Creating people's geographies
The Great War for Civilization
Published by Shaun Cronin on 24 May 2006 at 10:42 pm in Politics, Foreign policy, Iraq, Iran.
Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilization is an epic tome. Not just in its scope but length (over 1300 pages) and weight (not for carrying on the train). But the effort to engage is worthwhile. Fisk details the history of conflict in the Middle East involving the usual nations of Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, Iraq, Lebanon as well as Algeria and lesser known (but still equally important) historical events such as the Armenian genocide. Fisk starts off with an account of a meeting with Osama Bin Laden (whom he has interviewed three times) and then recounts his time in Afghanistan during the Russian invasion, followed by the overthrow of the Shah in Iran, the Iraq/Iran war, his father’s active service in the Middle east during World War I, the Armenian genocide, the Israel/Palestine conflict, the failed French colonization of Algiers and the recent civil war, Gulf War I and then Gulf War II. One chapter also deals with the amoral practices of the arms trade. While The Great War for Civilization is a personal narrative as it is based on Fisk’s experiences and articles as Middle East correspondent for The Indepedent, the flow and lessons of history are an important part of Fisk’s narrative.
Warning: Over the fold are two pictures of war injury/death that some may find disturbing.
There are two important themes in The Great War for Civilization. The first is the well known but oft forgotten message of those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Fisk weaves historical parallels through the events he witnessed. While casualties have been low for the US and its allies in Afghanistan, violence still rages in Afghanistan even after the downfall of the Taliban. Some notion of democracy is in place it is far from the liberal democracy envisaged as spreading through the Middle East. The Taliban is still active and Al Qaeda move freely across Afghanistan’s borders. Fisk reminds us of the Anglo/Afghan wars of the 19th century and the Russian invasion of 1979 finding elements of similarity between those historical episodes and the current intervention in Afghanistan. History holds lessons for those who are willing to listen.
The US, with regards to its Middle East foreign policy, seems to reset itself every few years and conveniently forgets history in the cause of politcal expediency. Despots are courted at times to support various causes and when their usefulness has expired are in turn reviled and turned upon. Others once reviled are welcomed in from the cold. Human rights only becomes an issue if it is the right time politically to do so. The US is not hated in the Middle East because of glib notions of ‘they’ hate ‘freedom’ or ‘democracy’. It is because the Arabs understand and remember their history. The empty promises and variability of US Middle East foreign policy has created divisions that run deep.
That is not to absolve the Arab nations from their own culpability. Fisk is critical of US policy but he is also keenly aware that the Arab leaders deserve to share some of the blame. The Palestinian plight is often used for propaganda purposes in Arab politics yet little is done to address the Palestinian problem. It is a convenient problem to have for political purposes and if they did resolve it then they would lose an important propaganda tool. And while Fisk is sympathetic to the Palestinians, the venom is apparent when he recounts the pathetic figure of Yasser Arafat and his failures.
Publius over at Legal Fiction has an excellent post on the US’s ‘blank slate’ approach to history. Worth reading in light of Fisk’s warnings though the history that needs to be remembered is recent, measured by decades not centuries.
The second important theme is the suffering of civilians in war. The current chickenhawks of the Bush administration and their cheerleaders see war as an abstract activity. There is no comprehension that the managerialistic euphemism ‘collateral damage’ masks a very cruel reality for those civilians caught up in the war zone. Fisk doesn’t confine his dismay at the civilian costs of war to indiscriminate bombing by B-52s or Israeli missiles being fired into ambulances containing children. He views the indiscriminate killing of Israeli citizens by suicide bombers with equal disgust and horror. Fisk has seen the aftermath of the carnage created by Palestinian suicide bombers. He has investigated the result of an Israeli rocket attack on a ambulance killing children. We in the west only see sanitized pictures of the war framed by banal statements of ‘good versus evil.’
We didn’t see the full picture of a girl injured in an bomb attack on Basra. It was too ‘sensitive’ for western eyes.
We don’t see images of children with their brains blown out either. This is how war visits civilians. A reality that our media shares the blame in avoiding by trying to sanitize the horror.
Understanding what war is to those in the battle zone is the key to understanding Fisk’s comments after he was attacked in a Pakistan by Afghan refugees. Fisk’s article is something of favourite platform for right-wing pundits (such as Andrew Sullivan and Mark Steyn – their attacks are more revealing of their own prejudices than of any insight in Fisk’s psychological makeup) to attack Fisk. But you can’t divorce the attack on Fisk from events at the time. B-52s were raining bombs on villages, reports of the Mazar prison massacre were circulating and the Afghans were angry. Fisk (and his companions) were seen represent the West and became a way for the powerless to extract some form of revenge. Fisk obviously understood this. Others, far away in comfort and arrogance, see the only role for the Afghans (and Iraqis) is to sit there and accept being bombed in the name of democracy and freedom. Something they are supposed to be grateful for.
One of Fisk’s excellent points is how the rhetoric of the Iraq war used the atrocities of Saddam’s regime as a moral compass. As long as we kill less innocent people (via the callous semantics of ‘collateral damage’ or ‘suspected insurgents’) and don’t torture as many people as Saddam did in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo we are morally superior than Saddam. This approach to justifying the Iraq war is one of total moral failure. We should be morally superior to Saddam (and other despots) because we DO NOT engage in torture. Because we DO NOT deny prisoners the basic right to a fair trail. Because we DO NOT indiscriminately kill innocent civilians. This is how we take moral high ground not via some bizarre sliding scale of based on abhorent regimes.
Fisk is not an objective journalist (of which he freely admits). His experiences obviously do inform his writings and with what he has witnessed no wonder. But in a media where ‘objectivity’ means cowardly, sycophantic appeasement of the powers that be via Fox News or ‘patriotic journalism’, condemnation of Fisk’s lack of objectivity ring hollow. Some of Fisk’s observations are off the mark (he does admit that his description of Iraqi defenses outside Baghdad during GW II in hindsight were wrong. Fisk seems to write a lot of articles as immediate reactions to events) and his prose can tend to prolixity. But these nitpicks aside, The Great War for Civilization needs to be read as a coherent whole as a personal history of Middle East conflict by someone who saw it happen.
After reading The Great War for Civlization I am in agreement with Fisk that the events of Septermber 11, 2001 have changed nothing. The current US approach to the Middle East with its Iraqi debacle and current approach to Iran is no real change in Western policy over the past 90 years. Political expediency and realpolitik rule the day along with a failure to understand history. The current US forays into the Middle East have little difference from the times when Britain, France and Russia used the Middle East as a staging ground for their ambitions.
Yes, Arabs and other Muslims wanted some of that bright, shiny democracy which we liked to brandish in front of them. But they wanted something else. They wanted justice, a setting-to-rights, a peaceful but an honourable, fair end to the decades of occupation and deceit and corruption and dictator creation. The Iraqis wanted an end to our prescence as to Saddam’s regime. They wanted to control their own land and own their own oil. The Syrians wanted Golan back. The Palestinians wanted a state, even if it was built on less than 22 per cent of mandate Palestine, not a 20-foot wall and occupation. The Iranians had freed themselves from the Shah, America’s brutal policeman in the Gulf, only to find themselves living in a graveyard of theocracy, their democratic elections betrayed by men who feed off the hatred for America that now lies like a blanket over the Middle East. The Afghans resisted the Soviet Union and wanted help to restore their country. They were betrayed – and finished in the hands of the Taliban. And then another great army came into their land. However much the newly installed rulers and the old, surviving dictators whom we had helped to power over past decades might praise the West or thank us for our financial loans or for our political support or for invading their countries, there were millions of Muslims who wanted something more: they wanted freedom from us.
Israelis have a country – built on someone else’s land, which is their tragedy as well as that of the Arabs – but its right-wing governments, happily encouraged by that most right-wing of American governments, are destroying all hope of the peace Israel’s people deserve. When President Bush tells Israel that it can keep its major colonies on Palestinian land, he is helping to kill Israelis as well as Palestinians, because that colonial war will continue. And the Armenians. When will they receive their acknowledgement of loss and the admission of responsibility by the descendants of those who committed this holocaust?
Note: Both photographs are from http://www.robertfisk.com. The picture of the injured girl I first came across in the book Bearing Witness
PS Thanks Gummo for some suggestions during the draft.