[Book Review] The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East by Robert Fisk

April 19, 2020

This mammoth of a book came into my hands highly recommended – not only by the wise internet crowds and professional book reviewers at prestigious news papers – but also by trusted friends: the very few that were brave enough and had the discipline to read through the sometimes immensely emotionally taxing 1288 pages of this book (well, that's the count on the edition I was able to procure from my favourite bookshop before it closed down because of COVID-19).

As with all accounts of historical events there's no 'absolute truth' and in 1200 pages you are most certainly going to find inaccuracies and mistakes. However those faults do not take any merit away from the point that Fisk was trying to make in his 'opus magna'. In fact and, if anything, the central motivation of this book was summarised by him quoting Amira Hass: “There is a misconception that journalists can be objective ... What journalism is really about is to monitor power and the centres of power.” This is his account of Middle Eastern history and a very personal one at that.

Robert Fisk spent the best part of 30 years living and reporting – mostly as a war correspondent – some of the most crucial events of modern Middle Eastern history: The Iran-Iraq War, The Gulf War, The Iranian Revolution, The Afghanistan Wars (both the Soviet and the American one), The Iraq War by the US, The Palestinian Intifada ... Based out of Beirut he was able to spend time and see, with his own eyes, the truths that lie behind “war as politics by other means” to quote Carl von Clausewitz.

His book – which, let's be honest here, could have been separated into volumes or even into separate books – portrays the crude consequences of war to the point of nausea: pages on end of torture, war crimes, tragedies, death, hypocrisy by Western Powers and the permanent grievances on the Arab people created by them. In all fairness, this is a real account of what war really does to people: a non romantiziced version of it that couldn't be further away from the heroism that what we see in the movies or even on TV, reinforced by the deliberately sneaky discourses of the politicians who sent people to die in the first place.

However, he also did make some space for topics that, I believe, underly all of the chapters and essentially could be considered as the fundamentals of his view: the lack of responsibility assumed by western powers and weapons-dealers, the misery instilled into Arab people by draconian treaties, the faulty logic used to wage war (including committing horrifying war crimes) in the Middle East, etc.

For me, this book is essentially about: (1) the hypocrisy that permeates international politics; (2) and more importantly, this a treaty on understanding the need for bravery and plurality of visions and empathy towards others. Robert Fisk challenges the accepted monolithic and manichean discourse that fuels the conflicts in the Middle East: “if you are not in favor of US/Israeli Policies you are in favor of terrorism”. For once we get to see a clear account on what that means and on the consequences of ensuring that a dehumanising logic like that one is dominant.

I consider this to be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the Middle East and International Security / Politics. The only thing that I wished is that we had a more accesible version of it so that more people would be exposed to Fisk's magnificently crude and dark vision of events.

See you on the next adventure,