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
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
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.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'