The oratory of war: In search of the few

Seventy years after Winston Churchill's greatest wartime address, Robert Fisk reflects on the power of words, the problem with famous speeches – and why the best quotes aren't in history books
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Indy Politics

I'm always a little wary of quotations. When did I first hear Churchill's "The Few"? On that wearying BBC Scrapbook for 1940? Certainly my Dad would have been listening. He probably heard it the first time round, in the real 1940. Churchill's portrait (by Karsh of Ottawa) hung in the study of my parents' home until, after my father died, my Mum quietly asked if she could take it down and replace it with a watercolour of All Saints' Church, where she and Bill were married. Of course, it's the balance that does the trick. "Never in the field of human conflict ... " kicks off with historical pomposity, before the soundbite to beat them all " ... was so much owed by so many to so few".

But I'm also a little troubled by the "real" quotations, the recorded variety. On Desert Island Discs five years ago, one of my chosen records – along with "Yellow Submarine", the "Dies Irae" from Benjamin Britten's War Requiem and the Israeli national anthem – was Churchill's "Finest Hour" speech. But when I heard it played in the studio, I was appalled. It wasn't the stirring Churchill of my old plastic disc – he had made that again in the late 1940s for Decca – but the real 1940 Churchill, recorded as he spoke into the BBC's wartime microphone, all brandy-smashed and drawling. I asked the BBC to check the speed. Maybe it was being run too slow. No. It was the exact speed of the 1940 recording. No wonder the Nazis always called Churchill a drunkard.

But the other problem with quotations is that they grow stale. Like Handel's Water Music and Beethoven's Fifth and Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture – my dad played it interminably, and insisted on taking me to the Albert Hall to hear it "with cannon and mortar effects" – Churchill's speech of 20 August 1940 honouring the RAF pilots of the Battle of Britain has run out of steam. It should be locked up for a few decades, a few hundred years, maybe, so that it will emerge fresh from its box again for generations who never heard it. Mind you, recordings of the 1940 air raid sirens over London had the same effect on me – until, that is, I was in Belgrade in 1998 and heard the sirens warning of approaching Nato bombers and missiles, the very same sirens that had warned of the Luftwaffe over Belgrade in 1941. But the original voices are always the same. The date that will live "in infamy" still comes off – Roosevelt actually sounds as angry as he was after Pearl Harbour, though my favourite FDR quotation has to be: "American boys will never fight in a European war." That was less than a decade before D-Day.

These days, our politicos don't really know how to talk. Can you think of anything memorable from Blair, Brown or Cameron? I suppose Blair will always be associated with "WMD" – you can forget the "people's princess" because it was a crib from Alastair – as Bush will be remembered as the "war on terror" man, although "this crusade ... is going to take a while" may end up in the books. And I suppose what I shall never forget is Osama bin Laden saying – to me, in Afghanistan – "Mr Robert, from this mountain upon which you are sitting, we broke the Russian army and we destroyed the Soviet Union. And I pray to God that he will permit us to turn the United States into a shadow of itself." I remembered that on September 11

2001, as my flight turned round over the Atlantic.

Oddly, the words I remember most don't always come from history books or even from "great speeches" at all, though they were often chilling enough. Here's what Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the chairman of Hizbollah, said to me when I asked him to explain the mind of a suicide bomber. " ... Think of a person being in a sauna bath for a long time. He is very thirsty and tired and hot and he is suffering from the effects of a high temperature. Then he is told that if he opens the door, he can go into a quiet, comfortable room, drink a nice cocktail and hear classical music. Then he will open the door and go through without hesitation ... "

That's definitely in the "Ouch!" painful-truth bracket, along perhaps with the late Sayed Fadlallah, Nasrallah's contemporary, who once grimly described Lebanon to me as "the lung through which Iran breathes". Personally, I find that Arabs speak less passionately than the people of the Balkans. How can I ever forget the Bosnian Serb woman in the back of my car, making her way to a prison camp where her brother was being held after refusing to serve in the Bosnian-Serb army – he had been forced to drink his own urine to survive during the battle of Bihac. She was speaking ferociously about the two Bosnian war criminals who were running the conflict. "Karadic and Mladic," she said. "They go around and roar like bears – but they will not die on the front at Bihac!" Ivo Andric, the Yugoslav winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote like that, which makes The Bridge Over the Drina such an astonishing and brutal novel. Do people have to be ruthless and cruel to have memorable quotations?

Yet all I remember Hitler for are two quotes: his "A Last Appeal to Reason", uttered in Berlin and dropped in pamphlet form over a psychiatric hospital near Maidstone in 1940 in the hope that the Brits would surrender; and "Who, after all, speaks today of the destruction of the Armenians?" a question put to his generals just before they invaded Poland and launched the massacre of European Jewry. It was also Hitler, by the way, who announced in 1935 that "National Socialism does not harbour the slightest aggressive intent towards any European nation."

There's plenty of good verse from the First World War, of course – the Western Front was stuffed with poets – although Kitchener's "Your Country Needs You" and the constantly misquoted "Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone" of Edith Cavell are the only other lines that come to mind. Grey's "the lamps are going out all over Europe" doesn't count because they hadn't actually gone out at the time, and Petain's "They Shall Not Pass" has faded a bit since the old boy went from hero of Verdun to war criminal in 1940.

God gets a good running in my memory, too. I still recall the boatman on the Tigris river who quoted the Imam Ali to me as we drifted over the sewage-thick waters: "If you see another man, he is either your brother in religion or your brother in humanity." But then there's Jesus and "suffer the little children to come unto me" and "cast the first stone" and all the other exhortations which have become as memorable as clichés. I'm still moved by "Today you shall be with me in paradise" and I associate it, weirdly, with Christina Rossetti's "Better by far you should forget and smile/ Than that you should remember and be sad." I suspect the "by far" does the trick there.

Of course, the King James Bible is a cracker for memory and there is, surely something infinitely comforting in Ecclesiastes. "One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth for ever." Yet the Bible contains just about every excuse for war crimes you can imagine. Try Numbers, for example: "Then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their molten images and demolish all their high places; and you shall take possession of the land and live in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it." It all reminds me of what Winston's son Randolph kept shouting when he was challenged as a bet to read the Bible at one sitting (in return for champagne, of course) in Yugoslavia during the Second World War: "God, isn't God a shit!"

Childhood makes us remember, too. Carols round my grandfather's log fire, "Good King Wenceslas" and "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" and "The First Noel" – in which, decades later, a Finnish friend of mine always sang "Palestine" instead of "Israel", which may have made her feel clever but didn't do much for euphony. Christmas afternoon and there was The Queen – "my children and I" – and my Dad always stood up for the national anthem right there in my grandparents' living room, in front of the black and white telly, as if he was at prayer. For the same reason, "Our father that art in heaven ... " will probably never leave me – I sometimes wish it would – but I prefer to remember my Mum every Christmas Eve, sitting by my bed and beginning: "Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house/Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse."

This was much better than my Dad's poetry collection. He had an almost Islamic ear for reciting lines by heart and, unfortunately for us, he could recite the whole of Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard – surely the most boring poem every written in the history of English literature. The moment I heard the dread words "the lowing herd", I headed for the loo.

If I look in the rascals' section, I now always recall Iran's raving President Ahmadinejad who, when I complained to him last year about the hanging of a young woman, replied: "Personally I do not like the see the death even of a fly." More women, of course, have been executed in the Islamic Republic since then. Shakespeare's villains get the best lines – Macbeth's "Come, seeling night/Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day" is a killer – and I guess the heroic "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers" (Henry V) and "Come the three corners of the world unite/And we shall shock them" (King John) even have a 1940s flavour about them.

Readers may like to know that their letters are often the most memorable things I read in a week, though none can match Louis Heren, foreign editor of The Times, who invited me to be his Middle East Correspondent more than 34 years ago with the words: "It would be a splendid opportunity for you, with good travel, lots of stories and sunshine ... " I still remember Louis, as I did last week as I prowled through the slums of Cairo in 43 degrees. Call this SUNSHINE???

But the Arabs – and here I'm making up for what I said about their literature – can turn the tables. During the 2006 Hizbollah-Israel war, the then Lebanese prime minister, Fouad Siniora, broke down in tears at an Arab summit conference. What kind of man was this, I asked? What is a prime minister doing crying in public at the height of a war? That great patriarch of journalism, Mohamed Heikel, took me to task a few months later in Cairo. "Why did you say something so unkind about Siniora?" he asked me. "He was showing his humanity." I burst into laughter but Heikel rightly wagged his finger in my face. "Robert, what did Churchill offer your countrymen in 1940? Blood, sweat and tears." At this point, much grovelling by Fisk.

But I'm not certain that the really great quotations have to be clever or said in war or in holy books. Take the following: "Civilisation means a society based upon the opinion of civilians. It means that violence, the rule of warriors and despotic chiefs, the condition of camps and warfare, of riot and tyranny, give place to parliaments where laws are made, and independent courts of justice in which over long periods those laws are maintained."

Strong stuff, isn't it? So much for the Blairs and Bushes and Iraq and Abu Ghraib. And the author? Churchill, of course!