FOURTH ESTATE £25 (1366pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

The Great War for Civilisation: the conquest of the Middle East, by Robert Fisk

Making history on the front line

He says that every journalist in the Middle East needs to walk around with a history book in a pocket to remind him or her of why we got to where we are; why the injustices and horrors of yesteryear are engraved in people's minds and have powerful influence on what happens next.

This conviction was put to the test in a most personal manner. Fisk was on the Afghanistan border in November 2001 when a crowd of refugees from the American bombing turned on him and began to stone him. His head was split open, blood clouded his vision and for a while it looked as if he might not survive. He fought back and then realised what he was doing. "'What had I done?' I kept asking myself. I had been hurting and attacking and punching the very people I had been writing about for so long, the very dispossessed, mutilated people whom my own country - among others - had been killing... The men whose families our bombers were killing were now my enemies too." He escaped and decided that he would not be able to live with himself unless he stuck to his convictions and explained why the Afghan crowd had attacked him.

So he wrote about the humiliation and misery of the Muslim world, and the determination of the Alliance that "good" must triumph over "evil" even if it meant burning and maiming civilians. He concluded that if he were an Afghan refugee, "I would have done what they did. I would have attacked Robert Fisk. Or any other Westerner I could find."

It is a measure of how intensely Fisk is hated by some that his mail included unsigned Christmas cards regretting that the Afghans had not finished the job. Americans were particularly vicious. The Wall Street Journal carried an article which was headed "A self-loathing multiculturalist gets his due". The pugilistic Mark Steyn wrote of Fisk's account, "You'd have to have a heart of stone not to weep with laughter."

It is not only Fisk's efforts to explain the Muslim side of events but to understand them that makes him enemies. He is also seen as an apologist for the West's worst bogeyman, Osama bin Laden. Fisk has interviewed bin Laden three times, once in the Sudan and twice in Afghanistan. The two got on well, even though Fisk says that bin Laden tried to recruit him. We get an impression of the man very different from the one disseminated. Fisk says bin Laden is devout, shy, thoughtful and - like Bush and Blair - possesses that dangerous quality: total self-conviction. Bin Laden has an almost obsessive interest in history and believes that it is working against the US, for whom hatred "lies like a blanket" over the Middle East.

Fisk got his break, aged 29, on The Times in its glory days, when the foreign editor Louis Heren offered him the Middle East as his beat. He had the temperament for the job - adventurous but not foolhardy: "There is a little Somme waiting for all innocent journalists." He stayed with The Times for 18 years and says it was always loyal to him, and that he had great trust in its editors.

Then, in July 1988, a story he had written, the results of his investigation into the shooting down of an Iranian Airbus by the American warship Vincennes, killing 290 passengers and crew, was cut and changed, its meaning distorted by omission.

"This, I felt sure was the result of Murdoch's ownership of The Times," whose readers "had been solemnly presented with a fraudulent version of the trutth". So he resigned and went to the work for The Independent, where he remains today. In the book he justifies his long explanation of why he left The Times by writing - and any serious reporter has to agree with him - "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 events that we are supposed to be reporting."

Fisk's critics complain that he is not objective and detached. This is right. He is subjective and engaged. What's wrong with that? We are talking here about different views on what journalists, especially foreign correspondents, are for. Fisk has thought a lot about this and writes that "we journalists try - or should try - to be the first impartial witnesses to history. If we have any reason for our existence, the least must be our ability to report history as it happens so that no one can say: 'We didn't know - no one told us'." But he quickly realised this is not enough. Our leaders present war as a drama, a battle of good versus unspeakable evil, and demand that we are either with them or against them.

They promise that with God on our side, and minus a few hard-won civil liberties, we will march to eventual victory. But as Fisk points out, "War is not about victory or defeat but about death and the infliction of death. It represents the total failure of the human spirit." Then one day he meets Amira Hass, an Israeli journalist whose articles on the occupied Palestinian territories Fisk rates higher than anything written by non-Israeli reporters. She gives him a better definition of his duty: "Our job is to monitor the centres of power". So he began to challenge authority, all authority, "especially when governments and politicians take us to war, when they decide that they will kill and others will die."

He continues to fulfill this duty with passion and anger. As he admits, his work, especially in this powerfully-written book, is filled with accounts of horror, pain and injustice. His triumph is that he has turned a slightly dubious and over-romanticised craft into a honorable vocation.

Phillip Knightley's books include 'The First Casualty: the war correspondent as hero, propagandist and myth-maker' (Andre Deutsch)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice