The Great War for Civilisation

By Robert Fisk

If you read only one book all year, this should be it. The fruit of 30 years reporting from the Middle East, it is an epic in every sense of the word. At a time when the “news” about this region has become dominated by so much propaganda and spin, foreign correspondent Robert Fisk is an eloquent and passionate eyewitness to decades of the most horrifying scenes of violence and hate. One couldn’t ask for a surer guide through these circles of Hell.

And that’s not hyperbole. It’s hard to imagine a book, certainly no work of non-fiction, with more blood running through its pages. Here are bodies torn apart by high-tech weaponry, innocent families blown to pieces, mutilated corpses, torture chambers – and all of it on an industrial scale. It seems at times as though we are walking through an alternate universe created by the Marquis de Sade. Fisk even stops to give the reader an occasional warning that what’s about to come is not for anyone with a weak stomach. And still it comes, more bombed streets, mass graves, and hospital wards filled with the wretched human waste of war. “On television, it looked so clean,” is how he begins one visit to a Baghdad emergency room. But this isn’t television.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about The Great War for Civilisation is how Fisk avoids the obvious danger, especially in a book this long, of having the violence become monotonous, the carnage and brutality banal. Even recollected years after the fact, his reportage loses none of its immediacy. This is a book that is both hard to read and impossible to put down. It’s a cliché, but Fisk gives the horror of war a human face, a context. He feels the ground shake under his feet from explosions and the heat on his face of burning oil fires, he smells the rotting corpses, he hears the flies buzzing about the wounded and the dead, but most of all he hears the voices of the victims and the survivors. He listens to what they have to say.

As a reporter covering events “on the ground” he is less interested in the players of the Great Game, or analyzing their strategies and motives. He observes the the consequences of power in action. And what a miserable tale it is to tell. From Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, through the great Iraq-Iran War, the Israeli occupation of Palestine and invasion of Lebanon, the slaughterhouse of Algeria’s civil war, the two American-led Gulf Wars against Iraq, Fisk has been there covering it all. And not as an embedded or “hotel journalist” either, embracing “the new, cosy, damaging relationship between reporters and the military,” but putting his life on the line in some very dangerous situations. It’s a surprise this book even got written. At one point he is nearly killed by an angry mob in Afghanistan. Such are the hazards faced by someone holding to the heroic, if old-fashioned, ideal of the reporter as (quoting Hitchcock’s foreign correspondent) “one of the little army of historians who are writing history from beside the cannon’s mouth.”

But despite everything he keeps going back. Because he loves the place (his makes his home in Beirut), and because “war is also a vicarious, painful, attractive, unique experience for a journalist.” Danger is a drug, and violence is exciting. Though Fisk would probably not want to acknowledge it, there may be some response here to his astonishment at the horrors of the Middle East’s great killing fields. “What primeval energy produces such sadism?” he asks at one point. Is it such a mystery? Sade, whose name is invoked, had one answer.

Is there a Big Picture? Through it all Fisk describes himself as trying “to make sense of what I have witnessed, to place it in a context that did not exist for me when I was trying to stay alive.” He would like the kaleidoscope to stop turning, “to see the loose flakes of memory reflected in some final, irremediable pattern. So that is what it was about!”

But the kaleidoscope, which is history, is what it is all about. Fisk doesn’t see history as repeating itself, or moving through a series of cycles, but he does see the tragedy of the Middle East as lying in the past, with “our ancestors’ folly.” If the story has a beginning it might go back to the First World War, the “Great War for Civilisation” that Fisk’s father fought in. This is a history written by the West, whose consequences still trap the Middle East. “In the Middle East the people live their past history, again and again, every day.” There is no escape for them.

“How to correct history, that’s the thing.” And it’s the reason Fisk wrote this book. His journalism is both steeped in historical perspective and committed to the belief that journalists are historians. It is their job “to be the first impartial witnesses to history. If we have any reason for our existence, the least must be our ability to report history as it happens so that no one can say: ‘We didn’t know – no one told us.'”

In the current political climate, poisoned by the propaganda war against terrorism (“a word that has become a plague on our vocabulary,” in Fisk’s view), this isn’t an easy job. In the apocalyptic struggle of us against them impartiality is not seen as a virtue. There are even some who have criticized Fisk for interviewing Osama bin Laden. But attempting to understand how the present situation came about is not to excuse any of the perpetrators of violence. The evil of terrorism doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but is born of certain political conditions. Sweeping them under a rhetorical rug isn’t going to make it go away.

Understanding. Witness. Compassion. The Great War for Civilisation embodies all of these in writing that shivers with conviction and intensity. More than just an outstanding work of journalism or history, it is one of the great books of our time.

Review first published March 18, 2006.

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