The Great War for Civilization
Justin Podur interviews Robert
www.rabble.ca /ZNet, (12/7/05)
Robert Fisk is one of the world's best
known journalists. He has been based in the Middle East as the
UK Independent's Middle East correspondent for nearly 30 years,
during which he has reported on two U.S. wars in Iraq, two Afghan
wars, the Israel/Palestine conflict, Israel's invasion of Lebanon,
the civil war in the former Yugoslavia.
His new book, The Great War for Civilization
(HarperCollins 2005), collects his reporting in a single, 1300-page
source. A previous book, the 700 page Pity the Nation (4th edition
Nation Books 2002) covered the Lebanese civil war.
Fisk is widely respected as a tireless
reporter who strives to get firsthand information and who brings
a sense of fairness, knowledge and history to his reporting. His
work is based on a moral framework that views war as the "total
failure of the human spirit" and journalists as having a
duty to report from the perspective of the victims. I caught up
with him in Toronto on November 24 to discuss his book and his
views on journalism, war and even Canada.
Journalism and audiences
Podur: What accounts for the widespread
readership you have achieved?
Fisk: The mainstream press - I hate that
phrase, by the way - but the New York Times, Los Angeles Times,
Washington Post version of events doesn't satisfy millions of
people. So more and more people are trying to find a different
and more accurate narrative of events in the Middle East. It is
a tribute to their intelligence that instead of searching for
blog-o-bots or whatever, they are looking to the European "mainstream"
newspapers like The Independent, the Guardian, The Financial Times.
One of the reasons they read The Independent
is that they can hear things they suspected to be the case, but
published by a major paper. I'm not just running some internet
site. This is a big operation with foreign correspondents. We
are the British equivalent of what the Washington Post should
More than half my mail comes from the
U.S. That doesn't mean we don't have British readers, it means
we have an awful lot of American ones. So does the Guardian. So
people in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, South Africa, the United
States, Canada and many other places, are finding that a British
journalist can write things they can't read elsewhere but which
must have considerable basis in truth because otherwise it wouldn't
appear in a major British paper.
I'm not some cranky left wing or right
wing nut. We are a newspaper, that's the point. That gives us
an authority - most people are used to growing up with newspapers.
The internet is a new thing, and it's also unreliable.
Podur: Can you elaborate on why you hate
the word phrase "mainstream media"?
Fisk: The phrase itself has become a cliché.
But also in the university, especially in the U.S., you have a
lot of people who call themselves "activists." I'm not
sure what that means, we're all "activist" if we get
up in the morning, I don't know. We're activists when we drink
coffee. And "activists" spend hours and hours emailing
each other to no purpose it seems to me, other than to say, "we're
And they keep saying "mainstream"
and "alternative." The problem with that is that if
I'm an ordinary person not in the university élite and
I have the choice of a "mainstream" or an "alternative"
newspaper, I'll choose the "mainstream" one, won't I,
because it sounds better? Why not call your papers mainstream
and the New York Times alternative?
Podur: You talk about journalism itself
in your book. What do you think about words like objectivity,
fairness, balance and neutrality in journalism?
Fisk: Look across daily newspapers in
the United States and the coverage of the Middle East is lamentable
and incomprehensible. There are semantics introduced to avoid
controversy, mostly controversy from Israeli supporters. Colonies
become "neighbourhoods," occupied becomes "disputed,"
a wall turns into a "fence" magically - I mean I hope
my house isn't made of fences.
For years now journalism has been cabined,
cribbed, confined into a straightjacket of rules made in the 1940s
in the original journalism schools in the U.S. These schools were
introduced to train reporters for local newspapers. And if you're
dealing with a dispute about a highway, public or private property
for an airport, it is essential to give protesters equal time
with those who want to open a new airport. In a court case, it's
essential to give equal time to the defense and the prosecution.
If you're dealing with local journalism
of this kind - a public inquiry, a legal case, a battle over a
new hospital - both sides have the right because this is not a
moral issue. It is a moral issue insofar as the community deserves
a good hospital and private homeowners deserve privacy without
having to worry about government projects, but there isn't a great
burning passionate moral issue of human life, the taking of life,
In these circumstances it is correct to
make sure everyone is equally represented. But in foreign affairs,
in a part of the world that is cloaked in injustice, where thousands
are torn apart and shredded by weapons every year, you're entering
a new kind of world. One in which the standards of neutrality
used in a small-town court case fall by the wayside because they
are no longer relevant.
When you see child victims piled up at
the site of a massacre it's not the time to give equal time to
the murderers. If you were covering the slave trade in the 19th
century, you wouldn't give 50 per cent to the slave ship captain;
you would focus on the slaves who died and on the survivors. If
you are present at the liberation of an extermination camp in
Nazi Germany, you don't search out the SS for 50 per cent of the
When I was close to a pizzeria bombing
in Israeli West Jerusalem in 2001, in which 20 were killed, more
than half children, I didn't give half the time to Hamas. In 1982,
in Sabra and Shatila, I wrote about the victims, the dead who
I physically climbed over and the survivors. I did not give 50
per cent to the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia who massacred
them nor to the Israeli army who watched the murders and did nothing.
In the realm of warfare, which represents
the total failure of the human spirit, you are morally bound as
a journalist to show eloquent compassion to the victims, to be
unafraid to name the murderers, and you're allowed to be angry.
The waitress who's serving us coffee, the taxi driver who brought
me here, they have feelings about atrocities. Why shouldn't we?
Why is it an American journalist in Beirut
or Cairo or Damascus who knows what's going on and has feelings
about it, instead of saying what he thinks - and after all, the
readers want to know what he thinks, they're paying for the newspaper
which is paying him - he rings up some idiot in the Brookings
Institute, some "tink-thank" as I call them, some "tink-thank"
in Washington who maybe has never even been to the city, to get
The National Post this morning (November
24/05) had an example of this. In a story on Iraq, the reporter
quoted Lee Edwards, an "expert on the U.S. presidency,"
at the Heritage Foundation! Doesn't the reporter know something
about the U.S. presidency?
Here is a story I have been using at lectures.
It is from the Los Angeles Times, November 16. It is a story on
Zarqawi, if indeed he exists, and how he is "masterminding"
the insurgency. The sourcing for the story? Unnamed "U.S.
officials," with the phrase "U.S. officials" coming
up 21 times, in a story of two and a half columns. I just picked
this up in a café in LA. You don't have to look for examples
like this to find them.
Podur: If war is the total failure of
the human spirit, if it is not about victory and defeat but about
suffering and death, why do so many people do it?
Fisk: Because they don't know what it's
like. Most soldiers in the Iraq war haven't been to war before.
They've been totally changed in their personalities by it. They
weren't prepared for it at all, they just have Hollywood. I mean,
Saving Private Ryan is pretty close to what I see, but it's only
imaginatively that you can see it, you can't see it on TV, they
won't show it to you, because to do so would be real, pornographic,
obscene, you couldn't take that with breakfast, could you?
I have to take it with breakfast, lunch
and tea, but not you, you're protected by these nice guys in London
and New York and Washington, these editors. They don't want to
dishonour the dead. It seems as if it is okay to kill Iraqis,
just not to show them afterwards, at which point we're so worried
about their honour. We have so much compassion when they're dead
that we can't show the picture. When they're alive, though, let's
go! "WAR IN IRAQ, EPISODE FIVE" so you can cash in and
have a war movie, but after you kill people they get compassion
But of course there are also conniving
politicians who want to present war as a bloodless sandpit in
which people, if they die - you know you can show a picture of
a dead Iraqi soldier if he's been obliging enough to die in one
piece against the horizon - "The price of war, a dead Iraqi
soldier lies in the desert south of Basra." But you won't
see the guy with his eyes blasted out or flies crawling over him.
There isn't a single member of the present
Bush administration that has ever been in a war. [Colin] Powell
was in Vietnam, but he isn't in the administration any more. There
is not a single member of the Blair administration that has been
to war. A few Labour Members of Parliament have been to Northern
Ireland as soldiers but that's not the same. The politicians who
run the countries have no experience of war.
Podur: If you believe, as you do, that
war is a total failure of the human spirit, does that not make
it harder to explain why it happens, which you also think reporters
Fisk: Is there such a thing as a just
war? When the Archibishop of Canterbury claimed that the U.S.
liberation of Kuwait was a just war (something he didn't say about
Bosnia, maybe because there was no oil there, I don't know), I
thought I would be sick. I mean, are we still going to have religious
divines telling us about just wars? Give me a break.
War is an immoral act. I open chapter
15 of my book with a quote from Tolstoy's War and Peace:
" war began, that is, an event took place opposed to human
reason and to human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against
one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts,
incendiarisms, and murders, as in whole centuries are not recorded
in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those
who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes."
What more can I add?
The Great War for Civilization
Podur: What do you hope to accomplish
with the book?
Fisk: I didn't know the answer to that
when I was writing it, but now I do. I want readers to reject
the narrative of history laid down by their presidents, prime
ministers, generals and journalists. Challenging the narrative
of history, or monitoring the centres of power, to use Amira Hass's
phrase, means we have to reshape our own view of the world unencumbered
by clichés and dead words like "war on terror,"
"terrorist," "Islamic terror," surgical strike,
good and evil, them and us, "they hate our freedom,"
"democracy" - "democracy" delivered by Abrams
tanks and swords and Apache helicopters.
We are always threatening the Middle East
with democracy. And Arab Muslims would rather some of the democracy,
human rights, and freedom, off of our western supermarket shelf.
But there is another kind of freedom they would like, and that
is freedom from us. They'd also like justice and no one ever talks
The book covers ground not covered in
this way before, by someone who's been there a long time, an eyewitness.
It brings together all the history, including vast, historical,
epic subjects, and brings it right up to the occupation of Iraq.
For 100 years we, the West, have controlled the Middle East, appointed
dictators, and unless you can see what we've done in that region
you will not understand 9/11.
Podur: Since this is a Canadian interview,
let me ask you about Canada in Afghanistan and Canada's increasing
alignment with U.S. foreign policy.
Fisk: The problem with Canadians in Afghanistan
is schizophrenia. ISAF, the Interim Stabilization Force, is seen
by Afghans as, if not benevolent, certainly not malevolent. The
attitude is that here are these Germans, Turks and Canadians,
helping to keep the peace. If they weren't there, there would
be widespread robberies. I think they like that there are Germans
on patrol at midnight, and so do I. And better the Canadians than
But there is also a different side. The
Canadians have attached themselves to the U.S. in the south, in
Kanadahar, playing an aggressive role, and they are increasingly
identified with U.S. military projects in the Middle East.
In this way Canada paints itself white
in Kabul, and I believe it should be there, I've got nothing against
ISAF, and I wish it was on a bigger scale with same mandate. But
if you attach your troops to the Americans, and you have Canadian
officers starting to talk like Americans, then you have gone across,
and committed yourself as a belligerent in war.
Afterwards you cannot turn around and
say "why did they want to hurt us?" I'm not predicting
attacks on Canada, but once you engage in this way like Blair
has, like Spain did under Aznar, you can denounce any crime against
humanity on your soil, and you should, but you can't be surprised.
We have had this habit after World War
II of thinking that wars happen far away: in Kenya, Yemen, Malaya,
Palestine - you might send soldiers there, you might even have
coffins coming home, but you and the farm and the cottage, the
railway tubes and planes, were safe. That's finished now. We need
to realize if we participate in wars abroad we are no longer protected
from the effects of those wars. You can say "we fight by
the rules of war and they don't" but if you go to war, you
can't express surprise or vainly try to suggest there's no connection,
as Blair did between the July 7 bombings and Iraq.
Another argument relevant in Canada is
that the immigrant communities - even though everyone's an immigrant,
aren't they? - the new communities were so small in previous wars
that their opinions didn't count. I mean there were air raid wardens
in the battle of Britain who were Black - but it was such a small
population that it didn't matter.
Now in Germany, you have a large Muslim
community, in France, in Britain, or here in Canada, you can't
ignore that community when you decide on an intervention. Muslims
in Britain are outraged by the war in Iraq. And there is a more
direct connection between a British citizen of Pakistani origin
who is a Muslim and the pictures of Iraqi Muslims dead or wounded
that that person is watching on TV. You can't ignore this when
you go to war. Part of your community will have emotional religious
connections to the region. We haven't yet taken that into account.
Podur: Maybe that is a good thing, that
will make it harder to go to war?
Fisk: Don't cross your fingers.
Justin Podur is a Toronto based writer.