By Robert Fisk. Fourth Estate, 1,366 pp, $65, hardcover.
For 30 years, Beirut-based Brit Robert Fisk has covered events in the Middle East that have shaped the terror and wars of today, and his latest monstrous volume””in size and content””is a necessary antidote to the sound-bitten simplification by which much of the West understands the region. “Governments like it that way,” he states. “They want their people to see war as a drama of opposites, good and evil, 'them' and 'us', victory or defeat. But war is primarily not about victory or defeat but about death and the infliction of death. It represents the total failure of the human spirit.” A journalist's job is “to challenge authority””all authority””especially so when governments and politicians take us to war, when they have decided that they will kill and others will die.”
This book is not for those with weak stomachs or iron ideologies, as myths and lies from all sides are exploded, revealing many shades of grey and bloody red. Fisk travels the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war, inside occupied Palestine and Algeria's barbarous civil war, and (in 1996) to a remote Afghan cave to interview Osama bin Laden. Far more than just a reporter's memoir, Fisk's historical analysis is blended with stories of people we often know only as “collateral damage” , drawing parallels between Soviet and U.S. invasions of Afghanistan, detailing U.S. war crimes in both Gulf Wars, and linking the Armenian genocide of World War I to Hitler's later horrors.
The ghosts of World War I inhabit both region and writer; Fisk details his father's refusal to execute a fellow Allied soldier at war's end, and the medal he won proclaiming it the titular “Great War for Civilisation” . “At the end of my father's war, the victors divided up the lands of their former enemies...[creating] the borders of Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia and most of the Middle East. And I have spent my entire career””in Belfast and Sarajevo, in Beirut and Baghdad””watching the peoples within these borders burn.” And he himself burns, too, with all the moral outrage and authority of one who has risked his life to tell what lies in this tome.