The big picture
Robert Fisk has lived as a journalist in the Middle East for nearly 30 years, half his lifetime. For 16 of those years he has chronicled "the betrayals and treachery and deceit of Middle East history", nurturing this excessively long book - a real War and Peace, but with precious little peace.
His forte is straight reporting, such as his three interviews with Osama bin Laden. At least as good are his meetings with Saddam Hussein, Khomeini and Sadeq Khalkhali, the hanging judge of the Iranian revolution, and his close-ups of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the launch of Saddam's war against Iran, an ambush by Islamists of an Algerian police patrol, and a lift into trouble in an Apache attack helicopter on the Iraq/Turkey border.
The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East
Author: Robert Fisk
Recounting his resignation from the Times, he hesitates: "what is Fisk doing, I can hear hostile reviewers of this book ask - writing about the violent death of 290 innocent human beings and then taking up five pages to explain his petty rows with the Times?" For this reviewer, at least, the problem is the opposite: sharp-focus reporting is submerged as horror is piled on horror - massacres and torture, atrocities by Turks, Iranians and Iraqis, Palestinians slaughtered by Israelis and Israelis slaughtered by Palestinians, Americans by Arabs and Arabs by Americans. One example: five pages by Hussein Shahristani on being tortured in Iraq, reproduced verbatim because "his story ... deserves to be told in full, in his own words". Fisk compares his themes to those of Goya and Hieronymus Bosch, but Goya painted the Naked Maja as well as his black paintings, and Bosch painted earthly delights as well as the nightmare of hell. That's not Fisk. "A fetid river [the Tigris] flowed slowly between treeless banks of grey sand beneath a dun-coloured sky." The Persian Gulf, nowadays a tourist destination, "looks not unlike Mars". True enough, but Thesiger he isn't.
Much more effective than reams of technicalities about the arms trade is the tale of tracing a missile used by the Israeli air force to murder civilians in Lebanon right back to the men in suits in Gainesville, Georgia, who manufactured it. At the final confrontation, after producing the missile fragment bearing the tell-tale code number, he pushes across the table photographs of the children who died, images of blood and torn limbs. "The executive on my left looked through them with distaste. Then he said: 'I don't want these.'" And even Fisk felt "oddly sad" for him.
In the Kuwait war the allies ignored the Geneva Convention rules about enemy dead. General Schwarzkopf said he was "not in the business of body counts". But as Fisk points out, "even Hitler's SS soldiers who were killed fighting the Americans around Bastogne in 1944 were identified and buried in marked graves". General Tommy Franks was to repeat Schwarzkopf's one-liner about body counts in the Iraq war of 2003, with Blair giving the unfortunate impression that he doesn't care.
"Guantánamo was a mirror of the treatment that every Middle East dictatorship meted out to its opponents. Shackled, hooded, threatened with death by 'courts' that would give no leeway to defence or innocence: this was how every Arab secret police force dealt with enemies of the regime."
Many of the problems of the Middle East have their roots in the first world war, to which the book's title is an allusion. Fisk tries to knit the whole book together round a chapter on his father and his experiences in the war, but it doesn't really work. Worse, it leads to oversimplification of history: the "extraordinary lenity" shown by the Allies to Turkey after the war, or the Northern Ireland conflict, "that legacy of British colonial rule". The book's second title remains a mystery; who has conquered the Middle East?
The book contains a deplorable number of mistakes. Some are amusing: my favourite is when King Hussein's stallion unexpectedly "reared up on her hind legs". Christ was born in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem. Napoleon's army did not burn Moscow, the Russians did. French: meurt means dies, not blooms. Russian: goodbye is do svidanya, not dos vidanya. Farsi: laleh means tulip, not rose. Arabic: catastrophe is nakba not nakhba (which means elite), and many more.
Other mistakes undermine the reader's confidence. Muhammad's nephew Ali was murdered in the 7th century, not the 8th century. Baghdad was never an Ummayad city. The Hashemites are not a Gulf tribe but a Hijaz tribe, as far as you can get from the Gulf and still be in Arabia. The US forward base for the Kuwait war, Dhahran, is not "scarcely 400 miles" from Medina and the Muslim holy places, it is about 700 miles. Britain during the Palestine mandate did not support a Jewish state. The 1939 white paper on Palestine did not "abandon Balfour's promise" (and he was not "Lord Balfour" when he made it). The Iraq revolution of 1958 was not Baathist. Britain did not pour military hardware into Saddam's Iraq for 15 years, or call for an uprising against Saddam in 1991. These last two "mistakes" occasion lengthy Philippics against British policy; others may deserve them, we do not.
There are no illustrations in the text, but there is an end paper portrait of Bin Laden, looking benign but, oddly, a bit drunk. A great book is a great evil, wrote Callimachus. Vigilant editing and ruthless pruning could perhaps have made two or three good short books out of this one.
Source: Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005
(R) thedailystar.net 2005