By Robert Fisk / Reviewed by John Freeman – 2006-01-23 22:57:16
The Great War for Civilisation
The Conquest of the Middle East
By Robert Fisk (Knoff; 112 pp; $40)
Reviewed by John Freeman
(January 22, 2006 ) — The first time Robert Fisk met Osama bin Laden, the future public enemy of the United States was sitting in a tent in rural Sudan, surrounded by Muslim elders and children, wearing a gold fringed robe. Fisk’s impression was of a “shy man,” wary of meeting his first Western reporter. “My time in Afghanistan was the most important experience in my life,” bin Laden told Fisk. But all that was behind him. He was building roads now.
As it turned out, that would not be bin Laden’s last experience in Afghanistan, nor would it be Fisk’s last meeting with him. The meeting would come several years later, when bin Laden summoned the (London) Independent’s Mideast reporter to the mountain fastnesses of Afghanistan, where the Saudi sheikh was preparing for war.
“Mr. Robert,” bin Laden said then, striding into yet another tent, this time with a gleam in his eye. “One of our brothers had a dream. He dreamed you came to us one day on a horse, that you had a beard and that you were a spiritual person,” Fisk remembers bin Laden telling him. “You wore a robe like us. This means you are a true Muslim.” Bin Laden was trying to recruit him, Fisk realized with horror. The great war for civilization — at least on bin Laden’s side — had begun.
The journey between these two encounters is not more than five years, but as Fisk describes in his gargantuan and essential addition to the ongoing portrait historians have drawn of the Middle East, it encapsulates a huge shift in relations between the West and the Middle East. Fisk is, as they say in England, an Arabist, and his book is history from an Arab point of view.
“I used to argue … that every reporter should carry a history book in his back pocket,” Fisk writes in his introduction. This history book, while too big for any pocket, is an attempt to show how this seemingly overnight shift has, in fact, been a long time coming.
Drawing on more than 350,000 notes and documents, and his own firsthand reports, Fisk steers the reader through several bloody decades of Middle Eastern history, going as far back as British colonial history in Iraq and onward to the Islamic revolution, the Iran-Iraq War, Israeli incursions into Palestinian territories and massacres there, the later invasion of Lebanon, the rise of suicide bombings and winding up with the two Gulf Wars. The result is a portrait of a region that was carved up in 1918 and has been dealing ever since with the consequences of what Fisk calls this “arrogant” imperial act.
The great benefit of hearing this history from Fisk is that he was there, on the frontlines for almost every single major event. He first began covering the Middle East for the London Times in the late ’70s, at age 29, armed with an intense idealism.
He worked for the paper for almost two decades, resigning in 1988 over differences with his editor regarding a story about the American shooting down of an Iranian Airbus plane carrying 290 passengers and crew. He has written for the Independent ever since.
Fisk’s critics often describe him as a maverick who’s overly sympathetic to Arab perspectives. Fisk is unapologetic, engaged — and so this is history as seen through the eyes of people he feels have been underrepresented rather than through various governments that attempt to shape it into public narrative.
“They want their people to see war as a drama of opposites, good and evil, ‘them’ and ‘us,’ ” Fisk writes. “But war is primarily not about victory or defeat but about death and the infliction of death.”
As a result this book is awash with torture and mutilations and killings — of Jews and Arabs, Westerners and Arabs, Persians and Arabs, from afar and close up — some of it witnessed in Lebanon, where Fisk has lived for more than half of his life. He was there, for instance, when Israeli cluster bombs landed in civilian West Beirut neighborhoods, and when missiles fired from Apache helicopters tore through an ambulance in 1996, killing two women and four children.
A videotape survives of the incident, revealing Abbas Jiha, who was thrown from the vehicle, standing above his dead daughters weeping and shrieking “God is Great” up into the sky, toward the helicopter. “I raised my fists to the pilot and cried out, ‘My God, my God, my family has gone.’ ” On television, this would appear like yet another faceless, screaming Arab, but in these pages, over and again the human cost of such “collateral damage” becomes real and felt. Even when memory has been erased in the Western world it smolders on in the East.
In Baghdad for the second Gulf War, Fisk goes shopping for a Christmas tree for his hotel balcony with a former soldier who watched Saddam Hussein gas Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war. All of the man’s friends were killed in that war, but he survived — only he cannot remember their names because a piece of shrapnel is lodged in his skull.
Fisk’s point is that there is no redemption for this kind of killing and maiming, or for that matter the “computerized death” — those resulting from computerized weaponry — of reportedly as many as 100,000 civilians during the current war in Iraq.
Among the culprits Fisk sees in all this are the arms dealers who sell Apache helicopters to the Israelis and Hellfire II missiles to whoever wants them. The military buildup for the Iraq war was a bonanza for arms companies, he says, an opportunity for the military industrial complex to milk Arab wealth. “This is history as arms manufacturers like to tell it,” writes Fisk. “Stripped of politics and death, full of percentages and development costs and deals.”
Thus, from Fisk’s perspective, the so-called “cult of death” of suicide bombers has a link to the West: How can you blame people for refusing to respect the sanctity of life when you have armed them to the teeth with weapons that kill? Fisk also believes governments — Arab governments, which watched Saddam Hussein massacre his own people, and Western governments, which paid for those arms — must take the greater blame for the deathly drama that has unfolded in the Middle East.
Fisk remembers the near sinking of the USS Stark by an Iraqi fighter jet in 1987. Because Iraq was a US ally at the time, President Ronald Reagan blamed Iran — even though it was clear that nation had nothing to do with the event, he notes. “It was an interesting precedent,” Fisk writes sourly. “When Iraq almost sank an American frigate, Iran was to blame. When al Qaeda attacked the United States fourteen years later, Iraq was to blame.”
And so here we are.
John Freeman lives in New York. His reviews have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe.
©2006 San Francisco Chronicle
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