“World Politics and the Making of the Tradegy of the Middle East”

 Robert Fisk’s mammoth journey through his last thirty years of experience in the Middle East is titled The Great War for Civilization. Fisk attempts to draw a line from the British/French betrayal of the Middle East with the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 and the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and the events of 9/11; from the Great War to the supposed Clash of Civilizations. Hence, the title of the book. Fisk’s account allows the reader to wade through a litany of lies, misrepresentations and double-standards by both the US and the UK towards the Middle East.  Fisk doesn’t spare the other villians of the Middle East tragedy. The military dictatorships, monarchies and authoritarian regimes are all recipients of Fisk’s rage. And, it must be said rightly so. Fisk’s book is really an eye witness acount of the human cost of the betrayal and destruction of the Middle East by morally bankrupt governments in close collaboration with the “west”. Fisk’s challenge to his readers is to accept the burden of the US and UK government’s role in creating, and sustaining, a region that is wracked by violence, authoritarianism and intolerance.

Despite the fluent and engaging style of the author the book was a difficult read. The 1200 pages read more like a very-long crime novel about a serial killer (US politcal and military leaders, Israeli poliitcal and military leaders, and Middle Eastern dictators, guerillas and terrorists) perpetrating one murder after another on a panicked and defenceless society (Middle Eastern civilians, including Israeli civilians, especially women and children). Throughout the pages of the book Fisk describes one muder after another (Gulf War, Algerian civil war, Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Desert Storm, Israeli attacks in Lebanon and against Palestinians, and the violence in Afghanistan). Robert Fisk argues that to explain 9/11 some understanding of the serial offences by the “west” (and the Soviet Union) against the people of the Middle East is necessary. He argues this understanding doesn’t legitimate the attacks, it doesn’t condone the attacks and in no way absolves those involved, but only provides a larger optic from which 9/11 should be viewed.

Enough time may have passed since the events of 9/11 for further analysis of the causes of the attacks on that fateful day in 2001. It is certainly time to move beyond the banal rhetoric of a discredited US adminstration that has relied on that tragic event to launch the Middle East into another cycle of violence that only repeats the errors of the past. Fisk reminds us through this detailed journey into the appalling repercussions of war, that violence begets violence and until the US learns this lesson, the Middle East will continue to threaten the stability of the world. Fisk asks us to always remember that war and violence creates victims and that victims sometimes become killers.

I encourage anyone who seeks an understanding of the impact of war on the people of the Middle East to read Fisk’s Great War for Civilization. Fisk makes every effort to do justice to the millions of people who have died by recounting the suffering, and retelling the stories, of as many people as possible. Maybe this book should be subtitled the human cost of war in the Middle East. 

Fisk also explores the role of language in obscuring the reality of the horrors committed in the name of “liberation”, “democracy”, “freedom” and “security” by the US, and its allies, in the countless wars they have eitehr fought or financed in the Middle East. The words death and killing for example, Fisk tells us, have been removed from the language that the “west” uses to describe the wars they wage. The dehumanisation of war has been one of the most unfortunate aspects of the violence committed in the Middle East, including the Israeli violence in Lebanon and Palestine. Reporters everywhere have much to answer for in teh way they have become uncritical mouthpieces of government propaganda. Such as occurred in the lead up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2002 when numerous opportunities were presented to the press to really question the motives and legtimacy of the Bush adminstrations war plans. That the press did not take any of these opporunties is also a real tragedy as is the lack of awareness of the failure of the fourth estate as the seekers of truth.

Robert Fisk is one of the few in the international press that did not bow to the rhetoric of false nationalism and fearmongering of the Bush and Blair governments in the lead up to war. In this, Fisk’s integrity is intact. But more than anything else, the strength and impact of Fisk’s work is the humanisation of the wars of the Middle East and the voice provided for the victims that is the most important contribution of Fisk’s Great War for Civilization

Noah Bassil

4 Responses to “World Politics and the Making of the Tradegy of the Middle East”

  1. llwynn says:

    Thanks for that thoughtful review, Noah. I want to read the book. But 1200 pages?!? Yikes. How long did it take YOU to read it?

  2. Noah Bassil says:


    Well to be completely honest about it almost two years. I dipped into the book when i first bought it sometime in 2006. Over the last three months , though, it has been bedtime reading, which i know says a lot about me. Fisk is a journalist and this book is written in that style, so it is very accessible and while the material is generally depressing the style is very light. I would recommend reading it in stages, each chapter refers to a period or event, such as the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, Iran-Iraq War, etc. So, if you see the book as a series of discrete but connected stories then the length is not as imposing, even if the content often is. There are a number of issues I have with the book, but as a journalistic appraisal of the Middle East as one man has seen it, it is very much worth the $40 and the effort.

    Look forward to your thoughts when you have had a chance to look at it.


  3. llwynn says:

    OK, look for a reply in … oh, about 2 years. ;)

  4. raffe says:

    it has been on my shelf for a while now but it’s such a daunting task. I mainly use it to impress people ;)

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