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May 28, 2007 | by  | in Books |
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The Great War For Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East

The World Is Deep, Deeper Than Day Can Comprehend

“I have a fascination for the documents that blow through the ruins of war, the pages of letters home and the bureaucracy of armies and the now useless instructions on how to fire ground-to-air missiles that flutter across the desert and cover the floors of roofless factories.” – Robert Fisk

The first word that comes to mind when confronted with Independent journalist Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation is ‘heavy’. Dammit, the thing weighs 1,875 grams in paperback. Its name is suitably deep – Great War dredges up mournful thoughts of poppies and pointless death; Civilisation expands the ‘greatness’ of the war in a kind of tongue-in-cheek dig at western arrogance. Its subtitle, The Conquest of the Middle East, is even heavier: it ties the weight of this arrogance to the contemporary news bulletin.

Well then. The book bills itself as a combination of history and reporting, although ‘mash’ might be a better word. Fisk’s monumental tome narrates the history of three decades in the Middle East through a sprawling mess of personal recollection. His personal presence in the wars he examines has unsurprisingly made it impossible for him to present a neatly worked-out argument about the causes and effects of the Middle East ‘problem’. Instead, he has fashioned these memoirs in an attempt to grapple with the weight of all the unbearable things he has seen and heard, jotting down his life as a war tourist on paper as a kind of cathartic bleeding – history as personal therapy. Hence the heaviness.

Vicariously, I Like To Watch Things Die

Perhaps Fisk understands, that, had he tried to write a history book about the Middle East, he would have become just another orientalist trying to ‘know the East’ by making a bunch of generalisations. So instead he looks at his personal experience of western misadventure in the area, including one powerful chapter on his father’s service during the original Great War. Fisk sees the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and its partition at the end of this conflict as underlying much of the subsequent turmoil.

The strongest chapters in The Great War For Civilisation are Fisk’s accounts of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the first years of the Iran-Iraq War. He wandered around these battle zones in the early ‘80s, back when he was still relatively green as a war correspondent. What makes these memoirs so compelling is the author’s awareness of his own failings, and his attempt to analyse the dangers of war voyeurism. Being one of the few western journalists in the Iran-Iraq War made him feel like it was “my war”, and he wasn’t going to miss a thing, running into riots and swimming through gunfire.

But when an Iraqi soldier, escorting Fisk around their Iranian invasion, asks if he would like to see a few rounds fired into the enemy, Fisk realises how easy it is to slip into contributing towards war. For a moment he wants to say yes, to get a good scoop, before snapping back into the awful reality of war. From a distance of two decades, he is sickened by his presence in so many battles, and despises contemporary correspondents ‘embedded’ within armies who walk around in military fatigues. He calls war a “vicarious, painful, attractive, unique experience”, a “narcotic” which “has to be burned off. If it’s not, the journalist may well die”. Yet he continues, even now, to run into these danger zones – suffering a brutal beating in Afghanistan in 2001 – because they give his reports an ‘authenticity’ that allows him to challenge the warmongers.

Welcome to Castle al-Qaeda

Oddly, The Great War For Civilisation opens on a humorous note, as Fisk recounts his three meetings with Osama bin Laden. I first read this section immediately after completing Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the parallels are uncanny. Jonathan Harker is spooked by the windy mountain roads which he knows he must follow to his employer; Robert Fisk is spooked by the windy mountain roads of Afghanistan which he must follow to his interview (not to mention the gunmen who tell him “Toyota is good for Jihad”).

Both villains warmly welcome their guests. Jonathan then frets to find a way out of Dracula’s employ; Robert frets to find an escape when Osama asks him to join al-Qaeda.

If it were not for such moments of humour – in particular, the ludicrously absurd telling of the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the US Secret Service is played for fools by Iran’s clerics, auctioning off hostages for arms – The Great War For Civilisation would be unbearable.

Although Fisk writes like a frontline journalist, clearly expressing his observations through brisk, no-nonsense prose, the immense awful weight of the thousands of corpses he has seen would be enough to induce suicide in any reader fool enough to plough through the book in one chunk (it took me three months). The chapters on Algeria in the ‘90s and Iraq since 2003 are particularly gruesome, since the sheer randomness of the violence inflicted upon innocents in the name of God or the State in both nations just doesn’t make sense. While Fisk is constantly asking why?, and constantly linking the horror he has seen to a legacy of western arrogance, he also understands that there are no simply answers, that no one group are to blame.

Everyone Is Guilty

Fisk is undeniably a pessimist, which is the same as to say that he is an astute observer of human behaviour. He reserves the bulk of his moral fury for Western leaders’ refusal to accept responsibility for their own blunders, and their dismissive attitude towards those in the East. But he is also unashamedly frustrated and appalled with the corrupt local oil-men and sadistic dictators who rule the Middle East. In one impassioned outburst, he slams the Bush neo-cons for supporting Saddam in the 1980s, when Fisk was already reporting on the dictator’s torture chambers and poisoned gas attacks. These are the same neo-cons who would later accuse Fisk of supporting Saddam, when he opposed their invasion.

Yes, Robert Fisk grinds his axes and hold his grudges, but he grinds fairly. His attempt to be fair even creates a tension between a desire to condemn every act of cruelty, and an understanding that some lesser evils can prevent greater tragedies. For example, he condemns the Assad dynasty of Syria for massacring Islamic fundamentalists 20 years ago, yet acknowledges that Syria has since been remarkably free of the religious violence that plagues her neighbours. Nevertheless, Fisk never suggests that this makes the Assads’ cruelties somehow acceptable. It is merely an observation.

Just as Fisk refuses to believe that the West is the sole cause of all the evil in the world (although he would justifiably call it the main contributor), so he refuses to accept the kind of leftist stances his critics presume he must always take. He slams British Labour Unions for helping Rupert Murdoch buy his old paper, The Times. In fact, the only politician who emerges from The Great War For Civilisation with his dignity intact is Rafik Hariri, the billionaire philanthropist who rebuilt Beirut in the 1990s with his own fortune. Fisk cannot be easily written off, because he does not take one-sided stance. He is angry with everyone. The anger, well-voiced, pessimistic yet compassionate, is what lingers when you finally throw this heavy mass behind your door in a fit of despair. Except for a few short passages this is not a fun read, but it is vital. Just don’t try to do it all at once.

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About the Author ()

Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

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