The Roots of Rage

Reviewed by Stephen Humphreys
Sunday, June 4, 2006


The Conquest of the Middle East

By Robert Fisk

Knopf. 1,107 pp. $40

This is first of all a book about war -- in particular, the wars that have scarred the Middle East, from Afghanistan to Algeria, throughout the author's long career as a correspondent for the London Times and then the Independent. It switches back and forth across the 20th century in a way that seems driven more by stream of consciousness than by any linear design, and, as befits its topic, it is a book of almost unremitting violence. The author presents himself both as unflinching witness and implacable judge of the events he recounts, for he believes that he is telling a story of unrelenting perfidy and betrayal -- in part a story of Middle Easterners being betrayed by themselves and their leaders, but mostly one of the Middle East being betrayed by the power, greed and arrogance of the West.

Fisk has thrown himself into the fiery pit time after time, often at grave personal risk -- Afghanistan at the beginning of the long struggle against the Soviets, the bloodbath of the 1980s Iran-Iraq War, the civil war in Algeria after 1991, the second Palestinian intifada since the fall of 2000. When he is not personally in the midst of conflict and destruction, he evokes them, as in his lengthy discussion of the Armenian deportations and massacres of World War I or (in a different register) his treatment of the shah of Iran's prisons and torture chambers.

However Fisk regards himself, he is at bottom a war correspondent, and the fabric of his book is woven largely from his battlefield reporting. Fisk's writing on war is vivid, graphic, intense and very personal. Readers will encounter no "collateral damage" here, only homes destroyed and bodies torn to shreds. At times, as one horror is heaped upon another, it all seems too much to absorb or bear.

That intensity is both the book's great strength and one of its principal weaknesses. After reading it, no one can hide from the immense human costs of the decisions made by generals and politicians, Middle Eastern or otherwise. But Fisk portrays the Middle East as a place of such unrelieved violence that the reader can hardly imagine that anyone has enjoyed a single ordinary day there over the past quarter-century. That picture is a serious distortion. Life in the region is far from easy, but in spite of endemic anxiety and frustration, most Middle Easterners, most of the time, are able to get on tolerably well. Fisk says little about more abstract, less violent issues such as economic stagnation, the complexities of political Islam or the status of women. This gap is not a weakness in itself -- Fisk is writing about different themes -- but readers need to be aware that, despite its staggering length, this book is not The Complete Middle East.

It may well be The Complete Robert Fisk, however. It is full of autobiographical reminiscences about the author's troubled but intense relationship with his father, Bill; indeed, that relationship provides the book's title. The elder Fisk had been awarded a campaign medal for his service in France in 1918, and the medal (which he bequeathed to his son) was inscribed with the motto "The Great War for Civilisation." The bitter irony of that motto is underscored by another gift, this one from the author's grandmother to his father -- a boy's novel, Tom Graham, V.C. , which recounts the adventures of a young British soldier in Afghanistan in the late 19th century. For the author, both the medal and the novel symbolize the West's arrogant and destructive intrusion in the Middle East throughout the last century.

If this is a book about war, it is equally a book about the hypocrisy and indifference of those in power. Fisk is an angry man and more than a little self-righteous. No national leader comes off with a scrap of credit here; he regards the lot of them with contempt, if not loathing. Among the men in charge -- whether Arab, Iranian, Turkish, Israeli, British or American -- there are no heroes and precious few honorable people doing their inadequate best in difficult situations. Jimmy Carter is lucky to escape with condescension, King Hussein of Jordan with a bit better than that. Fisk is not fond of the media either (though he grants some exceptions); CNN and the New York Times are particular targets of his scorn for what he sees as their abject failure to challenge the lies, distortions and cover-ups of U.S. policymakers. Only among ordinary people, entangled in a web of forces beyond their control, does Fisk find a human mixture of courage, cowardice, charity and cruelty.

Given the present state of things in the Middle East, one is tempted to agree with him. The mendacity and bland pomposity of the suits and talking heads, both Western and Middle Eastern, are infuriating to anyone who has any direct knowledge of what is going on there. Again, however, there is a problem: Fisk excoriates politicians for the awful suffering they have imposed on the peoples of the Middle East, but he never seriously asks why they make the decisions they do or what real alternatives they might have. It is all very well to flog Western and Middle Eastern leaders for their ignorance, moral blindness, lust for power, etc. That might instill shame and guilt (though it rarely does), but it provides no serious principles or criteria that serious policymakers might use to develop something better.

In short, The Great War for Civilisation is a book of unquestionable importance, given Fisk's unmatched experience of war and its impact in the contemporary Middle East and his capacity to convey that experience in concrete, passionate language. Still, novices will find themselves both overwhelmed by the book's exhaustive detail and hard put to follow the author's leaps across countries and decades. The Great War for Civilisation is also a deeply troubling book; it may well confirm the conviction of many that the Middle East is incurably sunk in violence and depravity and that only a fool would imagine it could ever be redeemed. As tragic as the last three decades have been, there are different lessons to be learned -- one must hope so, at least. ยท

Stephen Humphreys is a professor of Middle Eastern history and Islamic studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of "Between Memory and Desire: The Middle East in a Troubled Age."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company