Fisk, Robert. THE GREAT WAR FOR CIVILIZATION: The Conquest of the Middle East. 2005. Fourth Estate, UK & Alfred A. Knopf. USA.

“Peggy [his mother] became a flame of optimism in my young life. [during WW2] And when I once asked what was the point of struggling with my homework when we were all going to die, she replied: “By the time you grow up, they may have found a cure for that”…

“She asked me repeatedly [during the Israeli siege of Lebanon in 1982] why governments spend so much money on guns.” page 793

The Great War for Civilisation by Robert Fisk: Book Review

Have this teacher & student survived the latest war for civilization? Photo: Iraq, 2001. © Theresa Wolfwood.

For nearly thirty years, Fisk has been a journalist in that part of Asia, called the ‘Middle East’ now (it used to be the “Near East’) by those of us who define ourselves as ‘The West’. These are important distinctions that help us understand the history and culture of a vast area of the world that has been significant to our version of civilization for less than 100 years. Oil and empire are the underlying & underground, ever present, reasons for our obsession.

Fisk has been there through peace, war and politics, observing and writing for the British press; he now write for ‘The Independent’. This 1000+ pages work is more than a chronological ordering of his detailed and personal reporting: Fisk combines his journalism of immediacy with a deeper sense of history and context. It is that knowledgeable combination of readable reporting with solid historic research that makes this a valuable resource for those of us concerned with today’s events in the Middle East. His longer view of human events that is so lacking in current political discourse also makes this book particularly useful.

The author’s father imparted a sense of history in his son, but it was his mother who asked the questions that Fisk is still seeking to answer. His father fought in World War 1 and on one of his war medals is a portrayal of winged victory; the other side of it is engraved: “The Great War for Civilization.” Wars are still being fought for someone’s version of civilization and Fisk thinks of that when he interviews everyone from bin Laden to shopkeepers and mothers in bombed out homes in Iraq. History lives, the Balfour Declaration of ninety years ago lives in every moment of the daily life of Palestinian refugees. Why do Canadians die for Canada today in Afghanistan? Where is our sense and knowledge of history? Ask a First Nations elder that question sometime.

In this book I have found many answers to the why and the how of our constant wars to help one or another empire to dominate – and the responses of those who defy domination with their own vision of civilization. We need to continue to study history, ask the right questions and find the cure for war that Fisk’s mother envisioned.

The closing words on page 1038 are both poignant and instructive:

“I think in the end we have to accept that our tragedy lies always in our past, that we have to live with our ancestors’ folly and suffer for it, just as they, in their turn, suffered, and as we, through our vanity and arrogance, ensure the pain and suffering of our own children. How to correct history, that’s the thing…”

It is a formidable and daunting task, but the only one vital and worthy for today’s peace activists and every citizen concerned about the future.

Filed under Book Reviews, Robert Fisk