The Great War for Civilisation by Robert Fisk
As tragically widespread as violence was in the 20th-century, surely no geographic region saw a greater share of warfare and dislocation than the Middle East. From the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, through the turmoil of the dying days of colonial occupation, to the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflagration, the three Iraqi wars of the past three decades, and so on, not a year has gone by without some form of revolutionary, civil, or interstate armed conflict in the region. The very fact that I, an American soldier, am writing this book review from a U.S. military base in the country of Kuwait, is a further testament to the continuing volatility of the Birthplace of Three Religions.
No journalist, and probably no person of any occupation, has experienced more of these conflicts in the last thirty years than Robert Fisk. A Beirut-based British reporter employed by The Times as Middle East correspondent from 1976, in its pre-Rupert Murdoch days, and by The Independent since 1989, Fisk has covered nearly every episode of regional strife since the start of the Lebanese Civil War. In 2006, Fisk collects his three decades of reporting into an expansive thousand-page survey of modern conflicts in the Middle East, titled The Great War of Civilisation. Largely a narrative compilation of Fisk's years of reporting, the book also provides some historical background to each of the violent episodes he recounts, tying the chaos in the Middle East to the disastrous post-World War I peace settlement in Paris, which carved up the region into European colonial mandates and set the stage for a century of clashes:
My father was a soldier of the Great War, fighting in the trenches of France because of a shot fired in a city he'd never heard of called Sarajevo. And when he died thirteen years ago at the age of ninety-three, I inherited his campaign medals. One of them depicted a winged victory and on the observe side are engraved the words: "The Great War for Civilisation."
After the allied victory of 1918, at the end of my father's war, the victors divided up the lands of their former enemies. In the space of just seventeen months, they created the borders of Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia and most of the Middle East. And I have spent my entire career--in Belfast and Sarajevo, in Beirut and Baghdad--watching the people within those borders burn.
In his lengthy career in the Middle East, Fisk was on-hand for the aforementioned, long-running Lebanese Civil War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the First and Second Palestinian Intifadas, the Algerian Civil War, the Persian Gulf War and the subsequent failed Shia uprising, the aftermath of 9/11, and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. All of these conflicts, and more, fill one or more chapters in The Great War of Civilisation. Early in the book, Fisk lays out his journalistic philosophy, which frankly it would be nice to see adopted by a few more of the obsequious hacks currently posing as reporters:
I suppose, in the end, we journalists try--or should try--to be the first impartial witnesses to history. If we have any reason for our existence, the least must be our ability to report history as it happens so that no one can say: "We didn't know--no one told us." Amira Hass, the brilliant Israeli journalist on Ha'aretz newspaper whose reports on the occupied Palestinian territories have outshone anything written by non-Israeli reporters, discussed this with me more than two years ago. I was insisting that we had a vocation to write the first pages of history but she interrupted me. "No, Robert, you're wrong," she said. "Our job is to monitor the centres of power." And I think, in the end, that is the best definition of journalism I have heard: to challenge authority--all authority--especially so when governments and politicians take us to war, when they have decided that they will kill and others will die.
The beauty of Fisk's book rests in both the depth and breadth of his personal experience in that territory. Thus the chapters of this book offer a new perspective for most readers on two fronts: first, he goes places most reporters don't, and thus tells stories they can't tell. The easiest, and most famous, examples are his three interviews with Osama Bin Laden from 1993 to 1997. But the pages of The Great War of Civilisation also find him sneaking back into Afghanistan after the Taliban took power, confronting Boeing executives with the fragment of a Hellfire missile the Israelis shot into a Lebanese ambulance, and a particularly harrowing experience riding a Russian Army column making its way toward Jalalabad:
There was little evidence of the ambushed convoy in front save for the feet of a dead man being hurriedly pushed into a Soviet army van near Charikar and a great swath of crimson and pink slush that spread for several yards down one side of the road. The highway grew more icy at sundown, but we drove faster. As we journeyed on into the night, the headlights of our 147 trucks running like diamonds over the snow behind us, I was gently handed a Kalashnikov rifle with a full clip of ammunition. A soldier snapped off the safety catch and told me to watch through the window. I had no desire to hold this gun, even less to shoot at Afghan guerrillas, but if we were attacked again--if the Afghans had come right up to the truck as they had done many times on these convoys--they would assume I was a Russian. They would not ask all members of the National Union of Journalists to stand aside before gunning down the soldiers.
I have never since held a weapon in wartime and I hope I never shall again. I have always cursed the journalists who wear military costumes and don helmets and play soldiers with a gun at their hip, greying over the line between reporter and combatant, making our lives ever more dangerous as armies and militias come to regard us as an extension of their enemies, a potential combatant, a military target. But I had not volunteered to travel with the Soviet army. I was not--as that repulsive expression would have it in later wars--"embedded." I was as much their prisoner as their guest. As the weeks went by, Afghans learned to climb aboard the Soviet convoy lorries after dark and knife their occupants. I knew that my taking a rifle--even though I never used it--would produce a reaction from the great and the good in journalism, and it seemed better to admit the reality than to delete this from the narrative. If I was riding shotgun for the Soviet army, then that was the truth of it.
The second front on which Fisk offers most readers, at least most American readers, a different perspective is his critical take on Israel's behavior vis-a-vis Palestine and Lebanon. In Europe, there is tolerance for a broad diversity of public opinion on the Israel/Palestine situation. In the United States, not so much. It is getting better, but it is still difficult to express much public opposition to actions by the Israeli state without incurring the wrath of the pro-Israel lobby. Whatever the right answer, if there is one, I think there is at least a need for a wider range of discussion on the topic than is currently prevalent in America's public dialogue about Israel. Though there are those out there who would tar Fisk as an anti-Semite because of his views, I think he fits solidly within the range of reasonable opinion. I do not agree with all of it, but that's not the point. He made me think hard about Israel and Palestine in a way that few authors have:
When Palestinians massacre Israelis, we regard them as evil men. When Israelis slaughter Palestinians, America and other Western nations find it expedient to regard these crimes as tragedies, misunderstandings, or the work of individual madmen. Palestinians--in the generic, all-embracing sense of the word--are held to account for these terrible deeds. Israel is not. Thus, over the years, a strange confusion has emerged in the Western response to Israeli misdeeds, a reaction that is ultimately as damaging to Israel as it is to the West itself. When Israeli soldiers or settlers murder Palestinians, they are semantically distanced from their country.
Fisk has been a popular target of conservative journalists and bloggers, particularly after his vocal opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, even being the namesake of the dubious verb "fisking," or critiquing a written work one line at a time. If there is one substantive criticism I have of Fisk's book, it is the frequent negative references to the Bush administration and the Iraq War he sprinkles throughout the book. Though I certainly share much of his anger and frustration at the unnecessary bloodshed, some of the attacks seem gratuitously out of place with the surrounding narrative. That said, the book was probably mostly written in 2005, when the U.S. effort in Iraq was at its nadir, and Fisk does have exactly the pedigree to provide the sort of historical perspective that was so disastrously lacking in the White House and Pentagon under Bush and Rumsfeld:
Bush spoke of the tens of thousands of opponents of Saddam Hussein who had been arrested and imprisoned and summarily executed and tortured--"all of these horrors concealed from the world by the apparatus of a totalitarian state--but there was no mention that these same beatings and burnings and electric shocks and mutilations and rapes were being readily perpetrated when America was on very good terms with Iraq before 1990, when the Pentagon was sending intelligence information to Saddam to help him kill more Iranians. Indeed, one of the most telling aspects of the Bush speech was that all the sins of which he specifically accused the Iraqis--a good many undoubtedly true--began in the crucial year of 1991. There was no reference to Saddam's flouting of UN resolutions when the Americans were helping him. There were a few reminders by Bush of the gas attacks against Iran--without mentioning that this very same Iran was no supposed to be part of the "axis of evil."
The only other aspect of the book that might frustrate those who read it with an open mind is that it feels, at times, episodic. In three consecutive chapters, Fisk moves from the Iran-Iraq War, to his father's participation in World War I, to the Armenian holocaust. There's a natural reason for this: Fisk is a journalist, and each chapter essentially covers the period of time in which Fisk was reporting from that country. And certainly by the end of the 1000+ pages of text, any reader will be tremendously better informed on the modern Middle East than before. But this tome is not intended to be a comprehensive contemporary history of the region, so there are a number of loose ends, which Fisk, probably called away to cover yet another outbreak of violence in the region, was unable to tie up. Nevertheless, an incredible book from a man who has put his body and soul into telling the stories of a land where the reign of violence and suffering has been undeterred by the tolling of a new century.