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This book is a comprehensive look at the region and the west's involvement. It is thorough but never boring.
Fisk seems to have covered it all, but he never tell it like that. As a correspondent he spend immense time on the ground, but not like so many who report back to the nightly news nowadays, he left he's "green zone".
The smaller stories of those events also make for exciting read.
Read this book and you'll understand much better the cause and consequences of the political, social and ultimately military struggles in the region. Including the west's dirty hand involvement that so many times is overlooked (purposefully unfortunately) in the media.
Fisk is very matter of fact about it, there are no "evil doers" and "freedom fighters" or "liberators", he tells it like it is.
Besides the currently hot topics of Iran and Iraq, the book also covers the almost forgotten Algeria, the definitely forgotten Armenians and it covers Palestine like you probably never heard before.
It's pretty hard to avoid the Middle East these days, epsecially if you watch/read News that's deemed Quality or Non-Tabloid.
I studied the Middle East at University in depth and have a passion for the subject but I still find myself lost by some issues and seeking reference. 9 times out of 10 I turn to the guru himself, Fisk.
A big fan of his Independent articles and comments, I could read any of Fisk's work over and over again such is the style and captivation he brings to the reader.
This book itself is, as expected with Fisk, slightly anti-Zionist/West and shows sympathy to organisations who are often deemed as terrorists by the Western world, not to the extent that he glorifies attrocoties but by looking at why they are angry with Israel/The West, delving into the history of the region and the shameful handling of the area by the superpowers both past and present.
Starting back in almost ancient times, Fisk gives a superb background into the whole history of the region - laying the foundations for the present day settings, which I feel is often misunderstood as just violence for the sake of violence.
Critics may argue that Fisk over-eggs the cake somewhat but I disagree, this area is that really does need in depth coverage and patient to take as much in as possible.
~~ Introduction ~~
Robert Fisk has spent thirty years of his life reporting and dodging bullets in the Middle East. He has covered many of the major events in the region such as the Algerian Civil War, the Iranian Revolution, the American hostage crisis in Beirut (he was one of only two Western journalists in the city at the time), the Iran-Iraq War, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, Israel's invasions of Lebanon, the Gulf War 1991 and the 2003 invasion and subsequent Anglo-American occupation of Iraq. By "Conquest of the Middle East", Fisk is not only referring to Imperialist occupations before 1945, but also the exploitation of the regions resources by the Western powers since 1945. Many of his firsthand experiences are brought together in this book that attempts to deal with the full complexity of the politics and history of the Middle East. This is a heavy book in terms of both content and size (1368 pages), but it is written in an easy-to-grasp journalistic style. Fisk's passion about his subject matter and his genuine concern about the region is clearly evident. The book is an historical and political analysis as well as a personal testimony. Fisk's relentless pursuit of the truth, and his condemnation of torture, genocide, oppression and injustice whoever the perpetrators may be, can only be admired.
~~ Fisk's Journalism ~~
The way Robert Fisk has been able to enter the world of the Middle East and the lives of its people as a Western journalist is quite unique and has provided valuable insight. I know there are a lot of people who don't like Fisk and his journalism. I am never sure why. Perhaps it is because he paints the facts in black and white and reveals some uncomfortable truths about the way our taxes are being spent, the hypocrisy of Western capitalist democracies and the way our governments continually support oppressive regimes. Those political commentators and spokespeople who are quick to label Fisk a 'lefty' pacifist or "Terrorist sympathiser" are usually the same people who turn a blind eye or wipe the blood from their hands when arms deals are signed with torturers and mass murderers. As Fisk points out in relation to the Saddam Hussein regime: "In the early years of Saddam's rule, there were journalists who told the truth about his regime while governments - for financial, trade and economic reasons - preferred to remain largely silent. Yet those of us who opposed the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003 were quickly accused of being Saddam's 'spokesmen' or in my case, 'supporting the maintenance of the regime' - this from Richard Perle, one of the prime instigators of the whole disastrous war, whose friend Donald Rumsfeld was befriending Saddam in 1983."
It is wrong, as is often suggested, that Fisk simply advocates the idea of the West and the Americans being the only perpetrators of political incompetence and disastrous wars. In this book for example, he offers a critical portrayal of Turkish and Palestinian leaders as well as an account of the disastrous invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. If Fisk has any major bias, it is his compassion for the thousands of innocent victims. He is not a journalist who plays it safe and sits on the fence. His words are not repackaged sound-bites issued from edited government press releases. He tells it like it is with all the grim horror this entails.
~~ Content ~~
'The Great War for Civilisation' contains some remarkable and stunning reportage. Fisk provides plenty of first hand eyewitness testimony regarding the atrocities of war and the tragedy of those unfortunate to be caught up in it. There are some graphic descriptions of torture and suffering in Afghanistan, Armenia and Iraq amongst other places and there are written excerpts by those who suffered directly. The book includes Fisk's memorable meetings with Ayatollah Khomeini, Yassir Arafat and his fascinating encounters with Osama bin Laden whom he met and interviewed on three separate occasions before 9/11.
One chapter I found intriguing and informative was the examination of the 1920 occupation of Iraq by British forces and its comparison with the present occupation by the USA. The similarities in terms of strategic failures, the bombings of innocent people and the excuses made by generals and politicians are quite remarkable. As the American philosopher George Santayana wrote: 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.' Such historical events lead up to the present day crisis in Iraq where the most sophisticated armies in the world now rely on private security firms for protection. Other chapters draw light on the roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict and connected events which have led to a threat of terrorism throughout the world.
~~ Faults ~~
Despite the absorbing subject matter I did find some faults. Although the writing is not academic in style and the language used is quite accessible, the text was at times frustrating and difficult to follow. The descriptions of events lack fluidity and information is often fragmented. There are a number of historical maps but they lack dates and do not label some of the highly relevant locations that are being described in the text. I often found myself picking up an atlas to find out exactly where a particular event was taking place or in which direction an army was travelling. Fisk has a tendency to jump around from one story or time period to another without grammatical warning or reference. Some chapters are better than others in this regard. I found the early chapters about Afghanistan rather incoherent but other chapters such as the one about Armenia, were more fluid and comprehensible. One is left with the impression that the text should have been sent back to the editor on more than one occasion. Fisk also has an irritating tendency to meander between different writing styles: one moment he writing in florid poetic prose and then in the next paragraph he reverts back to a more factual journalistic style. In my opinion he should stick to the more factual account. My general impression from reading this book is that Fisk is a great journalist but not a great writer.
~~ Conclusion ~~
Despite the faults outlined above I would still highly recommend this book to those who would like some valuable insight into the political history of the Middle East for anyone who cares about what is happening there now. The book provides plenty of evidence of how our governments and business corporations have always attempted to hide their dirty dealings with ruthless regimes. There are also good accounts about the genocide of the Armenian people, the links between the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust of the Second World War, Saddam Hussein's rise to power as a 'friend' of America and Britain, and the present perceived threat of Terrorism throughout the world.
Book extracts can be found at: http://www.robert-fisk.com/book_extracts_index.htm
~~ Other work by the Author ~~
Robert Fisk has been a Middle East correspondent of The Independent and The Times newspapers. He holds a number of awards for journalism, including two Amnesty International UK Press Awards and seven British International Journalist of the Year awards. His other books include The Point of No Return: The Strike Which Broke the British in Ulster (Andre Deutsch, 1975); In Time of War: Ireland, Ulster and the Price of Neutrality, 1939-45 (Andre Deutsch, 1983); and Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War (London: André Deutsch, 1990).
The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East is, undoubtedly, one of the most intimate and moving portrayals of a region which has, over the past decade, become an unrivalled focus of global attention. Unsurprisingly, Fisk is in a unique position to offer such an account. Writing as a journalist who has made a career from reporting in the Middle East, from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 right up to the current war in Iraq, and as a resident of Beirut, he turns what might have been a dry and detached analysis into a gripping and insightful journey that switches effortlessly and eloquently between historical account and autobiography.
At over a thousand pages, this is a lengthy book, and it took me over a month to read at a reasonably fast pace. But Fisk's style, mixing important historical analysis, most notably on the Armenian Genocide, with distressing accounts of torture and war, particularly in Algeria, Iraq, and Iran, and insightful personal experiences, including interviews with Osama Bin Laden himself, rescues the reader from fatigue and ensures a gripping and eventful read.
How readable is it?
As aforementioned, The Great War for Civilisation is an extremely lengthy book, and there are parts that perhaps should not have been included and add little to the overall experience, particularly Fisk's account of his journey to France in order to learn more about his Father's background in the army. Things such as this were, although important perhaps for Fisk, unnecessary for such a long read and can become frustrating. Luckily, they are few and far between, and Fisk's eloquent style is enough to sustain the reader even at the worst of times.
Perhaps one of the most difficult, but also one of the most essential aspects of this book is its account of torture, particularly in Saddam's prisons and in Algeria. Stories of excruciating pain, unthinkable horror, and summary execution can make for a very painful and distressing read, and some might find this a little too much. For me, however, it ensured that the book left a lasting impression and reinforced the importance of its arguments. The worst accounts often left me feeling particularly uneasy, but it was also something of an enlightening experience.
The book is at its best and most readable during the personal accounts, ranging from Fisk's interviews with a certain Osama Bin Laden in a cave in Afghanistan, in which he is asked rather menacingly to convert to Islam, to a near-death encounter with an angry Arab mob. By drawing on such personal experiences, Fisk adds real depth to the book and ensures a gripping read, and the extent of his travels also adds an astonishing breadth.
Why is this worth reading?
At a time when it is becoming increasingly important for Westerners to properly understand the nature of the Middle East, its many inhabitants, and their predominant religion, with regards to the growing opposition not only to the West itself, but also to Western ideals that is developing there, this book is essential reading.
Fisk seeks not only to address key historical issues but also to explain, in the eyes of a journalist who has lived and breathed the Middle East for decades, what has gone wrong there and what can be done to avert a clash of civilisations. A passionate polemic, Fisk's book traces the roots of our current crisis back to Western influence in the Middle East over the last fifty years, discussing the Shah of Iran, Israel, the arms trade, and neo-conservatism. It is important to point out here that The Great War for Civilisation has an undercurrent of a deeply liberal bias, and Fisk's worldview clearly influences his conclusions. However, while he does not invite the reader to disagree with him, his basic portrayal of events allows room for drawing one's own conclusions, and the book is not, therefore, oppressively dogmatic.
By addressing these issues and trying to discover their roots, Fisk's book is of tremendous importance to Western eyes in the twenty-first century. The Great War for Civilisation contributes to a debate that must be had if we are to address the threat at hand and avoid sleepwalking into another 9/11. Even without the fascinating historical and personal insight that Fisk offers into a deeply interesting region, the book is worth reading for this reason alone.
Compared to the rivals?
Fisk's epic compares favourably to the rivals. With its unique mixture of historical analysis and personal experience, the book certainly provides a more entertaining and memorable read than the various purely historical titles available, including Albert Hourani's famous 'A History of the Arab Peoples' and Mansfield's 'A History of the Middle East'. While such contributions are important for a deeper academic understanding of the region, The Great War for Civilisation, now fairly inexpensive, is unique in its approach and therefore useful both to the casual reader and the more dedicated enthusiast alike, avoiding the dryness that seems to persist in similar books.
However, it is important to note that alternative titles cover a far greater range of history, often stretching from the birth of Islam in the 7th century, which is discussed nowhere, in great detail, in Fisk's analysis, to the present day, and also tend to examine themes and ideas that are either completely ignored or only superficially explored in Fisk's contribution, such as the historical divides within Islam between Sunni and Shia. As noted, more academic approaches, such as Hourani's, are on the whole more detached and less emotional than The Great War for Civilisation, but this is not necessarily a disadvantage since it provides for a less overtly biased picture of the Middle East, which may well be more useful to the reader.
At the core, this is a deeply political life's work, and Fisk's passion runs through every page. Providing new and unique insights into a region that has been his home for decades, Fisk draws upon personal experience to deliver a gripping account of the Middle East's most fascinating events and most volatile countries. An enjoyable contrast to the rather dry, albeit useful collection of history books on this subject, The Great War for Civilisation is a personal and emotional journey providing a detailed contribution that is sorely needed in the current climate.
Price: £5.94 (Paperback, Amazon, January 07)
1392 pages (medium-sized text)
Published by HarperPerennial
Dimensions: 5.1 x 7.8 inches
Robert Fisk writes with a marvellous resource of image and language.