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…