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)

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders