Witness to history

Published : Feb 10, 2006 00:00 IST

The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East by Robert Fisk; Fourth Estate, London, 2005; pages 1,366, 25.

When Robert Fisk was first sent to West Asia in 1976 he saw himself as joining "the little army of historians who are writing history from beside the cannon's mouth". The twenty-nine-year-old journalist with the London Times was already privy to conflict and bloodshed, having served five years in Northern Ireland and reported on the aftermath of the Portuguese revolution. His new posting would bring him face to face with human suffering on an altogether different scale.

Over the next three decades, Fisk would strive to convey to readers the brutality, duplicity, wastage, carnage and sheer horror unfolding across the lands where human civilisation began. Working first for The Times, then (since 1988) for The Independent, he covered the civil war in Lebanon, the 1979 Iranian revolution, the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and the first Gulf war in 1991. He reported on the Arab-Israeli conflict and on the Algerian civil war. A fluent speaker of Arabic (one of the few Western journalists covering West Asia to have developed this skill), he would on three occasions meet and interview Osama bin Laden. He covered (from Pakistan) the United States' attack on Afghanistan in 2001, at one point suffering a beating at the hands of Afghan refugees. When U.S. and British forces invaded Iraq in 2003, Fisk was in Baghdad to tell the story from the vantage point of those at the receiving end of Western `shock and awe'. He continued to report from inside occupied Iraq till late 2005, when he conceded that the situation in the country was now so dangerous that "mouse journalism" might be his only option for the foreseeable future.

It is difficult to exaggerate the authority of Fisk's journalism, the compassion that informs it, or the anger that, like a battle colour, is held proudly and defiantly aloft. For opponents of the Iraq war, in Britain and around the world, Fisk has provided eyes and ears into the reality of conquest and occupation. His stories have punctured official mythology and contested the blandishments filed by `embedded' journalism from its military redoubts. While his description by one New York Times journalist as "probably the most famous foreign correspondent in Britain" might overestimate his popular following, his stature is indicated by the seven times he has been awarded the British Press Awards' International Journalist of the Year and by his garnering of more British and international journalism awards than any other foreign correspondent.

In the opening pages of his new book, Fisk discusses key elements of his approach to journalism. He has a distaste for the term `war correspondent', finding it redolent of Victorian-era romanticism and incapable of confronting the reality of war as "the total failure of the human spirit". He argues that journalists should strive to be "the first impartial witnesses to history" and should challenge authority, all authority, especially "when governments and politicians take us to war". He endorses the definition of journalism offered by the Israeli journalist Amira Haas, that "our job is to monitor the centres of power".

The complexity of that job, pursued over three decades in West Asia - the epicentre of world conflict - finds reflection in Fisk's extraordinary new book. Across more than 1,200 pages, buttressed by notes and scholarly references, the journalist attempts to put it all down: to summon from memory, old reporter's notebooks, witness testimony and historical analysis every scrap of detail, every insight, each significant moment of his West Asia experience. In the process, genres jostle; descriptive detail yields abruptly to political analysis; the reporting mode is exchanged for personal reflection and the probing of intimate family affairs. Chronology is turned on its head as Fisk repeatedly shuffles his chapters, transporting the reader back and forth in time. "There are times," he explains, "when journalists want to be film directors, to recreate history from both archives and experience."

Conscious of the challenges such structural complexity and density of detail might pose the reader, Fisk seeks to account for the unorthodoxy of his approach in the following passage:

"I always go back to old wars and old soldiers... I am trying, I suppose, to make sense of what I have witnessed, to place it in a context that did not exist for me when I was trying to stay alive, to talk to those with whom - however briefly - I shared these nightmares. I am looking, I think, for the kaleidoscope to stop turning, to see the loose flakes of memory reflected in some final, irremediable pattern... Sometimes, as I write this book, I hear the pieces of glass moving in the kaleidoscope, like the sound of the hard drive in my laptop as I write, searching for applications and programmes, ticking towards a conclusion, a clear screen with an undisputed memory" (page 343).

Among the patterns thrown up by Fisk's ambitious undertaking, three stand out.

The first is the central role played by the West in shaping, or rather deforming, the fortunes of West Asia. Again and again, Fisk returns to the First World War, finding in its corpse-strewn battlefields not only parallels with the slaughter grounds of the Iran-Iraq war or the incineration of the retreating Iraqi army at the end of the first Gulf war but also the birth-pangs of Western conquest and subjugation of West Asia. Where once he dismissed the description of the United States as the "centre of world arrogance", Fisk now endorses this characterisation, detecting the imprint of imperialism in every West Asian conflict zone. To illustrate and personalise this interconnectedness, he delves into family history to tell of his father's battlefront experiences during the first "great war for civilisation".

The second theme (related to the first) is that of double standards: the imbalance and distortion that govern how events, processes and conflicts in West Asia are presented to the world at large. In part this has been achieved by a debasing of the currency of language: the word `terrorist', says Fisk, has become "a plague on our vocabulary, the excuse and reason and moral permit for state-sponsored violence" (page 464). But West Asia-based journalists seeking to act as impartial witnesses to history are, he suggests, likely to encounter less subtle obstacles, particularly if they happen to be employed by powerful Western news organisations. He tells of how, in 1988 and still with the Times, he sought to file a story documenting U.S. military involvement in the shooting down of an Iranian civilian aircraft. When the story made in into print after a puzzling delay, every element that reflected negatively on the Americans had been excised - prompting Fisk to part company with the Murdoch press.

More generally, however, such open censorship has proved redundant in a part of the world where Western journalists have been all to ready to fall into line, to succumb to the allure of army fatigues, to barter their independence for supposed proximity to the action. The wages of `embedded journalism', argues Fisk in a third twist of his West Asia kaleidoscope, have nowhere been more visible or damaging than in Iraq. Looking back at `embedded' Western coverage of the first Gulf war, the veteran journalist can only unleash his fury:

"Long before this war had concluded with the wholesale slaughter of fleeing Iraqi troops... journalists had become mere cyphers, mouthpieces of the generals, discreetly avoiding any moral questions, switching off their cameras - as we would later witness - when the horrors of war became too obvious. Journalists connived in the war, supported it, became part of it. Immaturity, inexperience, upbringing: you can choose any excuse you want. But they created war without death. They lied" (page 767).

To pluck just three themes from Fisk's behemoth of a book seems a meagre response to its monumental quality, its heroic ambitiousness. But such is the contradiction the writer sets before his reader: in seeking to set it all down, to amass and collate, to quote and recall, to contextualise while recording the minutiae of the passing moment, he risks overcomplicating the picture. So avid is Fisk to share the richness of his experience, to draw the reader into the thick of it, that the encounter can at times be both daunting and burdensome.

There are moments when the reader longs for a lull, or for the intervention of a firm editorial hand. Sharper editing would have dispatched such descriptive flummery as "basking, bakery-hot airport" and "tree-stroked suburb". It would have caught such inaccuracies as "flaming jacaranda" (jacaranda has blue flowers). It would also have expunged the book's quite numerous factual errors (the Hashemites, for example, are said to have originated in the Gulf rather than the Hijaz region of north-western Saudi Arabia ), which some reviewers (less than sympathetic to Fisk's message) have been at pains to highlight.

At times, too, the reader feels engulfed by the unrelenting bleakness of the unfolding story. While Fisk draws attention to what he calls "the one great transition" he has witnessed in his 30 years covering West Asia: the loss of fear among the Arab population symbolised by the rise of the suicide bomber, the cumulative impact of his relived experience, with its gruesome vignettes of rotting human remains, its litany of brutality and betrayal, can foster a sense of hopelessness and impotence.

In overall terms, however, Fisk's book should be judged a magnificent achievement. With its multiplicity of voices and narratives, its nose for history, its ability to integrate and accommodate within two covers material sufficient for several books, it is a testament not only to the author's persistence and audacity but also his exceptional gifts as a journalist. For fellow journalists as for general readers, Fisk offers something beyond the status of a work of reference or West Asia handbook.

Through his fusion of scholarship and passion, his ability to draw a myriad `small' narratives into the quest for the big picture, his unabashed display of fellow feeling, and his refusal to bow before the `centres of power', he reminds us that journalism and integrity can co-exist, that writing can be a call to action.

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