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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)

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