Mixed reviews for Robert Fisk's The Great War for Civilisation

By Philip Knight, John R Bradley

Two reviewers with different assessments of Robert Fisk's new book on the Middle East.

Philip Knight's review

This brilliant but enormous book has been 16 years in the making. Its obvious ingredients are 328,000 notes, documents and dispatches, and Robert Fisk's 30 years' experience of reporting on the Middle East.

But there is also a hidden element - the author's ethical, philosophical and moral approach to his life's work.

Fisk believes most journalists who have reported from the tragedy-strewn and bloody countries of the Middle East have failed their readers and viewers.

He has decided that they have been competent - even outstanding - in giving the who, how, where, what and when of events but have left out the "why".

He says every journalist in the Middle East needs to walk round with a history book to remind him or her of why we got to where we are; why the injustices and horrors of yesteryear are engraved in people's minds and have powerful influence on what happens next.

This conviction was put to the test in a most personal manner. Fisk was on the Afghanistan border in November 2001 when a crowd of refugees from the American bombing turned on him and began to stone him.

His head was split open, blood clouded his vision and for a while it looked as if he might not survive. He fought back and then realised what he was doing.

"What had I done?" I kept asking myself. "I had been hurting and attacking and punching the very people I had been writing about for so long; the very dispossessed, mutilated people whom my own country - among others - had been killing ... The men whose families our bombers were killing were now my enemies, too."

Fisk escaped and decided that he would not be able to live with himself unless he stuck to his convictions and explained why the Afghan crowd had attacked him.

So he wrote about the humiliation and misery of the Muslim world, and the determination of the Alliance that "good" must triumph over "evil" even if it meant burning and maiming civilians. He concluded that if he were an Afghan refugee, "I would have done what they did. I would have attacked Robert Fisk. Or any other Westerner I could find."

It is a measure of how intensely Fisk is hated by some that his mail included unsigned Christmas cards regretting that the Afghans had not finished the job.

Americans were particularly vicious. The Wall Street Journal carried an article headed "A self-loathing multiculturalist gets his due". The pugilistic Mark Steyn wrote of Fisk's account, "You'd have to have a heart of stone not to weep with laughter."

It is not only Fisk's efforts to explain the Muslim side of events but to understand them that makes him enemies. He is also seen as an apologist for the West's worst bogeyman, Osama bin Laden. Fisk has interviewed bin Laden three times, once in the Sudan and twice in Afghanistan.

Fisk got his break, aged 29, on The Times in its glory days, when foreign editor Louis Heren offered him the Middle East as his beat. He had the temperament for the job - adventurous but not foolhardy: "There is a little Somme waiting for all innocent journalists."

He stayed with The Times for 18 years and says it was always loyal to him and he had great trust in its editors.

Then, in 1988, a story he had written, the results of his investigation into the shooting down of an Iranian Airbus by the American warship Vincennes, killing 290 passengers and crew, was cut and changed, its meaning distorted by omission.

"This, I felt sure, was the result of [Rupert] Murdoch's ownership of The Times," whose readers "had been solemnly presented with a fraudulent version of the truth". So he resigned and went to work for the Independent, where he remains.

Fisk's critics complain that he is not objective and detached. This is right. He is subjective and engaged. What's wrong with that? We are talking here about different views on what journalists, especially foreign correspondents, are for.

Fisk has thought a lot about this and writes that "we journalists try - or should try - 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'."

But he quickly realised this is not enough. Our leaders present war as a drama, a battle of good versus unspeakable evil, and demand that we are either with them or against them.

They vow that with God on our side, and minus a few hard-won civil liberties, we will march to victory. But, says Fisk, "War is not about victory or defeat but about death and the infliction of death. It represents the total failure of the human spirit."

Then he meets Amira Hass, an Israeli journalist whose articles on the occupied Palestinian territories Fisk rates higher than anything written by non-Israeli reporters. She gives him a better definition of his duty. "Our job is to monitor the centres of power."

So he began to challenge authority, "especially when governments and politicians take us to war, when they decide that they will kill and others will die".

He continues to fulfil this duty with passion and anger. As he admits, his work is filled with accounts of horror, pain and injustice. His triumph is that he has turned a slightly dubious and over-romanticised craft into an honourable vocation.

* Knightley's books include The First Casualty: the war correspondent as hero, propagandist and myth-maker.

John R Bradley's review

In one of three meetings veteran British Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk had with Osama bin Laden, the latter tried to convert him to Islam. A "brother" dreamed that "you came to see us one day on a horse," bin Laden told him, adding that "you wore a robe like us. This means you are a Muslim." Finding the revelation "terrifying" and struggling to come up with an objective response, Fisk highlighted the importance of his role as a journalist, whose job it is to "tell the truth" - whatever his faith. "If you tell the truth," Bin Laden said with a smile, "that means you are a good Muslim."

In his epic account of the region from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire to the present, Fisk offers an intensely personal version of the "truth". Critics who have accused him of an anti-American, anti-Israel agenda will find nothing here to contradict their views: the first two names in the acknowledgments are late Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

What no one can deny is Fisk's extraordinary on-the-ground experience. He has covered the region for more than 25 years and drew on a personal archive of "more than 350,000 documents and notebooks and files".

The first-person narrative provides a rich tapestry of the contemporary Middle East. From the chemical attacks during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s to the bloodbath in Algeria a decade later; from life in Afghanistan under Taliban rule to a Baghdad blitzed by US missiles, Fisk's subject is the arrogance of power, and the torture and general suffering that result.

Yet despite his engagingly thorough tour of the region's turmoil, he does not increase our understanding of its causes. Jews were given a homeland "and the millions of Arabs and Jews of the Middle East are now condemned to live with the results". That is as deep as it gets. Worse, Arabs in this book are always the passive victims. No Arab is ever held to account.

For a writer who claims to abhor generalisations, Fisk can sound painfully like a 19th-century Orientalist. The book is littered with such phrases as "Most Arabs ... " and "a routine of every Palestinian ... " It is odd that an author who accuses others of dealing too generically with Arabs displays such disregard for the complexity of their local culture.

* Bradley is the author of Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis.

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