VIEW THIS PAGE How does one review a book by a man who has spent the past three decades reporting on the world’s bloodiest conflicts, who has interviewed Osama bin Laden and who, by Air France calculations, travels more frequently than any Air France crew member? Robert Fisk’s journalistic resume is impressive, from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to Israel’s own invasion of Lebanon, Iran after the overthrow of the Shah to the US-led invasion of Iraq, as well as the killing fields of Algeria, Syria, the Occupied Territories and other trouble spots in the Arab world.
The sum total of his death-defying forays into the Middle East is contained in his excellent Pity the Nation, which covers the Lebanese civil war, and The Great War for Civilization, a monumental, 1,300-plus page catalogue of man’s inhumanity to man which, Fisk tells us, will eventually be followed by a second volume.
The Age of the Warrior departs from the blood-soaked pages of his previous books and offers more personal insights into Fisk the man. In it we find the ponderings, through a decade or so of editorials he wrote for the Independent, of a man who probably has seen more dead bodies than any reporter alive today. The 116 entries can be read as hiatuses, “a foreign correspondent’s thoughts amid war, a corner of the journalist’s brain that usually goes unrecorded,” recorded here for our benefit.
Some entries, such as “The forgotten art of handwriting” or “The cat who ate missile wire for breakfast” — a true story, by the way — are light in tone, but underlying the whole volume is the same anger we have come to expect from Fisk in the face of injustice, double standards and Western complicity in the suffering that finds such fertile ground throughout the Middle East.
As in his reporting, Fisk spares no one, and his cast of characters is a rogues’ gallery of the architects of catastrophe — former US president George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, former British prime minister Tony “Kut al-Amara” Blair, Jack Straw, Ariel Sharon and other symbols of the West at its worst. Equally targeted are “our” dictators, ally-turned-foe Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Pervez Musharraf, Yasser Arafat, Hafez al-Assad, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Muamar Qadaffi and King Abdullah of Jordan. His skewering of these individuals will be nothing new to anyone who has followed Fisk’s reporting over the past three decades or has waded through his immense The Great War for Civilization. But here Fisk, aware of the failings and limitations of his own profession, takes a step back and turns to equally important subjects such as our collective forgetting of history and how movies have come to define reality.
Especially useful is the section “Words, words, words,” a modern-day version of George Orwell’s famous essay Politics and the English language, in which Fisk confronts the insidious manipulation of language (starting from his own training as a journalist) that characterizes most reporting — especially when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here Fisk draws our attention to the catchwords, euphemisms and “hygienic metaphors” used to distort reality, how illegal Jewish settlements become “Jewish neighborhoods,” occupied land becomes “disputed,” Palestinian attacks invariably “terrorist” while Israeli “retaliation” is self-defense,” killed civilians become “collateral damage” and Palestinians who blow themselves to bits while making a bomb as dying from “work accidents.” And so on, language that once again reared its ugly head during Israel’s 22-day pounding of Gaza in December and January.
Later, Fisk explains why journalists should not be forced to testify at war crimes tribunals, at least not until courts abandon their double standards and become equally intent on trying war criminals in the Middle East, the perpetrators of Sabra and Chatila, Hama and the countless other massacres that have written the history of the region in blood. Until then, journalists testifying in court or providing evidence would risk being complicit in that system of double standards, he argues.
Fisk, who makes Lebanon his home, has often been accused by Western media and various Israeli groups of sympathizing too much with Muslims, criticism that has bordered on accusations he suffers from Stockholm syndrome — especially after he was attacked by Afghan refugees in Pakistan on Dec. 10, 2001, whose anger at Westerners he said could be rationalized. Such accusations, however, are nonsense, and anyone who has paid attention to his long career will know that Fisk sides with justice, which in our world often means siding with those who ended up on the wrong side of history. In fact, his detractors (Zionists and others) will find in this volume many instances of Fisk at his most unsparing in his criticism of Holocaust revisionists or individuals, such as Maurice Papon, Marshal Philippe Petain and Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who had a hand in it. He is equally implacable in his call for recognition of the Armenian Genocide and his criticism of the Turkish government, which to this day continues to deny it took place.
History conveniently distorted or altogether effaced by opinion makers and governments, Fisk argues, is a dangerous instrument that, over time, will come back to haunt us, as it did on Sept. 11, 2001. Though Fisk clearly calls the attacks a “crime against humanity,” he insists that they did not occur in isolation, that they were a result of our actions in the Middle East. There is no doubt, he argues, that the London bombings of July 7, 2005, would not have happened had the UK not participated in the invasion of Iraq. And yet, to this day, an unrepentant Blair (a favorite villain of Fisk) and a complicit media claim there was no connection between the two events, as will those who continue to argue, against all evidence, that 9/11 was the result of Muslim “hatred” for Western democracy, that it had nothing do to with racism, support for or indifference to the Apartheid-like conditions Israel imposes on Palestinians, catastrophic sanctions against Iraq that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, support for Saddam as he used poison gas against Iran and support for repressive regimes that are allies in the “war on terrorism.”
There is much, much more to Fisk’s rich volume, which, as with his other publications, should come with the warning “danger, no light subjects therein.” But then again, what should we expect from a book that concludes on such a note: “I wake each morning in Beirut and hear the wind in the palm trees outside my bedroom window and ask myself what we all ask ourselves these days — or should ask ourselves: what horror waits for us today?”
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