The Great War for Civilization by Robert Fisk

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By: Usama Ansar

“There is a misconception that journalists can be objective … What journalism is really about is to monitor power and the centres of power.”

Amira Hass

Am I a pacifist? No. Do I think wars can, at times, be justifiable? Yes. Am I willing to change my point of view? After reading Robert Fisk’s “The Great War for Civilization – The Conquest of the Middle East,” definitely. Fisk’s intent in writing the 1286 page semi-autobiographical testament to his long career in the middle east might have been different, but to me it came across as a powerful case against war.

The book can be read in many ways. Fisk recounts his thirty-three years in the middle east (since the book was written in 2005) as a war correspondent, taking us through Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, The UAE, Lebanon and Palestine. The book is a depressing travelogue, an elaborate personal history, a comprehensive rebuttal of conspiracy theories, an illuminating investigation into the “legal” arms trade, a brutal expose of journalism and a strong call to action for justice – everything at once.

The book is chaotic. It has no order. It is also very long. There is, at times, no obvious connection between successive chapters, but all this takes away little from the substance of Fisk’s writing. There are no heroes or villains in the book, there are only factual accounts. Brutal, damning, saddening factual accounts. Reading it, you get a strong feeling – and, arguably, rightly so from a person who has never voted – that Fisk is not “with” or “against” anyone. He does not have an interest being friends with people in the corridors of power, his goal is to highlight the severity of human suffering caused by decisions made by them. He writes in an avowedly adversarial tone.

One finds Arafat being called out for his incompetence and lack of foresight with almost as much contempt as Barak, Peres or Rabin are called out for their abhorrent treatment of Palestinians. Fisk assesses that the Iran was a victim of Iraqi aggression but that does not stop him from reporting on the kangaroo courts used by Iran to try political opponents nor does his criticism of Saddam stop him from calling out the murderous nature of sanctions imposed on Iraq during the 90’s.

Most of the book consists of on-the-ground, firsthand accounts of what life is like for people living through wars and tyranny. Fisk combines his interviews, quite frequently, with lessons he learnt from his father; a soldier in the First World War with whom Fisk had a strained relationship throughout his life but who, in his own words, had embedded within him a love for books and history. In stark contrast is the mention of his mother, almost as an antithesis of his father. A strong woman who wholeheartedly believed in humanity and did not want people wearing black ties at her funeral. She had a desire to live, a yarning to see the world become a better place.

Fisk’s description of her funeral is moving. What would she have thought, he is seen asking people, implicitly, at her funeral, if she knew that President Clinton spent a hundred million dollars in five minutes to fire missiles on Afghanistan and Sudan when the total amount of money spent on all neurological research in the United States over the year before her death was forty-five million dollars. This, Fisk says, “was the kind of human folly that would have angered Peggy.” It should, I believe, anger all of us.

Another theme running through the book is that of journalistic integrity. Early on, Fisk mentions how during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, while he was on a military truck moving through trials they expected to be ambushed on, he held a gun – a breach of journalistic integrity. It was an experience he regretted. Never again – not on the US tanks in Saudi Arabia, or the Apache in Iraq, or on the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war – does one find him holding a weapon. Journalists, he believes, should never dress like, or act like soldiers.

Later in the book, I was reminded of Joris Luyendijk’s People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East, when Fisk reminds us, although two decades before Luyendijk, about the problem with hotel journalists – reporters who stay in hotels and report what they are told by the “departments of information.” Governments lie. This is the central lesson in many chapters throughout the book.

Journalists on military bases, for example, were given frequent “official updates” about military campaigns – which were deliberately misleading. Reality only exposes itself, Fisk seems to suggest, by talking to the soldiers outside the “official” briefings; by sitting down with them on tanks on the front lines and talking about their fears and hopes. He also talks about the “minders” in Iraq. For journalists who actually wanted to get to a story, the most plausible way was usually to bribe these minders and make them work for yourself rather than the government.

There is also mention of the use of depleted uranium (DU) shells used by allied forces in the war of 1991. In the ensuing years, Iraq – already plagued by a crippling economy, devastated infrastructure, and an army directing its anger on its own citizens – faced a spike in unexplained cancer and leukemia cases. Fisk tells the story of his research into this, and despite all evidence pointing to the relationship between DU shells and cancer, the government of UK declines to further investigate the issue because “there was no academic research” looking into this correlation.

In all, this is, if I am allowed some linguistic liberty, a refreshingly depressing book. Refreshing, because makes a passionate case against human suffering, but depressing nonetheless because it exposes how the same, seemingly sane leaders, some of whom we consider our heroes, people who we take inspiration from, are often hopelessly uninformed, incompetent, complicit or some combination of these three. Fisk throws us right back into reality. In all, this is a refreshingly depressing book. Refreshing, because it makes a passionate case against human suffering, but depressing nonetheless because it exposes how the same seemingly sane leaders we take inspiration from, are often hopelessly uninformed, incompetent, complicit or some combination of these three. Fisk throws us right back into reality.

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