Robert Fisk is a great war reporter and partisan chronicler of western abuses in the middle east. But do not expect political insightby Ian Black / December 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
The Great War for Civilisation by Robert Fisk (4th Estate, £25)
“To Fisk,” in the sardonic definition of the blogosphere’s media watchdogs, means to demolish tendentious views masquerading as fact—a very backhanded compliment to the British journalist whose remarkable reporting from the middle east has attracted admiration and rage in near equal measure for close to 30 years.
Based in Beirut since 1976, Robert Fisk’s mission has been, in his own words, to chronicle “the betrayals, treachery and deceit of middle east history”—most of those carried out by the Americans, British and French. He takes his book’s title from the medal awarded to his father for his part in the “Great War for Civilisation.” The peace treaties that ended that war, the Balfour declaration and the secret agreements dividing up the Ottoman empire drew the borders of much of the modern middle east—Iraq, with its Shia, Kurds and Sunnis, carved out of Mesopotamia; Christian-dominated Lebanon out of Greater Syria; a Jewish “national home” promised in Arab-majority Palestine. Fisk, says the book’s publicity handout, “has spent his entire career watching people within these borders die.” This 1,366-page magnum opus of his writing is certainly full of furious, vivid and highly personalised writing.
Fisk’s wars have been waged on very different terrain from his father’s Somme, but he has remained a very English chap who likes steam engines, acts the “outraged Brit” with uncooperative foreigners and carries the spirit of the trenches far beyond the western front: the Iranian Basij are compared to Wilfred Owen’s doomed youth, the tulips of Khomeini’s martyrs to the poppies of Flanders fields. His jihad is written by Laurence Binyon.
It was in 1980 that I first read Fisk’s riveting account of riding shotgun with a Kalashnikov on a Soviet convoy down the Hindu Kush—how often does one journalist remember another’s story for so long? It is still superb—and all the better for having placed himself at the centre of the tale. The next time he does this to the same extent it is to describe himself being beaten by an Afghan mob in 2001 despite having spent so long reporting on Muslim humiliation and misery. Had he been an Afghan, he says, he would have done the same.
What the book does not convey is how his journalistic colleagues see Fisk: the way, for years, whenever English-speaking journalists have gathered in the middle east, they have talked with irritation and envy of his manic energy, his ability to be in the right place, and to write a story that is invariably far more dramatic than anyone else’s. He has a powerful empathetic imagination and a strong sense of history: after flying with him in a rickety Iranian Hercules bucketing towards the Gulf front line, while he imitates, in several voices, an RAF raid over the Ruhr in 1943—complete with anti-aircraft fire and other sound effects—no one can be surprised that he is such a fine war correspondent.
Fisk is the master reporter of carnage and has seen thousands of corpses: “women and children as well as men—blasted, shredded, eviscerated, disembowelled, beheaded, lobotomised, castrated and otherwise annihilated.” In a couple of places he offers faint-hearted readers advance warning about the graphic content of the following pages.
On the Fao peninsula in 1987 I remember him peering intently at the corpse of an Iraqi soldier killed in the Iranian assault across the Shatt al-Arab—a scene he re-creates in this book, making one unknown dead man come alive simply by noticing that he was wearing a wedding ring.
Another speciality is a precision that borders on the pedantic: the number of lorries in a convoy, the exact time a bomb goes off—glancing automatically at his watch whenever he hears one, the names of the victims in a mass grave. He likes to display his learning, though his Arabic is not always up to scratch: the word used for the loss of Palestine in 1948 is nakba (disaster or catastrophe) not nakhba. Finicky? Maybe. But Fisk excoriates his own critics for sloppiness.
Intriguingly, given the disaster of the current adventure in Iraq, Fisk comes close to saying that the 1991 war would have been acceptable if the coalition had gone beyond Kuwait to Baghdad—and gives a heart-rending account of the crushing of the Shia rebellion in the south, whose legacy is so important to understanding what is happening there now.
Fisk’s interviews with Bin Laden are fascinating. The suspicion is that Fisk agrees with him about many things. The al Qaeda leader, he argues, is certainly more representative of Arabs and Muslims than their tinpot dictators and kings: he implies that there is indeed a “clash of civilisations” that cannot be settled. “Quick fix promises” are no good, “for the people of the middle east have longer memories.” The last thing he wants, you feel, is for these people, passive victims in a world of violence, to put history behind them.
But what if they can? Iraq is no advertisement for foreign intervention, but there are other possibilities. Libya, another Arab land cursed by a much demonised despot, abandoned its WMD programmes peacefully. Can co-option of Islamists and European carrots bring multi-party democracy and greater respect for human rights to the Maghreb, even to Syria? And what if Egypt’s half-free presidential election leads to more open politics once Hosni Mubarak is gone? True, there is less reason to hope that a viable Palestine will emerge soon alongside Ariel Sharon’s Israel, or that the House of Saud will change its ways, the better to confront its own jihadis. Fisk has little or nothing to say on such questions, preferring to bob along, arms waving wildly, with the blood-dimmed tide. Maybe he should have spent more time watching how Arabs and Muslims live, as well as how they die.
Fisk can be collegial—he kindly describes me as “sane” under fire (possibly an exaggeration)— but he is harsh too, accusing fellow journalists of lying or acting as mouthpieces for governments. Is he really the sole bearer of truth and the only one who cares? He talks of the universality of human rights and condemns, of course, the abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo bay and Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. But he seems less outraged by Iraqi, Syrian or Saudi tyrants, secret policemen and torture chambers.
He has written compellingly in a previous book about the link between the Nazi Holocaust and Zionism. But his Israelis are unquestionably less real than his Arabs and Muslims. The 28 mostly elderly civilians blown up by a Hamas suicide bomber as they celebrated Passover in 2002 are a perfunctory prelude to a detailed account of the subsequent Israeli onslaught on the West Bank town of Jenin. In the real world, with its many shades of grey, perpetrators can be victims too, and vice versa.
To describe Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians as just a colonial war is to misunderstand as well as to misrepresent. If that was all it was, then a solution would be blindingly obvious. Since it is not, a solution has to be found, as it was eventually for the French in Algeria. That too is history’s bleak legacy. This is an important book by an intrepid and talented writer, but it is also a flawed and disturbing one.