After finally finishing the book ‘The Great War for Civilisation’ by Robert Fisk I decided it needed reviewing on this blog. For even though it was published in 2005, its content is still valuable in understanding the situation we find ourselves in 2018. I feel its content is so important to understanding the middle east from a humanist perspective, that despite this long delay it still needed to be done. However, how do you adequately review a manuscript of over 1200 event-full pages in the space of a short article? The huge scale of the book is why it took me so long to finish it, as I have an extensive reading list of challenging material to get through and a book of my own to finish writing. To do Mr Fisk’s book justice would require a review the length of a small book or long pamphlet. And even then would that be really enough? I doubt it! It really does need to be read in full. A booklet or nothing? Not an option. After weighing up the alternatives I decided on the following strategy.
First I would quote an extensive section of the authors own words which I think sum up the books importance along with his acknowledgement of the many sided nature of the inhumanity taking place there. Second I would add just a few comments of my own to establish the context of the quote and a few later to round off this apology for an inadequate review. The context of the lengthy quote which follows takes place after extensive material on his reporting of Afghanistan, Suez, Israel/Palestine, Algeria, Lebanon, the Iraq/Iran war, the 1st Gulf War and much else. He penned the words which follow as an immediate reaction to the news of the two planes which had been flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. Although his hasty estimate of the number of casualties was inaccurate the rest is chillingly pertinent to our present global situation in 2018. So here is Mr Fisk in his own words written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
“So it has come to this. The entire modern history of the Middle East – the collapse of the Ottoman empire, the Balfour Declaration, Lawrence of Arabia’s lies, the Arab revolt, the foundation of the state of Israel, four Arab-Israeli wars and the 34 years of Israel’s brutal occupation of Arab land – all erased within hours as those who claim to represent a crushed, humiliated population struck back with the wickedness and awesome cruelty of a doomed people. Is it fair – is it moral – to write this so soon, without proof, when the last act of barbarism, in Oklahoma, turned out to be the work of home-grown Americans? I fear it is. America is at war and, unless I am mistaken, many thousands are now scheduled to die in the Middle East, perhaps in America too. Some of us warned of ‘the explosion to come’. But we never dreamed of this nightmare.
And yes, Osama bin Laden comes to mind, his money, his theology, his frightening dedication to destroy American power. I have sat in front of bin Laden as he described how his men helped destroy the Russian Army in Afghanistan and thus the Soviet Union. Their boundless confidence allowed them to declare war on America. But this is not the war of democracy versus terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming days. It is also about American missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and US helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996 and American shells crashing into a village called Qana and about a Lebanese militia – paid and uniformed by America’s Israeli ally – hacking and raping and murdering their way through refugee camps.
No, there is no doubting the utter, indescribable evil of what has happened in the United States. That Palestinians could celebrate the massacre of 20,000, perhaps 35,000 innocent people is not only a symbol of their despair but of their political immaturity, of their failure to grasp what they had always been accusing their Israeli enemies of doing: acting disproportionately. All the years of rhetoric, all the promises to strike at the head of ‘the American snake’ we took for empty threats. How could a backward, conservative, undemocratic and corrupt group of regimes, and small, violent organisations fulfil such preposterous promises? Now we know.
And in the hours that followed yesterdays annihilation, I began to remember those other extraordinary assaults upon the US and its allies, miniature now by comparison with yesterdays casualties. Did not the suicide bombers who killed 241 American servicemen and 100 French paratroops in Beirut on 23 October 1983 time their attacks with unthinkable precision? There were just seven seconds between the Marine bombing and the destruction of the French three miles away. Then there were the attacks upon US bases in Saudi Arabia, and last years attempt – almost successful it now turns out – to sink the USS Cole in Aden. And then how easy was our failure to recognise the new weapon of the Middle East which neither Americans nor any other Westerners could equal: the despair-driven, desperate suicide-bomber. And there will be, inevitably, and quite immorally, an attempt to obscure the historical wrongs and the injustices that lie behind yesterdays firestorms. We will be told about ‘mindless terrorism’, the ‘mindless’ bit being essential if we are not to realise how hated America has become in the land of the birth of the three great religions.
Ask an Arab how he responds to 20,000 or 30,000 innocent deaths and he or she will respond as decent people should,that it is an unspeakable crime. But they will ask why we did not use such words about the sanctions that have destroyed the lives of perhaps half a million children in Iraq, why we did not rage about the 17,500 civilians killed in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. And those basic reasons why the Middle East caught fire last September – the Israeli occupation of Arab land, the dispossession of Palestinians , the bombardments, and state-sponsored executions …all these must be obscured lest they provide the smallest fractional reason for yesterday’s mass savagery.
No Israel was not too blame – although we can be sure that Saddam Hussein and the other grotesque dictators will claim so – but the malign influence of history and our share in its burden must surely stand in the dock with the suicide bombers. Our broken promises, perhaps even our destruction of the Ottoman empire, led inevitably to this tragedy. America has bankrolled Israel’s wars for so many years that it believed this would be cost-free. No longer so. But, of course, the US will want to strike back against ‘world terror’, and last nights bombardment of Kabul may have been the opening salvo. Indeed, who could ever point the finger at America now for using that pejorative and sometimes racist word ‘terrorism’.
Eight years ago I helped make a television series that tried to explain why so many Muslims had come to hate the West. Last night, I remembered some of the Muslims in that film, their families burnt by American made bombs and weapons. They talked about how no one would help them but God, Theology versus technology, the suicide bomber against the nuclear power. Now we have learned what this means.” (Robert Fisk. ‘The Great War for Civilisation’ Pub Fourth Estate. pages 1029 – 1031)
Although I do not agree with everything the author writes in this extract or in the whole book, it cannot be doubted that he has successfully challenged the Western elites dualist version of events in the Middle East. A version in which one side is represented as civilised and the other as uncivilised; where one side is seen as essentially good and the other is essentially bad. He correctly concluded that many thousands would subsequently die in the Middle East. In Iraq the number may never be accurately known. And now the same goes for Yemen and Syria. In addition he traces some secondary, but essential elements of the dialectical struggle between the Advanced Capitalist countries need to dominate global resources and markets and the various indigenous peoples who may object and try to prevent it in various ways. Elsewhere in the book he identified and recorded something else also of contemporary relevance.
He mentions the vitriolic attacks upon anyone who questioned the dominant narrative of the western elites. Fisk wrote that he never imagined how nasty and personal it would get as he was classed as a Nazi, Anti-American, anti-Semite and a Fascist just for writing the above. Simply being against the elites support for the American led invasion of Iraq and their support for the Zionist occupation of Palestine is enough for the elite establishment to engage in orchestrated character assassination against those who will not toe their line and speak out. In this latter regard, note for example, the recent media savaging of the peace activist leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, also for his anti-Zionist support of Palestinian rights. His anti-Colonialist stance has been twisted into making out that he is soft on anti-Semitism and supportive of violent terrorists. How is that for an example of the manufacture of fake news? It would be hard to better it, in my opinion, at least this side of the Atlantic.
I am no admirer of US President, Donald Trump, but notice also the attacks upon him for declaring much of the Capitalist media as creating fake news. Most of us workers have known for years, that capitalist media (the 5th organ of the capitalist state) has always been manipulative and frequently downright dishonest with regard to supplying the public with information. UK striking trade unionists in the 1960’s and 70’s, for example, would often only trust one newspaper (the Financial Times) to report their struggles at least partially accurately. So Trump, no stranger to media manipulation himself, is nevertheless correct at least concerning the media who are hostile to him and he is only repeating what millions of American citizens already know. The US government under Trump may at times resemble a mad hatters tea party, and a dangerous one at that, but his Democratic critics are daily proving themselves worthy of replicating it when they get the opportunity to do so. Note also that those who have published anti-Clinton views are being accused by some establishment figures of manipulation by Russia, whilst those whistle-blowers who publish what the elite want hidden are being classed as witting or unwitting agents of foreign powers.
From a revolutionary-humanist and anti-capitalist perspective Robert Fisk’s book fails to make a clear link between the actions of the West and the needs of its capitalist driven mode of production for resources and markets. That is the reality behind Mr Fisk’s term “malign influence of history”. It is also light on the differences between the motives of the capitalist elites and those of their millions of blue and white-collar worker citizens. His use of a collective ‘us‘ and ‘we‘ in the West in his analysis misses out the obvious rift between capital and labour during the period covered by the book, not only in economic matters but also in social and political affairs. The millions, world-wide and in the West who demonstrated against American led wars from Korea, through Vietnam and on to Iraq, indicate that we in the west are not united in treating the rest of the world’s people as collateral damage in the pursuit of profit. The rift still exists and at the moment most of us can only protest and, where we can, offer charity to those who are the worst treated victims of this corrupt system.
Nevertheless, despite these shortcomings, this book is an important contribution to breaking through the domination of the neo-capitalist elites narrative in global and Middle East affairs. And to my mind, it is one of the best. It records and asks questions about the loss of humanity not only among those perpetrators of the ex-colonialist/imperialists powers but also among those who have decided to fight back. The book eloquently reveals that atrocities of revenge by members of the oppressed and exploited, against the many atrocities perpetrated by the oppressors, does nothing but create a downward spiral of inhumanity and leads to no positive outcome. Just more of the same. This downward spiral is described in detail in the book and it is at times difficult to read what one set of human beings can do to another as witnessed, in this case, by Robert Fisk. Yet it is important to confront and understand these recurring savage outcomes of a system based on extreme forms of economic, social and political alienation. So I recommend the book to all and offer much belated apologies to Robert Fisk – as this is the best review I can do at the moment.
Roy Ratcliffe (August 2018)