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Journalism's Jiminy Cricket,
This review is from: The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East (Hardcover)
"Always let your conscience be your guide", sang Disney's dapper little bug. Robert Fisk adopts this theme in this monumental history of the modern Middle East. Prompted by a World War I soldier father's actions and admonitions, Fisk's sense of justice outweighs that mighty rock sitting at the gate to the Mediterranean Sea. As he travelled from "the Med's" shores to Afghanistan, Egypt, Palestine and other states, he watched the growing unrest and resentment as the last world empire retreated to Downing Street and a new one emerged from the shores of the Potomac. With rising anger and no little resentment of his own, he records the sufferings of ordinary people as these empires played nations and their leaders as pawns in what the British Empire deemed "The Great Game". In graphic, and sometimes disturbing prose, he portrays how fear became the catalyst to inflict pain without reason or justice.
It would have been easy for Fisk to simply stack up his notes and have them bound as a volume of essays. Instead, he approaches his task by depicting the recent history of a locale. Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Palestine - the list is a detailed tour of a land deemed by history "The Cradle of Civilization" - hence his derived title. Each nation's recent history is reviewed. It's a sorry tale of interference from "outsiders", whether Christian West or Communist North. Centre to the tale is the imposition of the State of Israel on Palestine by the Balfour Declaration following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. The continuing presence of British and French "mandated" authorities remained a festering irritant to the Muslim populations. An uprising in Iraq in 1920 against the British presaged another, much later, "insurgency" which Fisk recounts in vivid detail.
The journalist in Fisk mostly kept him away from "leaders" except when necessary. Instead, he travels among the general populace, recording their fears, hopes, and all too often, griefs. That close and direct contact nearly cost Fisk his life when a refugee Afghan child identified him as "Mr Bush". That brought rocks, fists and kicking feet. Fisk was saved by an Afghan "Good Samaritan" who took him to a police truck. His reporting of the event was typical of a man who'd spent so much time recording the impact of selfish policies and mindless actions by the Western Powers. Like his rescuer, he forgave his attackers. He knew well what the Afghans had endured during the Russian occupation, Taliban domination and now the bombardment of villages and farms to rid their nation of "terrorists".
The response to his account regrettably typified what journalism had become at the beginning of the 21st Century. Instead of applauding his escape and his willingness to risk violence for a story, Western commentators jeered and vilified Fisk. Mark Steyn of "The Wall Street Journal" typified what Western journalists had become. By absolving the Afghans who resented the American presence in their country, Fisk, according to Steyn, had by association absolved the men who'd crashed airliners into the World Trade Centre on 2001-09-11. Fisk had been among the few writers who'd tried to explain what feelings might have led to such an act, while condemning it as a crime against humanity. Readers and other journalists didn't want explanations, they wanted revenge. The cost of that vengeance, Fisk contends, is the killing and maiming of thousands of innocent civilians - far more than died in the collapsing towers.
Fisk is clear on the fallacies and fabrications underlying the "Bush Crusade" into Iraq. He's even more vivid on its likely enduring results. The Iraqis, once victims of a Baath Party rule he vigorously condemns, now suffer a foreign occupation they neither wished nor will tolerate. He describes how manipulation of the words "terror" and "terrorist" has given the United States and Britain their excuse to commandeer the rich oil reserves under Iraq's deserts. By describing anybody who opposes their intrusion as "terrorist", in the same way that Israel could label Palestinians objecting to the colonisation of their lands, any act of suppression in justified. If air strikes or tank attacks kill civilians, whether armed or not, the dead are quickly deemed "terrorists" - even the children whose mangled bodies are part of the "body count" no "coalition" official will make. The media, he argues, not only fails to challenge these tactics, but willingly adopts them into their own accounts, furthering the deception and transforming it into common language.
It is the accounts of these innocent dead that inflate this book - giving it the size bemoaned by some reviewers. That plaint can only remind one of the Director of the Vienna Opera on Mozart's work - "too many notes". Are there too many words in this book? What would you excise: Fisk's account of his father's impact on his life? The stories of the dead or wounded in the Middle East resulting from ideological conflicts or repressive governments? Should we not read of Israel's standing aside while refugees are slaughtered, or US jets razing Baghdad streets? There is clearly nothing here deserving deletion. Indeed, it is among the most important "must read" books to appear. Do so and learn what has been kept hidden. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]