a journal of modern society & culture

2010: Vol.9, Issue 1

Essays

Reviews

Robert Fisk’s Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf)

reviewed by Matthew Abraham

The name “Robert Fisk” has become synonymous with dangerous truth-telling in his reporting about the Middle East—truth-telling of a kind so rare in journalistic circles that those seeking to suppress the facts about what the Western powers have done to the region and its people usually resort to the usual defamation about how Fisk is anti-American and anti-Semitic. Fisk’s truth-telling is of a sort that must be shunned and avoided by the cowardly corporate media and its host of watchdogs who seek to make the likes of Fisk ancient history. If telling the truth is considered a revolutionary act in deceitful times Fisk has consistently violated the central taboos on Middle East reporting, repeatedly putting U.S. journalists to shame for their participation in a large-scale cover-up. His example needs to be learned from and emulated. What does it mean that truth-telling has become such an anomaly, such a dangerous act, that Fisk is part of a small handful of alternatives to the U.S. media’s perversion of reality? Fisk’s persistent and dogged example forces us to ask that question.

It would be a terrific understatement to claim that Robert Fisk has written an impressive book with his The Great War for Civilisation. The book is more than impressive—it is daunting and intimidating in its display of utter mastery of the modern history of the Middle East. Writing Middle East history, or at least the kind of history that most Western journalists have found themselves unable to tell, has been Fisk’s specialty for nearly fifty years.

“Journalists,” according to Fisk, are charged “with writing the first page of history.” Or to borrow from Ha’aretz reporter, Amira Hass, the journalist is supposed “to monitor the centers of power.” Fisk has established a reputation for telling the world the truth, in all its gory details, in his reporting on Middle East politics for The Independent. This has made him a rare commodity—someone who is willing to tell the truth, no matter how unpopular, about U.S., British, and Israeli neocolonialism in Iraq, Iran, Palestine, etc. His is a voice that is trusted because it will not accommodate itself to the dictates of Realpolitick, something most mainstream media sources capitulated to long ago. “I am neither a lion nor a mouse, but I can be a tough dog, and when I get a rope between my teeth I won’t let go until I shake it and tug it something rotten to see what lies at the other end. That, after all, is what journalists are supposed to do” (270).

When we journalists fail to get across the reality of events to our readers, we have not only failed in our job; we have also become a party to the bloody events that we are supposed to be reporting. If we cannot tell the truth about the shooting down of a civilian airliner—because this will harm “our” side in a war or because it will cast one of our “hate” countries in the role of victim or because it might upset the owner of our newspaper—then we contribute to the very prejudices that provoke wars in the first place…. Journalism can be lethal (271).

In this 1100-page book, where he includes thirty years of reporting on everything from the Armenian Holocaust denial in Turkey, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the rise of Osama bin Laden in the aftermath of that war, the first Gulf war, the last ten years of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the aftermath of 9/11, we obtain a glimpse of Fisk’s deep commitment to humanity, his belief in human morality, and human decency. No Western reporter knows the politics of the Middle East better than Robert Fisk, but Fisk represents more than just a seasoned and knowledgeable reporter—his reporting represents a stentorian voice beckoning us to look closely at the major players and events in the Middle East. He is in the league of intellectuals such as I.F. Stone, Hannah Arendt, Edward Said, and Noam Chomsky in his determination to tell the truth the consequences be damned. He has been the target of abuse and vilification, including among those he presumably was defending in print.

Fisk not only narrates the great dramas of the region over the last several years, but provides the detailed historical context for those events, enabling his readers to really understand the basis for the indigenous population’s grievances against the great powers. His knowledge of the political landscape in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine makes his narration seem nearly effortless. However, Fisk is a more than a mere storyteller; indeed, he is also a chronicler of grave injustices. Along with a few intrepid Israeli journalists (Amira Hass, the late Tanya Reinhart, and Gideon Levy) he has reported on the imperial plundering of the region with an unmatchable eloquence and passion. For example, his Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon is the most moving journalistic account we have of the 1982 Lebanon War and is considered by many the quintessential history of Israel’s invasion, euphemistically dubbed “Peace for Galilee,” and its aftermath.

Fisk has a unique ability to recuperate the lost voices of those who have suffered at the hands of imperial violence, voices drowned out by the patriotic fervor and the denials accompanying the lame excuses of those who refuse to stand up against the abuses of power. In his eloquence and the thoroughness of his prose, once catches a glimpse of the desperation within the human condition, the extraordinary acts of courage emerging out of humiliation and injustice. He helps his readers to understand why Palestinian men and women living in the occupied territories become suicide bombers, who are willing to die as martyrs and leave their families behind, rather than to live as caged animals for the amusement of Israeli colons. Fisk refuses the facile formulations of the media pundits who speak of “homicide bombers,” a perverse reversal of cause and effect, a shift in emphasis from the oppressive conditions of occupation that produce a suicide to the status of the innocents, who may have prospered and enjoyed a good life as a result of the oppressive conditions that produced the suicide itself. Fisk fully exposes the extent of Israel’s utter destruction of the Palestinian biopolitical.

As the prospects for something called “Middle East peace” become increasingly elusive, with escalating violence a near certainty in the Israel-Palestine conflict and Iraq, and a possible U.S.-Israeli strike against purported nuclear targets in Iran, the region is posed for the kind of cataclysmic violence prophetic voices like Noam Chomsky and the late Israel Shahak warned us about sometime ago. That Fisk has taken on about the formidable task of warning Western readers of the coming firestorm out of the Middle East with such single-mindedness is a testament to his journalistic integrity, as well as an indication of how power conditions both the production and reception of the news.

Fisk forces his readers to dig deep within themselves to explore the depths of this region’s tragedy, which places the entire world on a dangerous precipice. “This is a book about torture and humiliation,” and I would add, greed and betrayal. To what should we attribute the deep psychological Western resistance to understanding the conditions under which Arabs live in the Middle East, particularly the seemingly inexplicable intransigence to exploring the possibility that many of the Arab world’s grievances against the West have some basis in actually historical events, and are not simply the figments of a few extremists’ imaginations? It is to this predicament that Robert Fisk has turned in his journalistic coverage of the Middle East. Why do people turn away from the horrific suffering, avoidable suffering, produced by their governments, when that suffering is so easily avoidable? Perhaps, as Fisk, points out “Much of the violence throughout the world comes back ‘Made in the U.S.A.’” (529).

In 1996, when Fisk delivered the hell fire missiles used by an American-made Israeli Apache against a Lebanese ambulance (killing four children and two women) to the Boeing executives in Seattle, Washington who were far removed from the violence of the human corpses produced by U.S. and Israeli military adventurism—Fisk is told, “We just sell missiles. We can’t be responsible for what’s done with them?” “Whatever you do…,” implored these powerful men at Boeing, do not mention the use of these missiles in relation to Israel. This is how the Israel Lobby has made even grown men afraid for their “careers.” That perceptions have to be structured so as to disable critical thought on crucial questions about the current state of affairs in the Middle East should given one pause. How, for example, can one avoid facing 1) the legitimacy of the grievances of those Palestinian Arabs living in the Occupied Territories who are on the receiving end of the well-honed U.S. military machine; 2) the complicity of those who speak of the U.S. brokering a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians; 3) and the gross distortion of the historical and diplomatic record by the U.S. press.

The use of American armaments against Arabs by Israel has been one of the most provocative sources of anger in the Middle East, and the narrative of their use is almost as important as the political conflict between Israel and its enemies. For it is one thing to know that Washington claims to be a “neutral partner” in Middle East peace negotiations while supporting one side—Israel—in all its demands; it is quite another when the armaments Israel employs to enforce its will—weapons that kill and tear apart Arabs—carry the engraved evidence of their manufacture in the United States (762).

Fisk will not allow us to so easily avoid this unpleasantness, these facts of history, and, yes, the price of occupation and brutality. He takes us straight into the eyes of those who terrorize “us”.

We are able to obtain a direct path into Osama Bin Laden’s thinking in the opening chapter of The Great War for Civilisation where Fisk provides us with a glimpse of Bin Laden’s egomania, as well as some insight into his justified outrage at U.S. and Israeli policy in the region:

Bin Laden was speaking slowly and with precision, an Egyptian taking notes in a large exercise book by the lamplight like a Middle Ages scribe. “This doesn’t mean declaring war against the West and Western people—but against the American regime which is against every American.” I interrupted bin Laden.

Unlike Arab regimes, I said, the people in the United States elected their government. They would say that their government represents them. He disregarded my comment. I hope he did. For in the years to come, his war would embrace the deaths of thousands of American civilians.

Fisk explains the depths of Arab anger against the West and its colonial wars since 1917, when the Balfour Declaration offered to create a Jewish national home in Palestine. One-time Jewish terrorists are now Israeli war heroes and prime ministers, feted heads of state, and much-revered spokesmen for the “War on Terror”. Begin, Shamir, Dayan, Sharon, Netanyahu, Barak, Rabin, and many others have sown as much terror as they have sought to eradicate—each has been on both sides of state terror. While the phrase “Jewish terrorist” is unheard of in contemporary media discourse, as the racial privilege Israelis enjoy over their Palestinian adversaries is never mentioned, it is important to remember that Israel was born out of Jewish terror and the place of this terror in Bin Laden’s seething anger against the Western powers:

Looking back now, knowing what we know, understanding the monstrous beast-figure he would become in the collective imagination of the world, I search for some clue, the tiniest piece of evidence, that this man would inspire an act that would change the world forever—or, more to the point, allow an American president to persuade his people that the world has changed forever (7).

One can look back now, nearly eight years later, at the 2001 publication of “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” and remember Walter Benjamin’s famous statement in his “Seventh Thesis on Philosophy” that “There is no document of culture that is not at the same time a document of barbarism” and conclude that barbarism indeed begins with the military planners who express their will-for-domination on paper even before the firing of the first missile or the slaying of the first victim.

Fisk was nearly stoned to death by the Afghani refuges of Kila Abdullah shortly after 9/11at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, an event which many of his critics in the United States greeted with more than a little joy. See Fisk’s “If I Was an Afghan I Too Might Have Attacked Robert Fisk” at HYPERLINK "http://www.counterpunch.org/fiskbeaten.html" http://www.counterpunch.org/fiskbeaten.html (accessed on September 20th, 2009). As Fisk writes, “And -- I realised -- there were all the Afghan men and boys who had attacked me who should never have done so but whose brutality was entirely the product of others, of us -- of we who had armed their struggle against the Russians and ignored their pain and laughed at their civil war and then armed and paid them again for the "War for Civilisation" just a few miles away and then bombed their homes and ripped up their families and called them "collateral damage."

See Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians and Shahak’s Open Secrets.