- The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East
- Alfred A. Knopf, 1107 pp.
Horrors, Wrongs, and Few Heroes
The Great War for Civilisation is an extensive account of the Middle East, past and present, by the well-known correspondent of Britain’s newspaper The Independent. Fisk has covered the region and its wars since 1976 from his home base in Lebanon, the subject of an earlier long book of his, Pity the Nation. The newspaper’s owner, the Irish billionaire Sir Anthony O’Reilly, clearly lets Fisk write what he thinks, at least as regards the Middle East. Earlier, Fisk worked for The Times of London, which he says put controls on his reporting after it was acquired by Rupert Murdoch (who in this country controls Fox News, HarperCollins, the New York Post, et al.).
The title of Fisk’s new work is a mocking one, taken from a campaign medal his father won as a British officer in the First World War–which few people, and certainly not Fisk, see now as having been a war for civilization. There are practically no heroes in this book, and few figures with whom the author does not find fault. Two positive portrayals are of women, Amira Hass of Israel’s newspaper Ha’aretz (which Fisk finds “the nearest Israel has to The Independent”) and Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian spokeswoman.
Fisk is said to be the only foreign correspondent to have interviewed Osama bin Laden three times. Reportedly Osama said a year ago that Americans should read the interviews; that Fisk was “neutral.” Perhaps dispassionate is a better word. He paints an interesting picture of the man. One wishes, however, that he had found out more about Osama’s upbringing (there is however an interesting article on this by Steve Coll in The New Yorker for December 12, 2005), and that he had more to report about Osama’s role in Somalia. According to Fisk, Osama told him simply that “Some of our mujahedin who fought in Afghanistan participated in operations against the Americans in Somalia.” Another journalist, John Miller, reported in Esquire for February 1999 that Osama took direct credit for sending a contingent into the fighting in Mogadishu in 1992, while one of his men claimed to have slit the throats of three American soldiers there.
The author writes frankly, critically, and often derisively of American official involvement in the Middle East in recent decades. He reminds us of how the “gullible but handsome” Oliver North went to Iran in 1986 hoping to swap arms for hostages; of how Donald Rumsfeld “made his notorious 1983 visit to Baghdad to shake Saddam’s hand;” of US-occupied Baghdad and “[Paul] Bremer’s failures, his hopeless inability to understand the nature of the debacle which he and his hopeless occupation authority had brought about.” Fisk is unwaveringly harsh in his judgment of George W. Bush–and of Prime Minister Tony Blair, “his earnest, obedient partner.”
Much of Fisk’s book is devoted to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Ethan Bronner has written in the New York Times that “Fisk is most passionate and least informed about Israel.” Certainly he is passionate in this part of the book; I would not say he is uninformed. He reminds us that terrorism can be hard to define; that in the days when they were fighting to establish a Jewish state, the Haganah, Irgun, and the Stern gang blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, hanged two British army hostages, and assassinated the British envoy in Cairo. (Although Fisk does not say so, they also blew up the British embassy in Rome.) He tells us not to forget the connection between the Palestinian intifada and Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, which violate the Fourth Geneva Convention although Washington no longer wants to say so. Nor does Fisk ignore the nefarious yet pitiful figure of Yassir Arafat, or ignore the senseless acts of terrorism committed by Palestinians, including the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and “Leon Klinghoffer’s blood, sprayed across the side of the ship as the murdered old man was pushed overboard.”
This said, is Fisk evenhanded? I think many readers will agree with me that he goes too far in saying that Israel is waging “the last colonial war” against the Palestinians. He is critical of Palestinian and other Arab leaders, yet he might have said far more of their callous misdeeds over the decades, to which the Palestinian people owe a good share of their present woes.
One of the virtues of Fisk’s book is that it reminds us, beyond Israel and the Palestinians and the present scene in Iraq, of earlier horrors in the region, including the Turks’ massacre of Armenians in 1915. He notes the many world leaders who have shied away from calling that a holocaust: leaders from Tony Blair through Jacques Chirac to Shimon Peres, who was worried about Israel’s good relations with Turkey. Fisk describes in considerable detail Iraq’s horrendous war with Iran just a quarter-century ago, which he estimates killed a million fighting men. His description of the suffering of civilians in all these wars, including America’s war with Saddam, is terribly saddening. There are also graphic accounts of the tortures inflicted in jails across the region, from Egypt to Iran. There is so much blood and death in this book that this reviewer will find it hard to read again. Which reminds me that while Fisk quotes the young English poets who met sad graves in the First World War, he fails to remind us what T.S. Eliot wrote–that human kind cannot bear very much reality.