It’s 1,000 pages of rage. One thousand and thirty eight pages, to be exact. And Robert Fisk, one of the best, most courageous Westerners who writes about the ongoing military conflicts in the Middle East, justifies that rage on every page of his magnum opus, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East.
Fisk, a reporter for the British newspaper, The Independent, has covered the Middle East for nearly three decades. And he has brought formidable skills to that assignment. Fluent in Arabic, and incredibly dedicated to his job, Fisk repeatedly returns to the very front lines of the war zones, telling the stories of individual soldiers and their terrors.
Fisk’s willingness to repeatedly visit war zones proves his personal bravery. He takes readers with him to the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq War, the First Iraq War, and the Second Iraq War. And his unflinching descriptions of what he sees are not to be read by the squeamish. In one visit to a hospital in Baghdad, he writes “I’ll leave out the description of the flies that have been clustering round the wounds in the Kindi emergency rooms, of the blood caked on the sheets and the dirty pillow cases, the streaks of blood on the floor, the blood still dripping from the wounds of those I talked to. All were civilians. All wanted to know why they had to suffer.” There are dozens of other horrifying passages in this book descriptions of bodies blown apart by bomb blasts, of severed heads. There are vivid descriptions of the torture procedures used by the Iranians, the Iraqis, the Israelis and others. And by page 1,000 or so when Fisk catalogs some of Saddam Hussein’s favorite methods of torture, it becomes too much to tolerate. But there’s a reason for Fisk’s gruesome recitations: they are graphic (perhaps pornographic) pictures of warfare and despotism.
Blood and guts aside, Fisk is a graceful, passionate writer. And it’s the passion that makes this book sing. Fisk plays no favorites. He is disgusted by the duplicity and mendacity of Western leaders and Arab leaders alike. His passion is for the ordinary people that he meets. And he introduces us to many: the survivors of the Armenian genocide, the Iraqi victims of American bombing attacks, the Palestinian victims of Israeli missile attacks, the Iranian soldiers who were hit by Saddam Hussein’s poison gas assaults, the young Algerian who was subjected to savage torture by Algerian policemen. (Again, vivid descriptions of the torture methods that are not for the squeamish). He also provides insights into the views of Osama bin Laden, who Fisk has interviewed twice.
Fisk’s book is particularly interesting for American readers like this reviewer who seldom see news coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that tells of the conflict from the Palestinian side. In 1982, Fisk was among the first reporters to visit the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon after several thousand Palestinians were slaughtered by the Christian Phalangists allied with the Israelis. Fisk repeatedly points out how the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has fomented the ongoing conflicts in the region. “There was one outstanding, virtually unchanging phenomenon which ensured that the Middle East balance of power remained unchanged: America’s unwavering, largely uncritical, often involuntary support of Israel. Israel’s ‘security’ or supposed lack thereof became the yardstick for all negotiations, all military threats and all wars.”
Fisk reserves special disdain for reporters from the western media outlets and particularly for the New York Times, the paper that led the American media’s cheerleading in the months before the launch of the Second Iraq War in 2003. Fisk says that the Times was a “virtual mouthpiece for scores of anonymous U.S. ‘officials'” all of whom supported the war. And he shows how newspapers in Britain and the U.S. trumpeted every bit of fabricated news about Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction while ignoring the data coming from independent analysts which suggested that Iraq did not, in fact, have any.
Fisk recounts the latest chapters of the West’s ongoing militarization of the region. “In 1998 and 1999 alone, Gulf Arab military spending came to $92 billion. Since 1997, the Emirates alone had signed contracts worth more than $11 billion, adding 112 aircraft to their arsenal” He tells of meeting arms designer Mikhail Kalashnikov at an Abu Dhabi arms bazaar in 2001. The man who created the AK-47, the weapon that has become a symbol of warfare around the world, was “a small, squat man with grey coiffed hair and quite a few gold teeth.” And Fisk allows Kalashnikov to tell his version of history, that he is not to blame for the violence done by the rifle that bears his name, instead, “I think the policies of these countries are to blame, not the weapons designers. Man is born to protect his family”
Fisk seems to have been at every important event affecting the Middle East over the past three decades. He has seen the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, the Iran-Iraq war, the defeat of the Soviet army in Afghanistan, the Algerian civil war and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. He was at the United Nations in February of 2003 to hear Secretary of State Colin Powell presented his dubious evidence against Iraq. And of course, Fisk was in Baghdad a few weeks later when the U.S. began what he calls “this frivolous, demented conflict.”
The most powerful passage in this book comes on page 378, where Fisk dismantles the rhetoric being used by the Bush Administration and other politicians to justify the massive militarization of Iraq and other regions of the Middle East. Fisk strips naked Bush’s vaunted “global war on terrorism” by showing how Bush and others are debasing the language. It’s a passage so powerful that I dearly wish I’d written it myself. It deserves full quotation:
“Terrorism” is a word that has become a plague on our vocabulary, the excuse and reason and moral permit for state-sponsored violence our violence which is now used on the innocent of the Middle East ever more outrageously and promiscuously. Terrorism, terrorism, terrorism. It has become a full stop, a punctuation mark, a phrase, a speech, a sermon, a be-all and end-all of everything that we must hate in order to ignore injustice and occupation and murder on a mass scale. Terror, terror, terror, terror. It is a sonata, a symphony, an orchestra tuned to every television and radio station and news agency report, the soap-opera of the Devil, served up on prime-time or distilled in wearingly dull and mendacious form by the right-wing “commentators” of the American east coast or the Jerusalem Post or the intellectuals of Europe. Strike against Terror. Victory over Terror. War on Terror. Everlasting War on Terror. Rarely in history have soldiers and journalists and presidents and kings aligned themselves in such thoughtless unquestioning ranks. In August 1914, the soldiers thought they would be home by Christmas. Today we are fighting for ever. The war is eternal.
This is not a perfect book. I wished for better attribution and more footnotes. Fisk helpfully place his footnotes on the page in which the notes appears, rather than hiding them in the back of the book. But there are too few footnotes and too few attributions of sources and quotations. Second, and most obvious, this book is too long. Better editing could have cut the book by a third and still made it work. That said, Fisk’s ability to sustain his rage for 1,030 pages is remarkable and laudable. And for the dedicated readers who finally reach page 861, they will find Fisk’s personal credo. There he quotes the Pakistani national poet Allam Mohammed Iqbal, who wrote “Of God’s command, the inner meaning do you know? To live in constant anger is a life indeed.”
Fisk’s a man of constant anger. And he directs it toward the miscreants who have used their violence on the Middle East “ever more outrageously and promiscuously.” And yet, amidst Fisk’s rage and righteous indignation lies an unspoken, secular prayer for peace, a prayer that the violence that has haunted the entire region for decades might one day be stopped. It’s a long prayer 1,038 pages but it deserves to be read by everyone interested in knowing the modern history of the Middle East.
ROBERT BRYCE is the author of Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America’s Superstate. He may be reached at Robert@robertbryce.com.