The Great War for Civilisation by Robert Fisk

Robert Fisk of the 'Independent' is one of the best-known journalists in the world, with a passionate sense of justice and a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Neal Ascherson looks on in admiration at his old friend and colleague
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The Independent Culture

Right at the end of this book, he describes himself sitting in the roadside mud with an Iraqi family, watching as a 40-mile convoy of American armour thunders up Highway Eight towards Baghdad. For Fisk, it's a moment to reflect on Roman and American empires which have a visceral need to "project power on a massive scale". For the reader, it's almost a caricature: the journalist who wants to see the world from down in the muck with the victims, rather than from a tank turret as an "embedded" correspondent.

Today, Robert Fisk is one of the best-known reporters in the world. Long before 11 September, he had an enormous following of readers who had come to regard him as the only journalist consistently describing the Middle East "as it is". He has also accumulated a pack of vengeful enemies, longing to discredit and silence him. Not all of them are Israelis or American diplomats. Some are fellow-journalists, maddened by his gift for being in the right place at the right time. (The bomb which changed Near-Eastern history went off down his street in Beirut; the dead man with his socks still burning turned out to be his friend Rafiq Hariri, ex-prime-minister of Lebanon...)

For the last 30 years, Fisk has been covering an enormous arc of territory which is not just "the Middle East" but reaches from the Moroccan Atlantic to the Punjab with a northward extension into the Balkans. Almost all the peoples who live there are Muslim. All of them, without exception, have been the objects of imperial conquest and colonialism, of cultural suppression and big-power frontier-drawing.

This is a book about what Fisk saw, heard, thought and wrote in those years. It is not an autobiography. Apart from his relationship with his parents, the door on his private life is locked. Neither is it a complete chronicle. Having just written a separate book about them, Fisk leaves out the experiences in Lebanon which generated some of his best-known writing (his accounts of the Israeli shelling of Qana in 1996, for instance). But what remains is overwhelming.

This is a very long book, allowing Fisk to interleave political analysis, recent history and his own adventures with the real stories which concern him. These are the sufferings of ordinary people under monstrous tyrannies or in criminal, avoidable wars. Fisk reported the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf war of 1991, the Palestine intifadas, the Taliban rule in Afghanistan and its sequel as the Americans and their allies invaded in 2002, the terror regimes of Saddam, the Shah and the ayatollahs, the frenzy of bloodshed in Algeria as Islamists and security forces competed to slaughter the innocent, and - of course - the Bush-Blair war against Iraq and its outcome. His chapter on the 1915 Armenian genocide, still unpardonably denied and evaded and not only by Turks, revives his famous report from Syria when he stumbled across the mass graves at Margada (see extract, above).

The source of most of this horror, for Fisk, is the post-1918 carve-up of the Middle East between European powers. "We" - Britain, France and much later America - are responsible. Subtly, Fisk weaves this sense of guilt around his own ambiguous feelings for his father, a young officer in the Great War for civilisation who became at once a cold, bullying husband and a stiffly proud parent. Shame for that generation's imperial mistakes, he seems to feel, is heritable, and when he is attacked and almost killed by an Afghan refugee mob, Fisk's impulse is that they are not to blame. He might have done the same to a Westerner, in their place.

All the same, the cumulative impact of these terrible accounts of massacre, torture and almost unimaginable ruthlessness may not be what Fisk wants. The case against "Us" (the West) diminishes; the unjust impression that this is a zone of endemic savagery grows stronger. He writes with a marvellous resource of image and language. His investigative reporting is lethally painstaking (see how he pieces together the biography of an American missile which somehow came into Israeli hands, was fired at an ambulance and killed an innocent Lebanese family).

But the sense of inescapable doom which builds up in this book is misleading. What's missing is a sense that it's not just Fisk but most of the world which finds Western policy crazy. Fisk includes here several unforgettable, marvellously observed meetings with Osama bin Laden. Maybe he should try his talents on a meeting with George W Bush.