by Mark Chmiel
6 September 2009
Given how busy you must be, I can’t imagine that you would have brought along with you Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. I regret that we didn’t have nearly enough time to discuss this book while you were here in St. Louis, so I thought I would send you an occasional “rereading” of that heart-breaking, illuminating, and disturbing tome. Perhaps next summer we can resume such discussions in cafes around St. Louis.
Since his youth, Fisk had long aspired to be a foreign correspondent, and he mentions that when he was 29, he received a letter from one of the higher-ups at The Times, in which he was told: “Paul Martin has requested to be moved from the Middle East. His wife has had more than enough, and I don’t blame her. I am offering him the number two job in Paris, Richard Wigg Lisbon—and to you I offer the Middle East. Let me know if you want it… It would be a splendid opportunity for you, with good stories, lots of travel and sunshine…” [xix]
In Fisk’s preface, he quotes Israeli journalist Amira Hass as saying that the journalist’s role is to “to monitor the centers of power,” the power that invades other countries, the power that sends people to be tortured, the power that conceives of genocide and implements it, the power that draws borders of the lands of others in its interests, the power that is drunk with its own dizzying rhetoric of rectitude, the power that predictably invites “blowback,” the power that acts as if it is above the law, with a quasi-divine right to disturb the lives and worlds of others.
This book is the product of thirty years of covering the Middle East, and Fisk has confronted what many of us here in the U.S. could hardly imagine, for example, “The Iraqi soldier at Fao during the Iran-Iraq War who lay curled up like a child in the gun-pit beside me, black with death, a single gold wedding ring glittering on the third finger of his left hand, bright with sunlight and love for a woman who did not know she was a widow. Soldier and civilian, they died in their tens of thousands because death had been concocted for them, morality hitched like a halter round the warhorse so that we could talk about ‘target-rich environments’ and ‘collateral damage’—that most infantile of attempts to shake off the crime of killing—and report the victory parades, the tearing down of statues and the importance of peace.” [xvii] He also observes, “[Governments] 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.” [xviii]
In a letter to a friend, Franz Kafka once wrote that “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skulls, then why do we read it?” Fisk’s book is a heroic effort to wake us from our ignorance and indifference.
I hope you are not too weary from your travels and I look forward to reading about the work you are doing. I am sure you miss your family and friends, especially during Ramadan, but know this: Your vivacity and kindness are much missed here as well.