Book Review: Robert Fisk’s Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East

robert fisk

Robert Fisk

Source: Logos

Robert Fisk’s Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf)

Reviewed by Matthew Abraham

The name “Robert Fisk” has become synonymous with dangerous truth-telling in his reporting about the Middle East—truth-telling of a kind so rare in journalistic circles that those seeking to suppress the facts about what the Western powers have done to the region and its people usually resort to the usual defamation about how Fisk is anti-American and anti-Semitic. Fisk’s truth-telling is of a sort that must be shunned and avoided by the cowardly corporate media and its host of watchdogs who seek to make the likes of Fisk ancient history. If telling the truth is considered a revolutionary act in deceitful times Fisk has consistently violated the central taboos on Middle East reporting, repeatedly putting U.S. journalists to shame for their participation in a large-scale cover-up. His example needs to be learned from and emulated. What does it mean that truth-telling has become such an anomaly, such a dangerous act, that Fisk is part of a small handful of alternatives to the U.S. media’s perversion of reality? Fisk’s persistent and dogged example forces us to ask that question.

It would be a terrific understatement to claim that Robert Fisk has written an impressive book with his The Great War for Civilisation. The book is more than impressive—it is daunting and intimidating in its display of utter mastery of the modern history of the Middle East. Writing Middle East history, or at least the kind of history that most Western journalists have found themselves unable to tell, has been Fisk’s specialty for nearly fifty years.

“Journalists,” according to Fisk, are charged “with writing the first page of history.” Or to borrow from Ha’aretz reporter, Amira Hass, the journalist is supposed “to monitor the centers of power.” Fisk has established a reputation for telling the world the truth, in all its gory details, in his reporting on Middle East politics for The Independent. This has made him a rare commodity—someone who is willing to tell the truth, no matter how unpopular, about U.S., British, and Israeli neocolonialism in Iraq, Iran, Palestine, etc. His is a voice that is trusted because it will not accommodate itself to the dictates of Realpolitick, something most mainstream media sources capitulated to long ago. “I am neither a lion nor a mouse, but I can be a tough dog, and when I get a rope between my teeth I won’t let go until I shake it and tug it something rotten to see what lies at the other end. That, after all, is what journalists are supposed to do” (270).

When we journalists fail to get across the reality of events to our readers, we have not only failed in our job; we have also become a party to the bloody events that we are supposed to be reporting. If we cannot tell the truth about the shooting down of a civilian airliner—because this will harm “our” side in a war or because it will cast one of our “hate” countries in the role of victim or because it might upset the owner of our newspaper—then we contribute to the very prejudices that provoke wars in the first place…. Journalism can be lethal (271).

In this 1100-page book, where he includes thirty years of reporting on everything from the Armenian Holocaust denial in Turkey, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the rise of Osama bin Laden in the aftermath of that war, the first Gulf war, the last ten years of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the aftermath of 9/11, we obtain a glimpse of Fisk’s deep commitment to humanity, his belief in human morality, and human decency. No Western reporter knows the politics of the Middle East better than Robert Fisk, but Fisk represents more than just a seasoned and knowledgeable reporter—his reporting represents a stentorian voice beckoning us to look closely at the major players and events in the Middle East. He is in the league of intellectuals such as I.F. Stone, Hannah Arendt, Edward Said, and Noam Chomsky in his determination to tell the truth the consequences be damned. He has been the target of abuse and vilification, including among those he presumably was defending in print.


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