The first time Robert Fisk met Osama bin Laden, the future public enemy of the United States was sitting in a tent in rural Sudan, wearing a gold-fringed robe, surrounded by Muslim elders and children. Fisk's initial impression was of a "shy man," wary of meeting his first Western reporter. "My time in Afghanistan was the most important experience in my life," Bin Laden quietly told Fisk that day. But all that was behind him. He was building roads now.
As it turned out, that would not be Bin Laden's last experience in Afghanistan, nor would it be Fisk's last meeting with him. That would come several years later, when Bin Laden summoned the Independent's man in the Middle East to the mountain fastnesses of Afghanistan, where the Saudi sheik was preparing for war. "Mr. Robert," Bin Laden said, striding into a heavily guarded tent, this time with a frightening gleam in his eye.
"One of our brothers had a dream. He dreamed you came to us one day on a horse, that you had a beard and that you were a spiritual person," Fisk remembers Bin Laden telling him. "You wore a robe like us. This means you are a true Muslim." Bin Laden was trying to recruit him, Fisk realized. The great war for civilization—at least on Bin Laden's side—had begun.
The time between these two encounters was not even a decade, but as Fisk describes in his gargantuan, heartbreaking and utterly essential new book, it encapsulated a huge shift in relations between the West and the Middle East. "I used to argue that every reporter should carry a history book in his back pocket," Fisk writes. Although at 1,100 small print pages, The Great War for Civilisation will never fit in anyone's back pocket, it is an attempt to redress what Fisk perceives as a giant hole in our sense of history—to show how this seemingly overnight shift that came to America on 9/11 has in fact been a long time coming.
Drawing on more 350,000 notes and documents, and his own firsthand reports, Fisk steers the reader through three bloody decades of Middle Eastern history, from the early beginnings of civil war in Lebanon, to the Iran and Iraq war that cost nearly a half-million lives, to the Israeli-led massacres in Palestinian territories, and Israel's invasion of Lebanon, winding up with the two Gulf Wars. The result is a portrait of a region that was carved up in 1918 and has been dealing with the consequences of imperial arrogance ever since.
The great benefit of hearing this history from Fisk is that he was there on the frontlines for most of these events. He first began covering the Middle East for London's The Times in the late '70s at age 29. He resigned in 1988 after a story he wrote about the American shooting-down of an Iranian Airbus, killing 290 passengers and crew, was distorted. He has written for the Independent in London ever since.
Critics of Fisk often describe him as a maverick crusader overly sympathetic to Arab perspectives, which is less of an apt criticism than it is a sad reflection on how little we now expect from the print media, which "embeds" its reporters and then pretends those same dispatches are unbiased. Fisk does not pretend to be balanced. He is an unapologetic, engaged humanist, and he attempts to present history through the eyes of people who experience it, not from the governments who attempt to shape it into a public narrative.
"[Governments] want their people to see as a drama of opposites, good and evil, ’them' and us," Fisk writes. "But war is primarily not about victory or defeat but about death and the infliction of death."
As a result this book is awash with torture and mutilations and killing—between Jews and Arabs, Westerners and Arabs, from afar and close-up—much of it witnessed in Lebanon, where Fisk has lived for more than half of his life. He was there when Israeli cluster bombs landed in civilian West Beirut neighborhoods, and when missiles fired from American-built Apache helicopters tore through an ambulance in 1996, killing two women and four children. A videotape survives of the incident, revealing Abbas Jiha, who was thrown from the vehicle. He stood above his dead daughters weeping and shrieking ’God is Great' up into the sky, toward the helicopter. "I raised my fists to the pilot and cried out," he tells Fisk, "’My God, my God, my family has gone.'"
On television, Abbas Jiha would appear as just another screaming Arab, but in these pages, over and over again, the human cost of such "collateral damage" becomes real and felt and awful—utterly senseless. Long after the memory of it vanishes from our cluttered minds in the West, it smolders on in the East. In Baghdad for the second Gulf War, Fisk goes shopping for a Christmas tree for his hotel balcony with a former soldier who watched Saddam gas Iranians in the 1980 war (with U.S. financial aid). All of the man's friends were killed in that war, but he survived—only he can't remember their names because a piece of shrapnel is lodged in his skull.
Fisk's point is that there is no redemption for this kind of killing and maiming, or for that matter the computerized death suffered by as many as 100,000 Iraqi civilians during the current war in Iraq, according to one Johns Hopkins survey. Killing in the name of liberation or any other cause does not lead to less killing, but more.
One of the prime culprits Fisk sees in all this is the arms dealers—who sell Apache helicopters to the Israelis and Hellfire II missiles to other governments who need them. War profiteering is real, as Fisk's visit to a weapons convention in 2001 makes clear. The military build-up for the second Gulf War was an arms bonanza for U.S. corporations, a chance to "milk" the Arab wealth one more time. "This is history as arms manufacturers like to tell it," writes Fisk after pushing a Lockheed Martin VP into admitting he feels no guilt over the deaths caused by his weapons. "Stripped of politics and death, full of percentages and development costs and deals."
From Fisk's perspective, the so-called "cult of death" of suicide bombers is not homegrown, but imported from Europe and America and Russia, who have been delivering death to the Middle East with Lockheed Martin invoices for decades. In addition, our governments have distorted history schizophrenically, reversing positions based on a theoretical idea of the global balance of power, or in the case of the U.S., Fisk argues, American self-interest.
In this regard, he argues, governments must shoulder a great deal of the blame for the dirge of death that has unfolded in the Middle East, especially the U.S. It is the consequence of killing, and of a terrible, whimsical disregard for history. Fisk, unlike many reporters, remembers the near sinking of the U.S.S. Stark by an Iraqi fighter jet in 1987. Because Iraq was an American ally at the time, President Reagan blamed Iran, even though it was clear they had had nothing to do with the event. "It was an interesting precedent," Fisk writes sourly. "When Iraq almost sank an American frigate, Iran was to blame. When al Qaeda attacked the United States fourteen years later, Iraq was to blame."
And so here we are indeed.