Friday, December 16, 2005

Robert Fisk and The Great War for Civilisation

Gary Kamiya's lengthy essay about Robert Fisk and review of Fisk's new book, "The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East," is a fascinating read. Fisk is an enormously intelligent, knowledgeable, and talented journalist; he is also one of the most reviled of figures among conservatives in the United States and supporters of U.S. policy toward Israel.

Kamiya takes note of all this; he is certainly not an uncritical admirer. But he is an admirer -- as anyone would be if they appreciate great writing, courage, compassion, and a passion for revealing what the powers that be would prefer remain hidden. Fisk is also remarkably prescient: pretty much everything he predicted would happen as a result of Pres. Bush's policies after 9/11 has happened.

Fisk does not lack detractors, and many of them are quite savage in their condemnation -- but he has earned his degree.

Fisk has come by his knowledge and his cold, clarifying outrage honestly. Few, if any, Middle East correspondents can match his resume: He's been everywhere and seen everything -- and he's done his historical homework, too. He opens his book with intense accounts of his three interviews with Osama bin Laden, moves on to a harrowing description of the Russian debacle in Afghanistan, then writes at length about the 20th century's forgotten war, Saddam Hussein's endless, pointless war on Iran that may have cost a million lives -- and which the U.S. abetted. There follows a devastating excursus on the Armenian genocide, which he convincingly argues deserves to be called the first Holocaust, and the largely successful Turkish campaign to deny it. Fisk then relates the long history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, starting with the dismembering of the Ottoman Empire and the secret Sykes-Picot agreement that betrayed Arab nationalist hopes, and moving on through Oslo and the second intifada. There follows a ghastly chapter on the savage Algerian civil war, in which a bloody-handed regime confronted even more bloodthirsty Islamists; the first Gulf War; and the Jordanian and Syrian regimes. He closes with the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

With the exception of the Armenian genocide, Fisk was present at all of these conflicts, and rarely in the rear. An intrepid reporter -- he was one of the only journalists to remain in Beirut during the terrifying kidnapping epidemic of the mid-to-late 1980s -- he throws himself into the middle of the action again and again. During the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, when fierce fighting was raging on the Shatt al-Arab waterway and the Fao peninsula, a tough AP reporter sums up Fisk's proclivities neatly while telling him what they'll be covering that day: "Well, Fisky, I'm told it's a briefing at the usual bunker then a little mosey over the Shatt and a tourist visit to Fao. Lots of gunfire and corpses -- should be right up your street." Fisk is a first-rate writer, and his vivid accounts of being under fire capture the terror, the confusion and the very dangerous detachment that he says occasionally comes over someone in the face of imminent death.

"The Great War for Civilization" is enormous: well over 1,000 pages. After reading Kamiya on Fisk, though, I can't wait to dig into it.

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