The first time Robert Fisk met Osama Bin Laden, the United States’ future public enemy number one was sitting in a tent in rural Sudan, surrounded by Muslim elders and children, wearing a gold-fringed robe. Fisk’s initial impression was of a “shy man,” wary of meeting his first Western reporter. “My time in Afghanistan was the most important experience in my life,” Bin Laden quietly told Fisk that day. But all that was behind him. He was building roads now.
As it turned out, Bin Laden would return to Afghanistan, and Fisk would meet him again. That rendezvous would come several years later, when Bin Laden summoned the reporter to the mountains of Afghanistan, where the Saudi was preparing for war. This time Bin Laden was ensconced in a heavily guarded tent, a frightening gleam in his eye.
“One of our brothers had a dream. He dreamed you came to us one day on a horse, that you had a beard and that you were a spiritual person,” Fisk remembers Bin Laden telling him. “You wore a robe like us. This means you are a true Muslim.” Bin Laden was trying to recruit him, Fisk realized. The great war for civilisation—at least on Bin Laden’s side—had begun.
The interim between these two encounters was not even a decade, but as Fisk describes it in his gargantuan, heartbreaking and utterly essential new book, it encapsulated a huge shift in relations between the West and the Middle East.
“I used to argue that every reporter should carry a history book in his back pocket,” Fisk writes. Although The Great War for Civilisation, at 1,100 pages, will never fit in anyone’s back pocket, the book is an attempt to redress what Fisk perceives as a gaping hole in our sense of history—to show how the seemingly overnight enmity delivered to America on 9/11 has in fact been a long time coming.
Fisk steers readers through three bloody decades of Middle Eastern history—from the beginnings of civil war in Lebanon, to the Iran vs. Iraq war that cost nearly a half-million lives, to the Israeli-led massacres in Palestinian territories and invasion of Lebanon, winding up with the two Gulf Wars. The result is a portrait of a region that was carved up in 1918 and has been dealing with the consequences of imperial arrogance ever since.
First began covering the Middle East for the London Times in the late ’70s at age 29. He worked for the paper for almost two decades, resigning in 1988 after a story he wrote about America shooting down an Iranian Airbus, killing 290 passengers and crew, was distorted. He has written for London’s Independent ever since.
Fisk does not pretend at balance. He is an unapologetically engaged humanist, and he attempts to present history through the eyes of those who experience it, not from the point of view of the governments attempting to shape it.
“[Governments] want their people to see [war] as a drama of opposites, good and evil, them and us,” Fisk writes. “But war is primarily not about victory or defeat but about death and the infliction of death.”
Appropriately, then, this book is awash with torture and death, much of it witnessed in Lebanon, where Fisk has lived more than half his life. He was there, for instance, when missiles fired from American-built Apache helicopters tore through an ambulance in 1996, killing two women and four children.
In these pages, the human cost of such “collateral damage” becomes real in its awful, utter senselessness.
Among Fisk’s prime culprits are the arms dealers who sell Apache helicopters to the Israelis. War profiteering is real, as Fisk’s visit to a 2001 weapons industry convention makes clear. The military build-up for the second Gulf War was an arms bonanza for U.S. corporations, a chance to “milk” Arab wealth one more time. “This is history as arms manufacturers like to tell it,” writes Fisk, having pushed a Lockheed Martin VP into admitting he feels no guilt over the death caused by his weapons: “Stripped of politics and death, full of percentages and development costs and deals.”
From Fisk’s perspective, the “cult of death” of suicide bombers is not homegrown, but imported from Europe and America and Russia, which have been delivering death to the Middle East attached to Lockheed Martin invoices for decades—while Western governments have distorted history, reversing position based on theories of global balances of power or American self-interest.
In this regard, Fisk writes, governments—especially the U.S. government—must shoulder a great deal of the blame for the dirge of death that continues to unfold in the Middle East.
Fisk, unlike many reporters, remembers the near-sinking of the USS Stark by an Iraqi fighter jet in 1987. Because Iraq was America’s ally at the time, President Reagan blamed Iran—even though it was clear that country had nothing to do with the event.
“It was an interesting precedent,” Fisk writes sourly. “When Iraq almost sank an American frigate, Iran was to blame. When al-Qaeda attacked the United States fourteen years later, Iraq was to blame.”
In that misunderstanding, Fisk suggests, lies the key to the future history of the Middle East—the one that’s being written in the sand of Iraq today.