0418 | The Great War for Civilisation | Robert Fisk

0418 | The Great War for Civilisation | Robert Fisk post image

Context: Long days in the conservatory with the early spring sunshine as I read this.

Like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, this is the agonising tale of humanity bravely told. Fisk displays the full range of his encyclopaedic knowledge of the Middle East, knowledge gained by 30 years of first hand experience on the front line of pretty much every conflict the area has seen in that time. Many would struggle to write this even if we had the world’s greatest libraries at our fingertips. Fisk managed it without even using the Internet (something he despises).

I don’t want to give you the impression that this is an easy read. For a start, it is nearly 1,300 pages long. Secondly, and again like Wounded Knee, it’s crammed with the details of the worst we can do to each other. The torture and abuse, often in the name of governments who deny these behaviours, are often stomach-turning.

There are some amazing vignettes there. Fisk is a fantastic story teller. He grips you with this ability from the very first page. His near murder, his meetings with Bin Laden, assisting John Snow in a rescue operation – all of these are excellent. But the episode of him tracking down the very men who manufactured a missile used to kill innocents must rank among the greatest examples of investigative journalism in Middle Eastern reportage.

Along with the terrible historical descriptions and the spellbinding stories, Fisk also spends a great deal of time putting across his own point of view. And he is not a man who pulls his punches. I would estimate that somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of the book consists of him releasing 30 years of anger. This bellicosity seems a natural reaction to the events he has witnessed. But it is a curious stance for someone who, I assume, would prefer peace after so many years of seeing to conflict. I’m not sure that his rage does him any favours although many of his arguments are forceful and backed up with much historical veracity.

At its worst, the book is simply wrong about many things that more judicious editing would have picked up. Jerusalem is not the birthplace of Christ: one example of many such errors. But I admire anyone who can edit a book of such length and for a writer of such hard-headed conviction. That must have been an even harder job than writing the book in the first place.

At its best, this is a magnificent achievement. It’s a book that will definitely challenge, if not change, your outlook on why the Middle East exists as it does it today. More importantly, there are intimate stories in here of people who have suffered almost anonymously and beyond our comprehension. Their tales should rightfully be told; they have earned more than a moment of our consideration.

OPENING LINE

When I was a small boy, my father would take me each year around the battlefields of the First World War, the conflict that H. G. Wells called ‘ the war to end all wars’.

99TH PAGE QUOTE

The rickshaw driver was waiting on the main road, fearful that I might have died, even more fearful, I thought, that I might not have survived to pay him. We puttered back to Jalalabad. That night the party leaders were back in the hotel with news that obviously disturbed them. The mujahedin had raided a student hostel of Jalalabad University, taken twenty girls from the building, and transported them to Tora Bora, where they were given money – a thousand afghanis, about $22 – and a black veil and told to end their studies. The same day, a Russian technical engineer had been sent to the suburbs of Jalalabad to mend an electric cable that ha d been repeatedly sabotaged. When he was at the top of a pylon, someone had shot him dead and his body hung in the wires 20 metres above the ground for several hours while men and women arrived to gaze at his corpse.

QUOTES

War is primarily not about victory or defeat but about death and the infliction of death. It represents the total failure of the human spirit.

The cliché tells us that life is cheap. Untrue. Death is cheap. It is easy and terrible and utterly unfair.

…arms fairs are about buying, not dying.

Syria was a ‘middle’ dictatorship. If you flew in from London… Damascus was the capital of a police state. If you arrived from Baghdad, it felt like a liberal democracy.

CLOSING LINE

Which is why, as I have written this book, I have heard repeatedly and painfully and in a dreamlike reality the footfall of 2n Lieutenant Bill Fisk and his comrades of the 12th battalion, the King’s Liverpool Regiment, marching on the evening of 11 November 1918 into the tiny French village of Louvencourt, on the Somme.

RATING

0418 | The Great War for Civilisation | Fisk | 91% | Superb

Key: Legacy | Plot / toPic | Characterisation / faCts | Readability | Achievement | Style Read more about how I come up with my ratings

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