Robert Fisk is a journalistic genius—though not because he’s discovered anything new.
The brilliance of Fisk, in his monstrously large The Great War for Civilization, lies in his unparalleled ability to animate swaths of history that could otherwise seem static, doing so with such emotional immediacy that this book—whose raw material could easily serve as a dossier of injustices—is transformed into a vast, compulsively readable human drama. The result is a story that’s by turns intimate, tragic, heartbreaking and epic.
The Great War for Civilization, a 1,040-page behemoth, renders a century of Middle Eastern history into novelistic form, focusing on the four decades Fisk spent as a war correspondent in that troubled stretch of the world.
Fisk, an Englishman galvanized to overseas journalism after watching Hitchcock’s romantic Foreign Correspondent as a preteen, began reporting on Middle Eastern conflicts at the age of 29, in 1975, when he was sent to cover the Lebanese Civil War as a replacement for The Times’then-departing Beirut bureau chief.
Since then, Fisk has spent nearly his entire adult life documenting the bloody travails of that cynically manipulated stretch of the world.
He was there for nearly all of it: the Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War, the Civil War in Lebanon and the pulverizations of Iraq. He reported on the vast, Israeli sanctioned massacres of Palestinians in southern Lebanon, and on the incredible human toll exacted on the Iraqi people by over a decade of Western sanctions. He interviewed Yassir Arafat and he spoke with Osama bin Laden (one of only two western journalists to have met the latter in person).And he did so with panache, with a ravishing narrative eloquence—no doubt one of the reasons he’s been bedazzled with more reporting awards than any other British correspondent—that was rivalled only by his sense of indignation and rage.
Though there is much to rage over within this book, little of what Fisk writes here is new (save that which he reported on firsthand many decades ago). Anyone willing to dig up these stories will easily find them in the books of academics, historians, and journalists who’ve trodden those stories’ paths before. But I doubt one could easily find a tome that is as capable of taking one’s breath away.
Take his breathless first impressions of the Iraqi invasion of Iran, in September of 1980. The so-called “Whirlwind War,” as the US-backed dictator Saddam Hussein anointed his ruse, was supposed to have been no more than a surgical military incursion to take control of the nearby Shatt al-Arab River, cutting Iran’s trade capacity and neutering the power of Iraq’s hated Islamist enemies. Instead, the operation devolved into a war of attrition in which millions of lives would be incinerated over eight years, often amidst a noxious haze of mustard gas. Fisk’s first sight of the conflict (in whose quick Iraqi victory the Baathist authorities were so confident that they broke convention by shuttling journalists to the frontline) reads like a darkly haunting fever dream.
“Out of the cars,” the Iraqis shouted, and we leapt from their limousines, crouched on the pavements, hands holding microphones up into the hot darkness as the frail Basra villas, illuminated by the thin moonlight around us, vibrated to the sound of anti-aircraft artillery. The tracer streaked upwards in curtains, golden lines that disappeared into the smoke drifting over Basra. Sirens bawled like crazed geriatrics and behind the din we could hear the whisper of Iranian jets. A great fire burned out of control far to the east, beyond the unseen Shatt al-Arab River. Gavin, with whom I had shared most of my adventures in Afghanistan that very same year, was standing, hands on hips, in the roadway. “Jesus Christ!” he kept saying. “What a story!” And it was. Never again would an Arab army so welcome journalists to a battle front, give them so much freedom, encourage them to run and take cover and advance with their soldiers. In the steamy entrance of the Hamdan Hotel… there was a constant blowsy song, all trumpets and drums and men’s shouting voices… (they kept shouting) “The whirlwind war, the whirlwind war, we shall win the whirlwind war.”
This hallucinatory scene—sirens screaming, guns flashing, the night ablaze with a storm of weapons—envisions not just the hubris of war but the very tragedy of the book itself.
The very title The Great War for Civilizationis itself a not-so-subtle, even aggressive display of irony.
The irony, of course, lies in the fact that in nearly every war on which Fisk reported, leaders of all stripes—whether they be Arabs or Israelis, Russians or Americans or Jihadists— remained firmly convinced that their cause was unique in its importance, that they alone were fighting for Capital-C Civilization. This self-assuredness conferred such a sense of holiness upon ones cause that other humans beings became suddenly less than human, making it ok to slaughter and murder and bomb and behead, deepening cycles of violence in which we’re still embroiled today.
But arrogant postures of self-righteousness were not unique to the past fifty years of Middle Eastern history.
In the first of a sequence of autobiographical chapters scattered throughout the book, Fisk described how his father went to fight on the Western Front of World War One with visions of nationalist glory not dissimilar to those his son would see in various Middle Eastern wars.
Again and again, he points out that the conflicts convulsing the Middle East sprouted up from the very war in which his father fought, which was propelled by various imperial ambitions—all participants were initially convinced they fought for “civilization”—and which was ultimately capped off by the ambitions of the victors. The British and the French would, in their post-war vanity, cleave the Middle East into territorial slices entirely incongruous with the native population, laying the groundwork for future ethnic cleansing. It was an act played into the hands of British and French imperial power, but that would ultimately sow seeds for conflicts in which millions of lives would be entombed.
The catastrophe of the borders created post-World War One still, to this very day, remains part of the catastrophe of the Middle East. The tragedy of Versailles in 1919 is still that of the world exactly a hundred years later.
…is is, as I often reflect, a grim fact of my own life that my career as a journalist—first in Ireland, then in the Middle East and the Balkans—has been entirely spent in reporting the burning of these frontiers, the collapse of the statelets that my father’s war allowed us to create, and the killing of their peoples. It is still a quaint reflection on the spirit of that age that most of the redrawing of the maps and setting up of nations was supposedly done on behalf of minorities, minorities who in every case but two—that of the Jews of Mandate Palestine and the Protestants of Northern Ireland—did not want their maps redrawn at all.
“No,” he writes, “(my father) could not be blamed for the lies and broken promises and venality of the men of Versailles. But it was his world that shaped mine, the empires of his day that created our catastrophe in the Middle East.”
Fisk’s father would say little about his time on the trenches of the Somme. Like a silent black snow, disillusionment settled over the former soldier in much the same way it did for millions of likeminded young men—British, French, and German—following that pointlessly catastrophic “War to End All Wars.”
For his time spent fielding death in the cold, muddy plains of western France, Fisk the senior was given a small military medal. Engraved on the back was a legend that read “The Great War for Civilization.”
Though it reads like a novel, the book could easily stand as the kind of dossier of injustices that’s wielded in war crimes trials of the The Hague. No characters in the book—not the Arabs, the Islamists, the Americans or the Israelis—have their hands clean. That’s not to say that violence is acceptable because of its omnipresence. It is to say, however, that violence in almost any case is both a tragedy and a crime, deserving condemnation irrespective of the party that wields it.
He describes how, sanctioned by their countries governments, Western arms dealers—those of the United States and Britain especially—were keen on siphoning weaponry to the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein during his 1980s war with Iran. It was a bizarre idiosyncrasy of history, more strange considering that hardly three years following the end of that war, in 1991, Western leaders conjured a litany of justifications to paint their former vassal as if he were the latest manifestation of Hitler. Despite clear evidence Iraq was already carrying out the very human rights violations for which it would be condemned by the West a few years later, American leaders were keen on maintaining their rapport with Saddam:
This permanent state of mass killing across Iraq was no secret in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet the West was either silent or half-hearted in its condemnation… US export credits and chemicals and helicopters, French jets and German gas and British military hardware poured into Iraq for fifteen years. Iraq was already using gas to kill thousands of Iranian soldiers when Donald Rumsfeld made his notorious 1983 visit to Baghdad to shake Saddam’s hand and ask him for permission to reopen the US embassy.
Breaking a vast, unspoken taboo, Fisk doesn’t shy from condemning Israel, one of the most flagrant violators of human rights in the Middle East.
Ample detail is laid forth describing how Israel brazenly refused to comply with United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, a document demanding the Zionist state cease its military occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip following the 1967 war, which saw the de facto annexation of Palestinian territories.
Later, there’s an interesting, microcosmic clip of history through which one can prismatically see the irony of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
In 1999, the then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was outspokenly critical of the NATO bombing of Serbia following its genocidal response to Kosovo’s fight for autonomy. The bombing of Belgrade was dangerous, Sharon said, because if similar recognition of autonomy was granted to the Palestinians as was the Kosovar Albanians, Israel would be bombed by NATO planes within minutes.
There is something singularly terrifying about the hopelessness of the Israel-Palestine conflict: hopeless for the Israelis, who in their insularity descend into ever greater xenophobia and scorn for their Palestinian neighbors; hopeless for the Palestinians who, stripped of any possibilities for the future, find themselves willing to sacrifice themselves as one of the many “martyrs” fighting for their people’s liberation, either as a guerrilla, a suicide bomber, or one of the stone throwers chucking rocks at IDF tanks.
The conflict is also terrifying because it’s entire reality—the fact that it’s an illegal military occupation rather than an evenly balanced war—is obscured by Western media coverage.
“Your newspapers lay the groundwork of our suffering,” a Palestinian man yells at Fisk as he reports on a battle in Ramallah, in the West Bank in 2000, during the Second Palestinian Intifada.
I want to disown all possible connection with the paper of Manhattan’s ultra right, Fisk writes, but its editorial fills me with dismay. It praises (then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon’s “subtlety” because “suddenly, enemy terrorists” are “being brought down en route to their mischief…this is war waged in twilight…subtle, but not less deadly.” Enemy? Brought down?
There is no reference, Fish remarks, on the two Palestinian children “brought down” by the Israeli airstrike which preceded the incursion into Ramallah in the first place.
Such mendacity is Such representative of the larger, more sinister obfuscation of reality in the Middle East by Western media, who often play as courtiers to the very bastions of power to whom they proclaim to be a watchdog.
Details of the undeniably monstrous Armenian genocide are thus mendaciously referred to as a “hotly debated” events, because openly recognizing it as a genocide would alienate the Turkish government, putting NATO bases at peril. The shoot-down by an American cruiser in 1988 of Iran Air IR655, a passenger airliner whose entire cargo of 290 civilians was killed, is referred to as a “tragedy”—as if such an act was an omniscient event rather than a conscious act, a crime that could’ve been avoided. The illegal Jewish colonies which forcefully displace and exclude West Bank Palestinians are referred to as “disputed territories.” And the walls which cordon off Palestinians from the outside world—many of which are taller than the Berlin Wall—are dubbed as “border fences.”
Reflecting on an Israeli attack on the West Bank city of Jenin during the Second Intifada, when so many civilians were killed it was tantamount to being a massacre, he notes that journalists are often indirectly responsible for the crimes the do and don’t report on.
…our responsibility does not end there. How many of our circumlocutions open the way to these attacks? How many journalists encouraged the Israelis—by their reporting or by their wilfully given, foolish advice—to undertake their brutal assaults on the Palestinians? On March 31, 2002—just three days before the assault on Jenin—Tom Friedman wrote in The New York Timesthat “Israel needs to deliver a military blow that clearly shows terror will not pay.” Well thanks, Tom, I thought to myself when I read this piece of lethal journalism a few days later. The Israelis certainly followed Friedman’s advice.
There is a majestic passage on this matter that should be tacked on the office wall and engraved in the heart of any reporter:
When we journalists, he writes, fail to get across the reality of events of our readers, we have not only failed in our job; we have also become a party to the bloody events that we are supposed to be reporting. If we cannot tell the truth about the shooting down of a civilian airliner—because this will harm “our” side in a war or because it will cast one of the our “hate” countries in the role of victim or because it might upset the owner of our newspaper—then we contribute to the very prejudices that provoke wars in the first place. If we cannot blow the whistle on a fact that shoots civilians out of the sky, then we make future killings of the same kind as “understandable” as Thatcher found this one… Journalism can be lethal.
It’s perhaps no wonder that Americans were so utterly shocked when their nation was subjected to its own crime against humanity on September 11, 2001. Looking back retrospectively, we’d been so inundated with mendacious journalism that it was as if we were walking amidst a haze of ignorance.
Life imitates art, as Oscar Wilde said, and its hard to not see the bitter irony of the article whose publication in The Independentwas delayed by the al-Qaeda attacks on America. Slated for publication on the morning of September 11 was an exhaustively reported article Fisk had written on the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre. In the nineteen years since the mass killing, he’d discovered an even greater complicity by then-General Ariel Sharon in Beirut slaughter, when 1,700 Palestinian refugees were murdered by Israel’s militia allies under the watch of IDF generals. Rather than answering for his crimes, Sharon would become the Prime Minister of Israel by 2001, arguably the most powerful figure in the Middle East.
The Sabra and Shatila article was delayed by the far timelier World Trade Center Attacks. But the two events—separated by almost two decades—were connected in ways that TV pundits, who in wake of the attacks raged about the “hatred of our freedom,” refused to explore. It was injustices such as Sabra and Shatila—not to mention the support for countless loathsome dictators, the financial prolongation of wars, the sanctioning of military occupation—that led to the resentment in the Middle East, a volcanic anger whose explosion would erupt in a spectacular ball of fire above the New York City skyline.
Though The Great War for Civilization was published in 2006, the conflicts depicted in its pages continue up to today, in 2019—exactly 100 years following the Versailles treaty which set the stage for much of the suffering in the Middle East.
War still sputters on in a Syria devastated by eight years of conflict. Iraq is recovering from the ISIS’ genocidal outburst, which rose from the wreckage of America’s 2003 invasion. Afghanistan, following decades of warfare, is in its eighteenth year of the American war. Following NATO’s 2011 assault, Libya is a failed state overrun by jihadist militias. Egypt suffers under the new al-Sisi dictatorship, while the poor country of Yemen is pummeled to smithereens by Saudi bombs (made in the United States) dropped from Saudi planes (made in the United Kingdom).
The ironically titled The Great War for Civilization is meant to mock the self-righteousness of those who proclaim to be fighting for civilization. But the various smaller but interconnected conflicts are very real, and great indeed.
There is a scene towards the beginning of the book, just after Fisk has met bin Laden for the second time in the mountains of Afghanistan. It is the late 90s, the Taliban era, and the jihadist leader suggests to Fisk that they’re approaching an ominous new juncture in history. As he’s escorted out of the mountains by Algerian al-Qaeda militants—who openly admit that, had their leader not charged them with his protection, they would kill the infidel Englishman—they see a sight of such sublime and moving grandeur that, for a moment, it feels as if bin Laden’s terrible vision may come true.
…I remember the first minutes after our departure from bin Laden’s camp. It was still dark when I caught sight of a great light in the mountains to the north. For a while I thought it was the headlights of another vehicle, another security signal from the camp guards to our departing Toyota. But it hung there for many minutes and I began to realize that it was burning above the mountains and carried a faintly incandescent trail. The men in the vehicle were watching it too. “It is Halley’s comet,” one of them said. He was wrong. It was a newly discovered comet, noticed for the first time only two years earlier by Americans Alan Hale and Tom Bopp, but I could see how Hale-Bopp had become Halley to these Arab men in the mountains of Afghanistan. It was soaring above us now, trailing a golden tail, a sublime power moving at 70,000 kilometers an hour through the heavens.
So we stopped the Toyota and climbed out to watch the fireball as it blazed through the darkness above us, the al-Qaeda men and the Englishmen, all filled with awe at this spectacular, wondrous apparition of cosmic energy, unseen for more than 4,000 years.
“Mr. Robert, do you know what they say when a comet like this is seen?” It was the Algerian, standing next to me now, both of us craning our necks up towards the sky. “It means there is going to be a great war.” And so we watched the fire blaze through the pageant of stars and illuminate the firmament above us.