Robert Fisk is giant among British foreign correspondents, and deservedly so. He writes for The Independent, wrote for The Times until Rupert Murdoch bought it in the eighties (which he rather too assertively insists was because he wanted to maintain his credibility), and has been published extensively in the world press, including the Arab press, for thirty five years.
I know all this because I have over the past three months read his 1500 page memoir The Great War For Civilization. A book of this size has something of a blunt instrument about it. If it were to strike someone hard on the chest I can imagine a heart attack being the result. Falling from a height it would be goodbye. The reason it is so stupendously big is because it is not really one book at all but several.
Firstly it is a journalist’s memoir, and in this very similar to many journalists writing of their experiences in far off exotic places: the most obvious touchstone (generically speaking) is Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem. Indeed if it were not for the diametrically opposed political viewpoints offered by Fisk and Friedman they resemble each other rather too closely.
Fisk, like Friedman, spends a lot of time recounting adventures: a hillside in Afghanistan talking to Osama Bin Laden; riding with Iraqi tank crews into the frontlines of the Iran-Iraq war; traveling with Lebanese insurgents trying to find a surface to air missile firing positions; watching the cruise missiles blast off to Baghdad in 1991; riding in Chinooks with SAS troops heading into the desert to fight George Bush Jnr’s Iraq war; and so on.
Interspersed with these adventures is Fisk getting to know common people. Conversations of breathtaking heartbreak are recounted with sincerity and possibly a little too much righteousness. Families destroyed, infants blown apart by shock waves, teenagers throwing rocks targeted by Israeli F-18’s.
He also covers the injustices of the more distant past, and to his credit demonstrates how these injustices have led to a relationship of extreme distrust between members of the Arab world, between the Arab world and the US, between the Arab world and everyone else. The Armenian genocide, the battles of the black September in Jordan, the terror of the 1948 war, the French occupation of Lebanon and Syria.
The memoir is informed, researched and informative. It is not boring, Fisk has facts to burn and he shares as many facts as he can. Fisk knows about the Middle East and he puts it all in this book, but he also talks to people: endlessly. Not one is too little to tell a story. There are thousands of stories. My head is still spinning.
Secondly the book is a condemnation of the US and Israel, a moderate condemnation in parts, extreme in others. The responsibility of global policemen is mocked by Fisk since it they who gave the green light to evil doers. All those who sold arms and technology to the Israelis and the Arabs since 1948 are due all the grief they get because you reap what you sow.
Britain, the United States, the French, the Russians, the South Africans, the Germans: all are worthy of condemnation because they have turned the Middle East into an armourers bazaar where eventually everyone starts shooting and only those who were meant to be defended get killed.
The last four hundred pages or so is devoted to a condemnation of George Bush Jnr’s war in Iraq. For Fisk nothing redeems this war. It is an evil event unredeemed by nobility or good intentions. Only harm results. No good will come of this writes Fisk. American soldiers, Kurdish nationalists, Syrian merchants, Jordanian imams, Iranian nuclear scientists, Pakistani taxi drivers: everyone Fisk meets and describes is defined by the harm the Iraq war is doing. All this harm is laid at America’s feet.
The blindness of the policy decisions, the hypocrisy of condemning Iraq but not Israel, the brutality of shock and awe, the ego of defying the UN, the foolishness of the democratic Iraq project, the defence of torture at Abu Grahib, the loss of sensitivity toward the hundreds of daily dead insurgents and counter insurgents: all of this is condemned by Fisk and all of it is the responsibility of the US.
There is no way out. It does get a little turgid as yet more American folly is outlined with its devastating effects, hundreds of pages of condemnation gets a touch dull and since they are offered without any hope for the future it can get depressing.
The third book included in The Great War For Civilization is an honorarium to Fisk’s father, Bill, who fought on the Western Front 1916-1918. This is by far the most moving aspect of the book and without doubt the most thoughtful.Fisk’s father, like all fathers is a flawed and admirable figure. He put himself through the most extreme awfulness and spent the rest of his life thinking about it, reading about it, reliving it, and trying to forget it.
This contradiction is at the heart of all of Fisk’s facts and condemnations. If you have to fight to make the world a better place isn’t the fight going to make it worse? Exploring this conundrum is the attempt to find an explanation for all the wars, all the death, all the killing, all the damn misery that people make for each other.
There is no answer, Bill Fisk found no answer and neither does his son. It is to honour that search that Fisk writes this book, he finds that there is some redemption for his Father and the men he killed at war in the search for explanations. Two moments stand out: the first is a description of his Father’s library.
Modest in many ways the library is emblematic of there being no answer, it is always unfinished and incomplete. Later when Bill Fisk dies his library is added to the author’s and it becomes even clearer that there can never be an answer.
The second moment is an exploration of one of Bill Fisk’s Great War anecdotes: near the end of the war Bill Fisk refuses to participate in a firing squad that was to shoot a young Australian absconder who lives in up in Paris when he is supposed to be in the trenches. Australians, as we know, don’t like the British shooting our boys and there were no Australian servicemen shot by British firing squad during the Great War (even then the ghost of Breaker Morant was apparent).
At first Fisk Jnr thinks his Dad has made it up but later when exploring the Imperial War Museum he finds records of an Australian in a British unit who was shot for absconding, the dates match and Bill Fisk is vindicated. This moment is the light in the tunnel.
Amidst all the facts and stories and hurt and death there are moments when people, individuals choose. Bill Fisk was in the trenches but by that process was able to choose not to do harm. The dates, the faces, the places are part of a process which ends, at some point, with the choice. The possibilities these choices offer are not the moments in history that The Great War For Civilization is about.
Journalism cannot map the interior mechanisms of choice: it cannot draw upon the unmediated thoughts of people in real time, in real places. None of us can do that for others, only for ourselves. When Robert Fisk discovers his Father’s moment of choice it reveals, for all, the possibility of our own moments of choosing.
The Great War For Civilization does not reveal Robert Fisk’s moment of choosing, perhaps it is yet to come; perhaps it was a private moment. Nevertheless this is the needle in a massive haystack: the moral centre of a moral case against western powers of the twentieth and twenty first centuries.
All of these three books are worthy and well written. There are buckets of research and a huge bibliography though encyclopaedism is not an attractive characteristic, least of all in moral arguments, and Fisk is at his worst when providing endless lists of atrocities. Fisk does attempt to balance his fervor with generosity to those around him regardless of nationality.
Perhaps the greatest weakness of this huge tome is that it comes across as journalism rather than a work with a broader sense of the world: the reader gets dispatches rather than a sense of the whole, perhaps because what the reader receives is mediated through a journalist who is at the centre of every story. Robert Fisk is a lot of good things but he is not modest and neither is The Great War For Civilization.