed to see that what we were going to get — beyond all the hype — was just business as usual. Instead of our newspaper’s visions, what we ended up with were massive bailouts for the banks that had caused the 2008 economic collapse, no real end to the wars that our front page had declared over, and the half-measure Affordable Care Act instead of universal health care. There was also the DREAM Act — a result of activist pressure — but, behind the scenes, a torrent of deportations that not enough people cried out about. 

Bringing the much needed "good news" to a war weary public required the collaboration of hundreds of activists and volunteers, including the Anti-Advertising Agency, CODEPINK, United for Peace and Justice, Not An Alternative, May First/People Link, Improv Everywhere, Evil Twin, and Cultures of Resistance.