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(DV) Raphael: The Great War for Civilization







The Great War for Civilization
by Dan Raphael
December 14, 2005

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The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East,
by Robert Fisk (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2005)

This is a book that will hopefully be widely read. The distillation of 30 years’ reportage not only about but from many of the most hellish hotspots in the Middle East, Robert Fisk’s latest work demonstrates the kind of journalism needed but rarely found in this world. Embedded with no one and frequently an eyewitness at great personal risk, he gives voice to those deliberately excised from the unofficial bulletins of armies and rulers. In 24 chapters, he unfolds with very little repetition the issues that continue to form people’s lives throughout the Middle East and beyond: his several face-to-face meetings with Osama bin Laden; his observations from Baghdad as American cruise missiles and jets begin to fill medical wards; his attempt to anonymously travel via bus close to the Russian border, during the invasion of Afghanistan; under fire during the Iraqi invasion of Iran; the Algerian civil war and its equally vicious aftermath; the U.S. government betrayal of the Shia and the Kurds; the plague of death caused by depleted uranium; interviews with the few Armenian survivors of the original holocaust; attending an international armaments trade show; the theft of land, murder of innocents, routine and widespread practice of torture...not culled from government press releases and the statements of rulers, but transmitting from the site of events to a world audience, the words of soldiers, civilians, and those otherwise forgotten and abandoned.  

His focus has always been mostly on the realities of those on the anvil of events -- what it is to be the means to someone else’s end, a foot soldier’s life as a footnote to war. He forthrightly presents the reality of war: charred and bloated remains, and people locked in mortal battles fought on hospital beds. He does not write for shock value, but he avoids nothing, providing details as necessary as they are absent from the commercial mainstream.  

When journalists wished to film the war, they chafed at the restrictions placed upon them; but when the war was officially over and the restrictions lifted and they could film anything they wanted, they did not, after all, want to show what conflict was like. I noticed how the Iraqis who had comparatively clean deaths -- those who were obliging enough to die in one piece and collapse picturesquely, lying like fallen warriors by the roadside -- would turn up on television screens, briefly of course, to symbolize the “human cost” of war. But the world was not allowed to see what we saw, the burned, eviscerated souls, the chopped-off, monstrous heads, the scavenging animals. Thus did we help to make war acceptable. We connived at war, supported it, became part of it. 

In addition to first-hand descriptions that include crucial details, he dissects how potentates and pretenders rely upon witting scribes who employ two different sets of stylistic books in their reportage:  

I have sought in vain to discover the origin of our journalistic use of the word “settlements.” By its nature, the expression is almost comforting. It has a permanence about it, a notion of legality. Every human wants to “settle,” to have a home. The far more disturbing -- and far more accurate -- word for Israel’s land grabbing in the West Bank and Gaza since 1967 is colonizing. Settlers are colonists. Almost all the Israelis in the West Bank are living on someone else’s land. They may say that God gave them the land, but those Palestinians who legally owned that land -- who had property deeds to prove it, since the British Mandate, since the Ottoman empire -- are not allowed to appeal to God. Successive Israeli governments have supported this theft of property, and by 2003, 400,000 Israeli Jews were living in the occupied territories in explicit violation of Article 49 of the Geneva Convention -- which states that “the Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” 

Similarly, the double standard is employed by the corporate/governmental journalists reporting on the cycle of violence between Palestinians and Israelis: 

When Palestinians massacre Israelis, we regard them as evil men. When Israelis slaughter Palestinians, American and other Western nations find it expedient to regard these crimes as tragedies, misunderstandings, or the work of individual madmen. Palestinians -- in the generic, all-embracing sense of the word -- are held to account for these terrible deeds. Israel is not. 

Mr. Fisk asks questions that were raised across the world before the Peter Pan president began “standing tall” on a pile of corpses. Before the missiles and bombs began their promiscuous rounds of death and dismemberment across Iraq, Robert Fisk wondered whether the American invaders had any idea at all as to what they would do, once there. The lying, transparent arguments, the juvenile waving of phony evidence at the UN, and the attempted browbeating of wiser heads in Europe, all receive the author’s brisk attention: 

The slur of “anti-Semitism” also lay behind Rumsfeld’s insulting remarks about “old Europe.” He was talking about the “old” Germany of Nazism and the “old” France of collaboration. But the France and Germany that opposed this war were the “new” Europe, the continent that refused, ever again, to slaughter the innocent. It was Rumsfeld and Bush who represented the “old” America; not the “new” America of freedom, the America of F. D. Roosevelt. Rumsfeld and Bush symbolized the old America that killed its native inhabitants and embarked on imperial adventures. It was “old” America we were being asked to fight for -- linked to a new form of colonialism -- an America that first threatened the United Nations with irrelevancy and then did the same to NATO. This was not the last chance for the UN, nor for NATO. But it might well have been the last chance for America to be taken seriously by her friends as well as her enemies. 

Throughout this book, useful slices of history help explain and provide proportion to contemporary events. More than one of these historical background segments include the thought that invaders should learn from the trail left before them by other, now-departed armies.  

How did this British man come to be such a tribune for the common people? A partial answer can be found in a thread that can be glimpsed across the broad scope of this book. His father was a bully to his mother and shared the common racism of his time. It was through his father that the young Fisk learned about the Somme, and the other places of battle and butchery in the War to End All Wars. Yet, Robert Fisk’s dad was also a soldier who, when ordered to oversee a firing squad, refused to participate. The victim -- later executed by others -- was not a man personally known to the senior Fisk, so the refusal was something other than a matter of trying to protect a friend.  

More important was the influence of his mother. She pressed upon him the first book he would ever read -- Anne Frank’s Diary. It was her who remarked that “The accused often tell the truth -- and I don’t always trust policemen.” It is easy to see how this kind of urging could have sparked an awareness not often stirred by a parent. This is all the more remarkable, considering that this was no communal education -- the Fisks are not Jews -- but his mother’s concern that young Robert understand the nature of injustice. Thus began his preparation to face the reality of our world, and the lesson presented to him, whatever the dynamics of mother-son relationship, seem to have sunk in: 

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. 

No person is simply the product of parental influence, for good or ill. There is, ultimately, no explanation for human goodness other than the choice each person makes. Just as the Bushes and Blairs of this world choose the kind of people they are, so it is that a person like Robert Fisk chooses to be someone quite different. History is nothing other than the sum of the clashing choices people make, and the challenge, as Fisk states in the final page of his monumental book, is how to correct history. His personal commitment to remedy injustice and to correct the falsifying of events shines through the burning oil and tanks, the harsh stories of malice and betrayal. We could hardly do better than to choose and to live as he has.  

Dan Raphael has been an activist since the Vietnam War was heating up and is active with the Green Party of the United States.