Those who have read Pity the Nation, Robert Fisk’s epic chronicle of Lebanon’s wars and invasions, will know that he does not favour the exquisite miniature or the understated aside. Hard facts are his stock in trade and it is to his eternal credit that, in his journalism, he consistently goes the extra mile to uncover information that those in power would rather keep hidden. It is no surprise that his new book is as ambitious as it is exhaustive.
Fisk’s thesis is that the chaos in the Middle East stems from the aftermath of the First World War – the Great War for Civilisation – and the accommodations and arbitrary borders that resulted from the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. As a war reporter for three decades, Fisk has spent his working life watching the people within these borders suffer and die, and he has poured all his research and experience into this massive tome.
This is no arid history of the region; it is a sustained and meticulous – and rightly angry – polemic against those leaders who, repeatedly, give us lies and blood and claim to have delivered victory and democracy. Fisk combines a personal memoir of life on the front line with vivid portraits of the protagonists – he interviewed Osama bin Laden three times – and devastating accounts of the suffering of those at the receiving end of a total war that stretches from Iraq to Algeria, Afghanistan to Israel.
Because of its subject matter and sheer length, The Great War for Civilisation is in no sense an easy read. It may make you weep – with rage, frustration and foreboding for the future – but it provides chapter and verse on the mendacity and bad faith that have led us to our present dark times.Peter Whittaker