The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East
By Robert Fisk
NY: Vintage Books, 2005
Robert Fisk, for my money, is the most knowledgeable English-language journalist writing on the Middle East. I’ve been reading Fisk’s work since I came across his reports on the wars in Yugoslavia in the early to mid-1990s, and I’ve continued reading him since then, finding his work stimulating, nuanced and highly informed. Although I wanted to get to it sooner, I’ve just finished all 1,041 pages of his The Great War for Civilization and since it has apparently not been reviewed for Z Net—a terrible oversight—I thought I’d try to give others a sense of this not-to-be-missed book.
Fisk’s work is extensive, detailed and personal. He has lived in Beirut, Lebanon since 1976, and has been Middle East correspondent for the Times and Independent, both English newspapers, since that time. He speaks Arabic fluently, and I assume French as well, and probably several other languages, although I don’t know that for sure. The front piece of this book says he “holds more British and international journalism awards than any other foreign correspondent.” We are talking about an internationally-recognized journalist of the highest order.
This book is a major effort to explain developments in the Middle East to a primarily Western audience. It is based on several important qualities.
Fisk’s journalism is informed by intimate exposure to and consideration of what he’s writing about. This is not a detached academic writing about the region, nor a journalist who practices “hotel journalism,” writing about wars from a hotel location, but a journalist who has been to the scene of many a suicide bombing, cluster bomb attacks, etc., and seen the entrails scattered, the blood flowing on the floor, the bodies punctured with shrapnel, and talked with the survivors. He has taken many personal risks to “get” the story and get it accurately; one is struck by his careful efforts to get the names of every person who he talks with, who he sees in hospitals, who he has found out has been killed. He talks to police officials, soldiers, and insurgents. He writes about his experiences of riding in a Soviet convoy in Afghanistan in the 1980s and holding an AK-47, due to the threat of Afghani mujahedin opening truck doors and slashing drivers with their knives. He talks about being in a convoy ambushed in Algeria. He describes being attacked by Afghani refugees who had been fleeing US bombers. Yet he also talks about interviewing Osama bin Laden three times, along with many others—famous and infamous, the person in the street, and many whose loved ones have been killed. So, this book is one by an author with a very personal connection to his “story.” Amazingly, he has the ability to observe tragedy at close range and still maintain much of his emotional distance, so that readers get exposed to as much of the reality he sees as can be conveyed on the written page.
Combined with this personal connection, Fisk maintains his personal morality. He knows right from wrong, and does not hesitate to indicate it. He is detached, but not neutral: Fisk is clearly on the side of the poor and oppressed, and he rails against torturers, corrupt police, and mendacious political “leaders.”
And Fisk has experience in the region. But it’s not just personal experience, as broad and extensive as it is, but it’s historical experience as well. There are numerous references to British invasions of Afghanistan in the 1840s and Iraq in the 1920s. He got some of his historical training from his World War I veteran father, Bill, and Bill’s experiences have also coincided with Fisk’s journalistic career:
After the Allied victory of 1918, at the end of my father’s war, the victors divided up the lands of their former enemies. In the space of just seventeen months, they created the borders of Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia and much of the Middle East. And I’ve spent my entire career—in Belfast and Sarajevo, in Beirut and Baghdad—watching the peoples within these borders burn. America invaded Iraq not for Saddam Hussein’s mythical ‘weapons of mass destruction’—which had long ago been destroyed—but to change the map of the Middle East, much as my father’s generation had done more than eighty years earlier. Even as it took place, Bill Fisk’s war was helping to produce the century’s first genocide—that of a million and a half Armenians—and laying the foundation for a second, that of the Jews of Europe (xxi).
It is from this experience that Fisk reports “developments” in the Middle East.
The book covers much of the region since the late 1970s: it’s literally a 30+ year tour de force. Whether it’s interviewing Bin Laden; reporting about the Soviets or Arabs in Afghanistan; explaining the on-going wars against Iran; detailing the strong US support for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein; or describing the violence engaged in by both the Israelis and the Palestinians, Fisk is there, taking it in, describing in depth what is taking place, and explaining to his readers what it means.
I’ve picked some sections from the book, providing a number of quotations from Fisk, so you get the sense of his reporting, and not just my opinions. Yet what I get from his reporting, overall, is that no matter what is said by the US government, everything done by the US in the region is done to advance the perceived interests of the United States, and to a lesser extent, Israel. As Bill Blum wrote in his 1986 book, The CIA: A Forgotten History, “I am declaring that American foreign policy is what American foreign policy does” (emphasis in original), as opposed to what it says it does. Fisk demonstrates what this means to people in the Middle East again and again and again.
Fisk understands: writing about the 1979 US Embassy seizure in Iran—after the Iranian Revolution that year had deposed the Shah, who the US and the UK had imposed on the throne of the former Persian Empire after using the CIA and MI-6 to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Mohamed Mossadeq in 1953—he points out, “It created a burning sense of humiliation within subsequent U.S. administrations that led American into a series of political and military disasters in the Middle East” (118). Yet, it also revealed awesome secrets. A 47-page CIA document was found that discussed the internal structure of Israel’s security services. Trying to break the “Arab ring” surrounding Israel, Israel had developed
… a formal trilateral liaison called the Trident organization … established by Mossad with Turkey’s National Security Service (TNSS) and Iran’s National Organization for Intelligence and Security (Savak). Mossad has engaged in joint operations with Savak over the years since the late 1950s. Mossad aided Savak activities and supported the Kurds in Iraq. The Israelis also regularly transmitted to the Iranians intelligence reports on Egypt’s activities in the Arab countries … (128).
Yet perhaps the biggest find came when the Iranian students and disabled war veterans reconstituted thousands of US diplomatic papers that had been shredded but captured. The seriousness of their efforts should not be underestimated: “It would take them six years to complete, 3,000 pages containing 2,300 documents, all eventually contained in 85 volumes” (127).
There is much on Iraq. The mass killings of Saddam were long known in the 1970s and ‘80s, but the West—so worried about human rights violations when it serves their purposes—somehow failed to notice: “U.S. export credits and chemicals and helicopters, French jets and German gas and British military hardware poured into Iraq for fifteen years” (166). And yet, as early as 1985, Fisk was reporting “on Saddam’s gang-rape and torture in Iraqi prisons” (170). He writes about the West’s relationship with Saddam:
So for all these years—until his invasion of Kuwait in 1990—we in the West tolerated Saddam’s cruelty, his oppression and torture, his war crimes and mass murder. After all, we created him (emphasis added). The CIA gave the locations of communist cadres to the first Baathist government, information that was used to arrest, torture and execute hundreds of Iraqi men. And the closer Saddam came to war with Iran, the greater the fear of his own Shia population, the more we helped him. Saddam, far from being a dictator, thus became … a ‘strongman’. He was our bastion—and the Arab world’s bastion—against Islamic ‘extremism’ (170).
And we supported Saddam’s invasion of Iran in 1980.
The US was not an “innocent player” in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war: the US government made a major contribution to Saddam’s war, and knew about Saddam’s use of poison gas against the Iranians:
Throughout all these years, the Americans also continued to supply the Iraqis with battlefield intelligence, so that they could prepare themselves for the mass Iranian attacks and defend themselves—as the U.S. government knew—with poison gas. More than sixty officers of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency were secretly providing members of the Iraqi general staff with detailed information on Iranian deployments, tactical planning and bomb-damage assessments. After the Iraqis retook the Fao peninsula from the Iranians in early 1988, Lieutenant Colonel Rick Francona, a U.S. defense intelligence officer, toured the battlefield with Iraqi officers and reported back to Washington that the Iraqis had used chemical weapons to secure their victory (213-214).
But the US cynicism was even worse. The Iraqis attacked a Kurdish town, Halabja, claiming the residents had assisted the Iranians. For two days, the Iraqis had dropped gas made from a hydrogen cyanide compound, killing more than 5,000 civilians. “In Washington, the CIA—still supporting Saddam—sent out a deceitful briefing note to U.S. embassies in the Middle East, stating that the gas might have been dropped by the Iranians” (214).
During these years, though, the Reagan Administration was still dealing with Iran. The “cash for Contras, arms for Ayatollahs” plan, as my friend Dave Lippman (as George Shrub of the Committee to Intervene Anywhere) called it, was intended to build support for the murderous Contras to kill Sandinista peasants in Nicaragua, while arming the Iranians against the US allies, the Iraqis.
Yet, doing things that advances its interests—regardless of who might suffer—is the way the US has generally operated in that part of the world. When the USS Vincennes shot down a civilian Iranian Airbus—flying in recognized civilian airspace, climbing for altitude and carrying 290 passengers—the story told by the US government was than an Iranian F-14 fighter aircraft had dived on the Vincennes in an attack on the naval ship. Fisk went to the British air traffic controllers in Dubai, who had heard the related radio traffic, and one of them told him: “Robert, the Americans knew at once they’d hit a passenger airliner” (263). “Blame the Iranians” seems to be the ongoing modus operandi for the US in the Middle East.
[The Iranian regime under Ayatollah Khomeini, who turned on his political allies on the left, apparently decided to kill them en masse, and killed somewhere between 8,000-10,000 in the summer of 1988 alone—and a known 1,533 female prisoners were hanged or shot, many after being raped, in the first 20 years of the Iranian Revolution (276-77)—should have been condemned by the US government for those actions, as tarnished as their own actions were, but this terrorism seems generally ignored. The US took the sides of the Iraqis, who started the war by invading Iran, and demonized the Iranians—shades of 1979—for not being willing to give into the Iraqis. We ignore the US position at our peril when we hear the US government threaten Iran over nuclear power and/or weapons or anything else ….]
Yet, it is Fisk’s reporting of the developments in Palestine that are even more important. He quotes a commander of the Arab Legion, who said
… the Jewish tragedy owed its origin to the Christian nations of Europe and America. At last the conscience of Christendom was awake. The age-long Jewish tragedy must cease. But when it came to the payment of compensation in expiation of their past shortcomings, the Christian nations of Europe and America decided that a Muslim nation in Asia should pay (368).
To illustrate this, he talks about visiting Josef Kleinman, a Jewish former inmate of Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp, and his wife. Mr. Kleinman shows Fisk his prison uniform, which he still has. Then Fisk writes,
Down in the entrance of Kleinman’s block of flats, there are flyers reminding tenants of the forthcoming Holocaust Day. Givat Shaul is a friendly, bright neighborhood of retired couples, small shops, flats, trees and some elegant old houses of yellow stone. But one or two bear the scars of bullets fired long ago, on 9 April 1948, when another people faced their own catastrophe. For Givat Shaul used to be Deir Yassin. And here it was, fifty-four years ago that up to 130 Palestinians were massacred by two Jewish militias, the Irgun Zvai Leumi and the Stern Gang, as the Jews of Palestine fought for the independence of a State called Israel. The slaughter so terrified tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs that they fled their homes en masse—just a few of the 750,000—to create the refugee population whose vale of sorrow lies at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian war (369).
And Fisk points out “one of those awful ironies of history”: “Holocaust Day and Deir Yassin Day fall on the same date” (370).
Yet Fisk does not take a neutral viewpoint of the Israel-Palestinian wars—he does not refer to this as a “conflict” among equals, rather seeing it as a colonial war by the Israelis against the Palestinians. But he recognized what was behind this:
For throughout these long years, there was one outstanding, virtually unchangeable phenomenon which ensured that the Middle East balance of power remained unchanged: America’s unwavering, largely uncritical, often involuntary support for Israel. Israel’s ‘security’—or supposed lack thereof—became the yardstick for all negotiations, all military threats and all wars. The injustice done to the Palestinians, the dispossessions, the massacres, not only the loss of that part of Palestine that become Israel—and is internationally recognized as such—but also the occupation of the remainder of the [British] Mandate territory and the bloody suppression of any and all manifestation of Palestinian resistance: all this had to take second place to Israel’s security and the civilized values and democracy for which Israel was widely promoted (378).
Fisk reports the ins and outs of “diplomacy” about the Palestinian “problem” from multiple sides—Israeli, US, Palestinian, various Arab countries—and it is all meticulously chronicled. And depressing.
Yet Fisk notes “a momentous change” in Arab societies by early in the 2000s, a change he’s seen in 30 years of reporting and living in the Middle East. It is a harbinger of things to come:
Today, the Arabs are no longer afraid. The regimes are as timid as ever, loyal and supposedly ‘moderate’ allies obeying Washington’s orders, taking their massive subventions from the United States, holding their preposterous elections, shaking in fear lest their people at last decide that ‘regime change’—from within their societies, not the Western version imposed by invasion—is overdue. It is the Arabs as a people—brutalized and crushed for decade by corrupt dictators—who are no longer running away. The Lebanese in Beirut, under siege by Israel, learned to refuse the invader’s orders. The Hizbollah proved that the mighty Israeli army could be humbled. The two Palestinian intifadas showed that Israel could no longer impose its will on an occupied land without paying a terrible price. The Iraqis first rose up against Saddam and then, after the Anglo-American invasion, against the occupying armies. No longer did the Arabs run away. The old Sharon policy—of beating the Arabs till they come to heel or until they ‘behave’ or until an Arab leader can be found ‘to control his own people’—is now as bankrupt as the Arab regimes that continue to work for the world’s only superpower.
… in Lebanon, ‘Palestine’ and Iraq, the suicide bomber has become the symbol of this new fearlessness. Once an occupied people have lost their fear of death, the occupier is doomed. Once a man or woman stops being afraid, he or she cannot be made to fear again. Fear is not a product that can be re-injected into a population through re-invasion or harsher treatment or air attacks or walls of torture (481)
This is an understanding that our “leaders” ignore at their peril. And we’ve certainly seen this process during this year’s “Arab Spring”—as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet what does this mean for the United States and our people? Fisk writes about the response to September 11, 2001: “President Bush cruelly manipulated the grief of the American people and sympathy of the rest of the world—to introduce up a ‘world order’ dreamed up by a clutch of fanatics advising Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The Iraqi ‘regime change’ … was planned as part of a Richard Perle/Paul Wolfowitz campaign document for would-be Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu years before Bush came to power” (1014).
Fisk writes, after observing a massive US Army convoy in Iraqs:
And I begin to understand. Now we live in the American empire. Yes, this war was about oil. Yes, it was fueled by folly and arrogance and lies. But it was about the need, the visceral need—to project power on a massive scale, based on neo-conservative fantasies, do doubt, but unstoppable, inexorable (999).
Yet, after a couple more sentences, he also writes, “But no foreign armies can come here and escape punishment” (1000). And within a month of the US invasion, a resistance movement not controlled by Saddam emerged.
Faced with ever greater armed resistance to their occupation, the Americans … were admitting only a fraction of the attacks on their forces. Although the US occupation authorities acknowledged ambushes in which their troops died, they were failing to report a mass of attacks and assaults against their patrols and bases around Baghdad. Yet the reality—largely unreported by the media—was that the Americans were no longer safe any where in Iraq: not at Baghdad airport, which they captured with so much fanfare in early April 2003, not at their military bases nor in the streets of central Baghdad nor in their vulnerable helicopters nor on the country rods. Helicopters were shot down over Falluja, C-130s blasted out of the sky by missiles (1011).
There is much more in this book. Fisk is meticulous—this is no light read. Yet it feels like a graduate seminar on the Middle East in the best sense, from a man who understands an awful lot about the region, although not a product of it, and he wants you to understand it as well as he does.
Although it’s difficult to critique such a masterpiece—and I certainly believe it is—there are a couple of criticisms that come with a book with so much packed into it. First, it seems to be expected that readers will read this in the order he wrote it—and that’s what I did. But it is a tough slog, especially for someone just trying to develop their understanding of the region to a new level. I think it would have made more sense to break the book into sections, where one could pick and choose where to focus, yet unfortunately, the table of contents gives absolutely no help with this.
The range of issues Fisk covers is enormous, and he delves into historical cases, too. He includes chapters on meeting Bin Laden in Afghanistan, the Russians in that country, Bin Laden and the Arabs in Afghanistan, the Iranian Revolution and afterward, Western support for Saddam Hussein, the Iraq-Iran War, the Armenian genocide of 1915, Palestine, the colonial nature of Israeli settlements, the wars against the Palestinians, Algeria, the First Gulf War (“Desert Storm”), Saddam’s destruction of the Shia and Kurdish rebels who rose up at the US’s urging and were betrayed by the US, the impact of US-driven sanctions imposed on Iraq by the United Nations, the impact of depleted uranium on Iraqis as well as their crushing poverty, the global arms trade and an Israeli air attack on an ambulance, Jordan and Syria, the Afghan War and asks about the decades of injustice done to Muslims, the run up to the Iraq War, the US invasion and occupation of Baghdad, and “Into the Wilderness,” the aftermath of invasion.
And if that range of countries and issues is not enough, Fisk puts it all in the context of the War to continue to dominate the Middle East by the West, and most particularly, the United States. He does this through an incredibly fine sense of Western colonial history, whether by the British, the French, the Israelis, or of the various Arab governments themselves against their own peoples, again all utilized to the benefit of the United States.
Yet this is all in the context of his awareness of being a product of the United Kingdom, a citizen of a country who has done such terrible things that have provided the context for most Arab peoples. However, it’s not an apologetic mea culpa in the larger sense—although perhaps on a more personal basis—but of trying to understand with full comprehension what the wars of the 20th and now 21st centuries have done to the peoples of the world.
Not for the faint of heart—but definitely for those who are wanting to learn—Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilization is truly a masterpiece. It suffers from being the work of a generalist, but damn, for a generalist, his work is first rate. I encourage anyone who is more than moderately interested in the Middle East to read the book—but I’d pick and choose what to delve into at any time, guided by one’s own interest.
This book is a treat. And the world’s peoples are lucky to have someone as caring, as compassionate, and as detailed as Robert Fisk.
Kim Scipes, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Purdue University in Westville, IN. In addition to many published articles and book reviews, Scipes is the author of KMU: Building Genuine Trade Unionism in the Philippines 1980-1994 (Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1996), and AFL-CIO’s Secret War against Developing Country Workers: Solidarity or Sabotage? (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010), the latter of which will be issued in paperback in August 2011.