Pity the Region
In March 1991 Shiites in southern Iraq were being slaughtered en masse. President George H.W. Bush had called upon the Iraqis to topple Saddam Hussein after the US-led coalition defeated the Iraqi army in Kuwait. The Shiites heeded the call with vigor and savagery, as did their Kurdish countrymen in the north, but now the reconsolidated Baathist regime was striking back, killing tens of thousands. Using helicopter gunships that Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf rashly permitted them to operate under the terms of the previous month's cease-fire agreement, as well as ground forces, Saddam's forces pulverized the rebellion. Many of the mass graves that have been recently unearthed are from this period.
While this was going on the Americans stood by and watched, often literally. One of the more disgraceful moral lapses in US history, this moment of "betrayal" fundamentally recast Shiite identity in Iraq. Advocates of the latest invasion--who were caught off-guard by the lukewarm reception Iraqi Shiites accorded their would-be liberators in 2003--seem to have slept through that part of the movie. US officials up and down the line did little to mitigate, much less end, the suffering of the Shiites, perhaps in deference to the wishes of their ally Saudi Arabia, for whom the prospect of a Shiite-dominated Iraq is no more inviting now than it was then. Only Iran offered substantial help, which would later yield dividends in credibility for Tehran and for groups it supported, as the elections in Iraq have revealed.
There was at least one American hero in 1991, Staff Sergeant Nolde of the First Armored Division. Robert Fisk, who never learned Nolde's first name, met him at a crossroad in Safwan, the southern Iraqi border town where Nolde's platoon sat while refugees desperately tried to flee to Kuwait. Ordered by a US official to turn them back to the killing fields in southern Iraq, where they were almost certain to die, Nolde responded:
"I'm sorry, sir. But if you're going to give me an order to stop these people, I can't do that. They are coming here begging, old women crying, sick children, boys begging for food. We're already giving them most of our rations. But I have to tell you, sir, that if you give me an order to stop them, I just won't do that." You could see the embassy man wince.
Alas, US foreign policy is not set by the likes of Nolde, which helps to explain why the United States is widely derided and unloved, not just in the Middle East. This makes it all the more important to come to grips with the double standards and hypocrisies that have come to connote American foreign policy to many people around the globe.
Fisk's magnum opus is not just about America in the Middle East, but America has a starring role in The Great War for Civilisation and it is not a flattering one. She is America, righteous of voice but tone-deaf to history, jealous of power but so entwined with Israel that she sometimes reads the other character's lines as her own. Notwithstanding Fisk's penchant for denying the powerful the benefit of the doubt, there is more than enough truth in his depiction to show that George W. Bush's promises to the oppressed (notably in his January 2005 inaugural speech) are more rodomontade than factual, especially when the President claimed, "All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: The United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you." It is impossible to read Fisk's book--replete as it is with evidence of US complicity with dictators, selective tolerance for political violence and erratic respect for human rights--and hear Bush's claims as other than crowd-pleasing boilerplate.
Fisk, the London Independent's senior Middle East correspondent, is one of the best-known--and most polarizing--war reporters, one of the few print journalists with adoring fans and equally passionate detractors. The Independent, after discovering that most of its web hits came from Fisk readers, began charging a fee for his columns, well before other papers in Europe and North America were charging for "premium content." Now one may buy several news packages, including "Robert Fisk" for £50 a year (about $90). It is tempting to compare him to Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh for the exclamations of fierce loyalty or disdain that his pugnacious columns inspire. But Fisk is more serious than either man and, as The Great War for Civilisation exhaustively demonstrates, he has a command of his subject worthy of a historian.
Fisk draws the title of his book from an inscription on the flip side of the World War I victory medal awarded to his father, Bill Fisk, whose service in that war was the signal experience of an otherwise unexceptional life. As a boy, Robert got a glimpse of war's ravages during family excursions to European battlefields, and his father earned a rare ration of filial admiration for demonstrating that moral bearings need not be forfeited in war. Lieut. William Fisk apparently refused to lead a firing squad charged with executing an Australian soldier for desertion and murder; the elder Fisk would have recognized a kindred spirit in Staff Sergeant Nolde, no doubt.
A few other heroes appear at the most unexpected moments--a Muslim cleric who rescued the author from a potentially fatal beating in Afghanistan comes to mind--but The Great War for Civilisation does not offer many feel-good endings. Fisk's often powerful reportage is steeped in a rich appreciation of history, but the book is not chronologically tidy, nor does it advance a sustained argument to guide the reader through a vast body of work that represents thirty years of distinctively tenacious, often brave journalism. I must admit that while reading this massive, unruly book I imagined Fisk emptying all his drawers on the bed. The book would have benefited greatly from a strong-willed editor. It is not just that the prose is sometimes flabby but that anecdotes and jabs are recycled, sometimes within the same chapter. Perhaps the editors at Knopf believe that Fisk is so important to Middle East journalism--or so revered by his readers--that every nail clipping and bon mot needs to be preserved. If so, they missed a chance to offer an even more compelling, less daunting volume, especially for readers with a newly acquired curiosity about the Middle East. Even so, this is a significant work that is sure to endure well after the current flood of Middle East-related books has crested.