"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The wreckage of the World Trade Center was still burning when the British correspondent Robert Fisk weighed in with a piece titled “The Awesome Cruelty of a Doomed People.” “[T]his is not the war of democracy versus terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming hours and days,” Fisk wrote. “It is also about American missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and U.S. helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1966 and American shells crashing into a village called Qana a few days later and about a Lebanese militia — paid and uniformed by America’s Israeli ally — hacking and raping and murdering their way through refugee camps.”
In the face of America’s righteous rage, Fisk was one of the few commentators who dared to posit that America’s policies had something to do with the attacks. And he did so with brutal honesty. “There will be those swift to condemn any suggestion that we should look for real historical reasons for an act of violence on this world-war scale,” Fisk wrote — and he didn’t know the half of it. He was immediately savaged. Critics called him an appeaser, a traitor, an American-hater, an ally of Saddam, an enemy of Israel, an anti-Semite.
This was nothing new for Fisk: For 30 years, the Beirut-based correspondent for the British newspaper the Independent has been an outspoken, even savage critic of America and Israel’s Middle East policies, a stance that has made him public enemy No. 1 for conservatives and supporters of Israel. The neoconservative strategist Richard Perle called him “execrable.” Right-wing bloggers have spent so much time attacking Fisk that they actually named a verb after him: To “fisk” something is to tear it apart. Some of them would like to tear him apart. When he was almost killed by an enraged mob of Afghan refugees during the American invasion, Fisk wrote a column saying if he had been in their shoes he too would have attacked any Westerner he saw, which led some readers to send him Christmas cards expressing their disappointment that the Afghans hadn’t “finished the job.” This sentiment was more or less echoed by the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, which ran an article bearing the subhead “A self-loathing multiculturalist gets his due.” The right-wing columnist Mark Steyn wrote of Fisk’s column, “You’d have to have a heart of stone not to weep with laughter.”
In the aftermath of 9/11, when large sections of the American intelligentsia moved to the right — proving the truth of the old adage about conservatives being liberals who had been mugged — even some leftists parted company with Fisk. One editor who was against the war told me he thought Fisk had gone off the deep end — his writings were too strident, tendentious and reflexively anti-U.S. “Fisk is a legend, he has enormous experience and respect,” one Middle East-based journalist told me recently. “But it’s like he sees the Iraq war through the perspective of his experiences in Lebanon, through the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. And that isn’t really adequate to describe what’s going on in Iraq.”
Now this polarizing figure has written an enormous book, “The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East.” It is an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking, an attempt to do nothing less than combine 30 years of war reporting from conflicts all over the region with a historical analysis of the Middle East from World War I to the present and, for good measure, a personal narrative about his father. Fisk had already written an epic book “Pity the Nation,” a classic 1990 work about the Lebanese war. But his new work aims to go it one better. In its scope and sheer size — it runs 1,107 pages — “The Great War for Civilisation” is Fisk’s magnum opus, the culmination of his professional career.
Inevitably, this Herculean task falls short of complete success. There is simply no way that any writer can tie together the Armenian genocide, the Iran-Iraq war, the Russian war in Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Gulf War I, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the current Iraq war, and the Algerian civil war. Much of “The Great War for Civilisation” consists of more or less free-standing chapters of war reportage, often-brilliant work informed by Fisk’s critical intelligence and keen historical sense, but nonetheless essentially on-the-spot dispatches. (Much of the book seems to consist of repurposed pieces, but Fisk has edited it smoothly enough that you don’t notice.) What holds his book together is less a unifying historical narrative — for no such narrative exists — than his corrosive skepticism toward the powerful and his revulsion at war. But skepticism and revulsion, however justified, do not always make for coherent historical analysis. In particular, they do not help us choose among the bad alternatives that exist in the real world. Fisk excels at pointing out the lies and sins of the powerful, but he offers few suggestions of his own: His moral outrage can make the perfect the enemy of the good. He is not a consistent political thinker; his anger leads him to embrace positions that are problematic and even self-contradictory.
Yet despite its flaws, “The Great War for Civilisation” is a magisterial achievement. It largely succeeds in its audacious double mission, to show and to explain the bloody tragedies that have afflicted the Middle East. Fisk’s eyewitness reports from the killing fields are more than just bang-bang accounts: They are implacable and indispensable documents, grim reminders of what actually happens when nations go to war. And his devastating analysis of the reasons for those wars exposes the sins not just of the West, but of the Arab world as well. Fisk is a polemicist, but his anger derives from a Swiftian humanism. He is appalled by official lies and hypocrisy and driven to show, in nightmarish detail, the human suffering and death that results from them. And if he emphasizes and perhaps at times overemphasizes the culpability of the powerful — in particular of America and Israel — that perspective is not just excusable, but much needed in an intimidated intellectual climate in which received positions have gone largely unchallenged.
Timing is everything. Four years ago, Fisk was a virtual pariah. But as America begins to realize that its self-righteous “war on terror” has gone terribly wrong, perhaps his passionate, unrelenting voice will finally be heard. (The fact that Fisk’s new book is published by Knopf, one of the most prestigious houses in the country, may be a sign that he has become more respectable.)
Fisk has come by his knowledge and his cold, clarifying outrage honestly. Few, if any, Middle East correspondents can match his résumé: He’s been everywhere and seen everything — and he’s done his historical homework, too. He opens his book with intense accounts of his three interviews with Osama bin Laden, moves on to a harrowing description of the Russian debacle in Afghanistan, then writes at length about the 20th century’s forgotten war, Saddam Hussein’s endless, pointless war on Iran that may have cost a million lives — and which the U.S. abetted. There follows a devastating excursus on the Armenian genocide, which he convincingly argues deserves to be called the first Holocaust, and the largely successful Turkish campaign to deny it. Fisk then relates the long history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, starting with the dismembering of the Ottoman Empire and the secret Sykes-Picot agreement that betrayed Arab nationalist hopes, and moving on through Oslo and the second intifada. There follows a ghastly chapter on the savage Algerian civil war, in which a bloody-handed regime confronted even more bloodthirsty Islamists; the first Gulf War; and the Jordanian and Syrian regimes. He closes with the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
With the exception of the Armenian genocide, Fisk was present at all of these conflicts, and rarely in the rear. An intrepid reporter — he was one of the only journalists to remain in Beirut during the terrifying kidnapping epidemic of the mid-to-late 1980s — he throws himself into the middle of the action again and again. During the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, when fierce fighting was raging on the Shatt al-Arab waterway and the Fao peninsula, a tough AP reporter sums up Fisk’s proclivities neatly while telling him what they’ll be covering that day: “Well, Fisky, I’m told it’s a briefing at the usual bunker then a little mosey over the Shatt and a tourist visit to Fao. Lots of gunfire and corpses — should be right up your street.” Fisk is a first-rate writer, and his vivid accounts of being under fire capture the terror, the confusion and the very dangerous detachment that he says occasionally comes over someone in the face of imminent death.
Some of what makes this book compelling and, yes, entertaining (though there are long, hideous stretches that only a sadist could find enjoyable) is simply Fisk’s full-throttle account of the life of a war correspondent. He does not deny that he was drawn to it in part because of the dangerous romance of the profession, and he conveys that romance without being enthralled by it — or by himself. “Like so many journalists in time of war, we had been desperate to get to the front line — and even more desperate to find a reason to avoid going,” he writes. Fear vied with the adrenaline rush of danger and the addictive sense of being present at huge events. “Didn’t John Kifner and I admit that we had enjoyed those heart-stopping, shirt-tearing, speed-gashing rides up the wadis and over those hundreds of burned-out tanks?,” he writes. “Wasn’t that what being a foreign correspondent was all about? Going into battle and getting the story and arriving home safe and sound and knowing you wouldn’t have to go back the next day?”
During a particularly suicidal visit to a muddy causeway in Basra, surrounded by corpses and under artillery and small-arms fire, Fisk had enough. He told his minder, a crazed and fearless Iranian Revolutionary Guard named Mazinan, that he wanted to leave. When Mazinan angrily roars, “Why?,” Fisk writes what he was thinking. “Because we are cowards. Go on, say it, Fisk. Because I am shaking with fear and want to survive and live and write my story and go back to Beirut and invite a young woman to drink fine red wine on my balcony.”
Like all foreign correspondents, Fisk has a thousand amazing stories, which he tells with gusto. Some of them are hilarious, like his account of the time when, under fire from a Soviet helicopter, he dived through a doorway into an Afghan home to find himself staring at a terrified family. Needing to assure them he wasn’t Russian — to be identified as Russian was a death sentence — he racked his brain for the Pushtu word for journalist and triumphantly announced, “Za di inglisi atlasi kahzora yem!” But the family, far from being reassured, became even more afraid. Fisk realized that he had told them “I am an English satin bag.” In addition to thinking he was an infidel and an intruder, he writes, they were now convinced he was insane.
Then there are stories of journalistic derring-do. As Russian troops poured into Afghanistan in January 1980, Fisk and a BBC film crew — one of the only ones to make it into the country — went undercover, driving around the country in a battered yellow Peugeot taxi, “its front and back windows draped in plastic flowers and other artificial foliage behind which we thought we could hide when driving past Soviet or Afghan military checkpoints … Packed into Mr. Samadali’s cramped Peugeot, we were recording history. Steve and Geoff sat in the back with Mike sandwiched between them, hugging the camera between his knees as Gavin and I watched the Soviet troops on their trucks. The moment we knew that no one was looking at us, I’d shout ‘Go!’ and Gavin — he was, after all, the boss of our little operation — cried ‘Picture!’ At this point, he and I would reach out and tear apart the curtain of plastic flowers and greenery, Mike would bring up the camera — the lens literally brushing the sides of our necks in the front — and start shooting through the windscreen. Every frame counted. This was the biggest Soviet military operation since the Second World War and Mike’s film would not only be shown across the world but stored in the archives forever. The grey snow, the green of the Soviet armor, the dark silhouettes of the Afghans lining the highway, these were the colors and images that would portray the start of this invasion. A glance from a Russian soldier, too long a stare from a military policeman, and Gavin and I would cry ‘Down!,’ Mike would bury his camera between his legs and we would let the artificial foliage flop back across the inside of the windscreen.”
But autobiography and the romance of being a foreign correspondent play only minor roles in this book. The ironies of history, the follies of governments and the endless, stupefying tragedy of war are its major themes. Describing the sublime vista of the mountains of China as he and the film crew descend into the Valley of the Indus, Fisk writes, “We felt, we young men, on top of the world.” But then he goes on: “The tragedy of this epic had not yet gripped us. How could I know that 17 years later I would be standing on this very same stretch of road as Osama bin Laden’s gunmen prayed beneath that fiery comet? How could I know, as I stood with Gavin on that hillside, that bin Laden himself, only twenty-two years old, was at that very moment only a few miles from us, in the very same mountain chain, urging his young Arab fighters to join their Muslim brothers at war with the Russians?” The “fearful tragedy” of Afghanistan, Fisk notes, “would last for more than a quarter of a century and cost at least a million and a half innocent lives, a war that would eventually reach out and strike at the heart, not of Russia but of America.”
The real moving force in “The Great War for Civilisation” is history. It is history — made by men — that ushered in the Middle East’s nightmares. For the people of the Middle East, Fisk notes, history has never gone away — they live it, and die it, every day. The book’s ironic title derives from a medal Fisk’s father was awarded for his service in World War I — the first of those “great wars for civilization,” of which the latest is being enacted in Fallujah and Ramadi today. World War I plays a key and recurring role in Fisk’s book in two ways. It provides the frame for an exploration of his problematic father Bill’s life, in particular an enigmatic incident in which Fisk the elder refused to command a firing squad to execute a condemned man — the one moment when Fisk felt his father acted in accord with the humanistic principles the younger man embraced. And, more important, it was the Great War, and the betrayals of Western promises made to the Arabs that followed it, that created the modern Middle East.
“My father, the old soldier of 1918, read my account of the Lebanon war but would not live to see this book,” Fisk writes. “Yet he would always look into the past to understand the present. If only the world had not gone to war in 1914; if only we had not been so selfish in concluding the peace. We victors promised independence to the Arabs and support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Promises are meant to be kept. And so those promises — the Jews naturally thought that their homeland would be in all of Palestine — were betrayed, and the millions of Arabs and Jews of the Middle East are now condemned to live with the results.”
Fisk writes that “I have witnessed events that, over the years, can only be called ‘an arrogance of power.’ The Iranians used to call the United States ‘the center of world arrogance,’ and I would laugh at this, but I have begun to understand what it means. After the Allied victory of 1918, at the end of my father’s war, the victors divided up the lands of their former enemies. In the space of just seventeen months, they created the borders of Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia and most of the Middle East. And I have spent my entire career — in Belfast and Sarajevo, in Beirut and Baghdad — watching the people within those borders burn.”
The most crucial and incendiary borders are those that mark out the state of Israel. As Fisk observes, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “is an epic tragedy whose effects have spread around the world and continue to poison the lives of not only the participants but of our entire Western political and military policies towards the Middle East and the Muslim lands.” Yet this crucial conflict is a subject very few Americans, including journalists, want to bring up. (It is much less taboo in Europe and, ironically, in Israel itself.) Passions run too high, and it is too interminable and complicated; better to say nothing and accept the status quo. As anyone who has spoken out on this subject knows, there is little reward for doing so.
Fisk has been accused of being obsessed with Israeli injustices against the Palestinians. If he is, the terrible events he witnessed in 1982 go a long way to explaining his obsession. At the heart of his book about the Lebanese war, “Pity the Nation,” is a long and nightmarish account of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which hundreds or perhaps thousands of unarmed Palestinian refugees — men, women and children — were slaughtered by the Lebanese Phalangist allies of the invading Israeli army. Fisk, who was one of the first journalists on the scene, reported, and an official Israeli investigation confirmed, that Israeli troops knew about the massacre but made no real efforts to stop it. This episode is seared into Fisk’s mind. In “The Great War for Civilisation,” Fisk describes his repeated and vain attempts to draw the world’s attention to the massacre, and to the Palestinian plight in general. “[F]ollowing [the Palestinians'] travail, the task of reporting their hopeless political leadership, their victimisation — most cruelly demonstrated when they were turned into the aggressors by an all-powerful Israel and, later, an even more hegemonic United States — and their pathetic, brave, and often callous attempts to seek the world’s sympathy has been one of the most depressing experiences in journalism,” he writes. “The more we wrote about the Palestinian dispossession, the less effect it seemed to have and the more we were abused as journalists.” Fisk’s passion on the subject cannot be understood without considering both what he saw, and what he has not been able to communicate.
In his new book, Fisk is clearly trying to be heard by those who come to the subject from an opposite perspective. He tells the strange story of Haji Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and the first Palestinian leader, whose desperate search for allies led him to travel to Nazi Germany and embrace Hitler — an act often cited by supporters of Israel, and one that Fisk condemns. As in “Pity the Nation,” Fisk writes eloquently not just about the Palestinians who were driven or fled from their homes in 1948, but also about the Jews who took over those homes — Jews who in many cases survived the Holocaust.
But if he is sympathetic to those on both sides, he refuses to ignore the historic injustice visited on 750,000 innocent Palestinians, whose lives were shattered by a chain of events set in motion by a letter written by a British statesman in 1917. Like Edward Said, Fisk asks why the Palestinians should have had to answer first for Britain’s fateful colonial decision, and then for Germany’s sins. “Why did the Palestinians have to bear the fate of Britain’s First World War promise to a people whose ancestors lived on their land two thousand years before? Why did this new flood of Muslim refugees have to pay this price, then — like the Armenians — be told that they were the aggressors, and those who dispossessed them the victims? For in the decades to come, the Palestinians would be the ‘terrorists’ and those who took their lands would be the innocent, the representatives of a Phoenix rising from the ashes of Auschwitz. In the eyes of the world — especially in 1948, in a world grown weary of war and familiar with the millions of refugees who had washed across Europe — what was the lot of 750,000 Palestinian refugees when measured against the murder of six million Jews?”
Fisk offers a depressing account of the incompetent Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who agreed to the fatally flawed Oslo “peace process” — which Western pundits stridently insisted would resolve the conflict. In fact, as Fisk and many others have noted, Oslo never had a chance because it postponed the critical issues, and because during the Oslo years Israeli expansion in the occupied territories was greatly accelerated. “More than any other event, this huge colonial expansion proved to Palestinians that Oslo was a sham, a lie, a trick to entangle Arafat and the PLO into the abandonment of all that they had sought and struggled for for over a quarter of a century, a method of creating false hope in order to emasculate the aspiration of statehood.” For Fisk, the key difference between the two sides boils down to this: “The Arabs wanted their land back and then they wanted peace with Israel. The Israelis wanted peace but wanted to keep some of the Arab land.” This was a recipe for the deadlock that exists to this day.
Fisk does not condone Palestinian terrorism, but he places it in historical context and addresses its causes — the kind of dispassionate analysis rarely found in America, especially after 9/11 and under the angrily moralistic leadership of George W. Bush. Instead of thinking clearly, Fisk writes, we twitch to the knee-jerk word “terrorism.” “‘Terrorism’ is a word that has become a plague on our vocabulary, the excuse and reason for state-sponsored violence — ourviolence — which is now used on the innocent of the Middle East ever more outrageously and promiscuously,” he writes. “Terrorism, terrorism, terrorism. It has become a full stop, a punctuation mark, a phrase, a speech, a sermon, the be-all and end-all of everything that we must hate in order to ignore injustice and occupation and murder on a mass scale.”
Fisk makes the obvious point that when the Bush administration signed off on such injustice and occupation by approving the illegal Israeli settlement of the West Bank — a departure from long-standing U.S. policy — it gave an enormous boon to the very terrorists it is fighting. “Every claim by Osama bin Laden, every statement that the United States supports Zionism and supports the theft of Arab lands, had now been proven true to millions of Arabs, even those who had no time for bin Laden. What better recruiting sergeant could bin Laden have than George W. Bush? Didn’t he realize what this meant for young American soldiers in Iraq? Or were Israelis more important than American lives in Mesopotamia?”
Like Ariel Sharon, George W. Bush has promiscuously invoked “terror,” even coining a phrase, the “war on terror,” for his apparently endless crusade against “evil.” Fisk saves his most caustic prose for Bush’s war on Iraq, which in a memorable phrase he calls “frivolous and demented.” He dismisses not only the official American explanations for the war, but any possible moral justification it might have. Fisk never took seriously the idea that the Bush administration launched the war to destroy weapons of mass destruction, which was how the war was sold to the American people. Nor did he buy the fallback reason, thrust forward when the WMD proved nonexistent, that America had suddenly discovered its moral duty to liberate the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. Nor the fallback after the fallback, the claim that the war would spread democracy in the region. Those were, he writes, familiar, official lies. This was a war, he writes, to redraw the map of the Middle East — an imperial war, driven by irrational rage after 9/11, to control oil, protect Israel, and impose our will on the world.
Of course, the war did remove Saddam Hussein — whose crimes Fisk had documented decades ago, when most Americans still thought of him, if at all, as a strongman ally. Some American liberals, like George Packer, author of “The Assassin’s Gate,” still cling to the hope that America’s war on Iraq, however unsavory and hypocritical in its motivations and flawed in its execution, might nonetheless prove down the road to be morally justified. Fisk never addresses this argument directly, but it seems clear that he would regard it as obscene. War is not an instrument that can be used to achieve desired ends; violence begets violence, and at the end the noble ideals are gone and a heap of corpses remains. For Fisk, who has spent his career recording its hideous consequences, “war is not primarily about victory or defeat but about death and the infliction of death. It represents the total failure of the human spirit.” Some wars, of course, are justifiable. Fisk seems to acknowledge that Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait could not be allowed to stand. But the Iraq war, an illegal war of choice launched by a callous superpower with a dreadful track record in the region, is not one of them. America’s hands are too dirty, its goals too selfish and it is too despised throughout the region.
Moreover, Fisk points out that the moral arguments put forward by the war’s supporters are nakedly hypocritical. The “evil tyrant” Saddam had been our friend and ally just 15 years earlier, when he launched a brutal war against Iran that killed perhaps a million people, as our policymakers looked on in approval. Crimes against humanity? Weapons of mass destruction? “Iraq was already using gas to kill thousands of Iranian soldiers when Donald Rumsfeld made his notorious 1983 visit to Baghdad to shake Saddam’s hand and ask him for permission to reopen the American embassy.” Fisk points out that we knew he was using gas, as did the rest of the world, including the Arab states, which said nothing because they too wanted to smash Iran. Our outrage was selective and self-serving: When the Iraqis dropped cyanide gas on the Kurdish town of Halabja, the U.S. tried to blame Iran and paid little attention to it — the incident only became worthy of our attention when Bush wanted to drum up reasons to invade Iraq. The Bush administration cited Saddam’s failure to comply with U.N. resolutions as a casus belli, but it ignored Israel’s flagrant defiance of them.
How could anyone take America’s moral claims seriously, Fisk asks, when we had imposed sanctions on Iraq that may have killed 500,000 children — an appalling policy, still grossly underreported, that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright defended, saying, “We think the price was worth it”? Who could believe we were suddenly deeply concerned about the suffering of the Iraqi people, when we had never paid the least attention to the miserable fate of the Palestinians, or of the millions throughout the region oppressed, tortured and killed by despots whom America props up because they serve our purposes?
And if the war in Iraq was so highly moral, Fisk asks, why has the United States refused to make any attempt to record civilian casualties in Iraq, which by some estimates, including nonviolent fatalities caused by the war, could amount to 100,000? (This week, Bush acknowledged that about 30,000 Iraqis had been killed.)
Fisk takes it as a virtual given that the invasion was doomed from the beginning to turn into a classic war of attrition between an occupying power and a guerrilla army. He advances some original and compelling reasons why the Iraqis turned against the Americans and proved such effective guerrillas. Describing the effect of the Iran-Iraq war, Fisk writes that the endless war and the terrible U.S. sanctions created an entire generation of Iraqi men filled with hatred of Iran, Saddam and the U.S., men who had come to “regard war — rather than peace — as a natural element in their lives. If ever the day came when Saddam was gone, what would these lieutenants and captains and their comrades from the trenches do if they ever faced another great army? What would they be capable of achieving if they could use their own initiative, their own imagination, their own courage — if patriotism and nationalism and Islam rather than the iron hand of Baathism was to be their inspiration?”
Fisk’s predictions of a broad-based Iraqi insurgency, which he issued within days of the American conquest of Baghdad — and which seemed tendentious, even offensive, at the time when many Americans, including this writer, were celebrating what seemed to be a “liberation day” — proved accurate. And yet, even for those of us who were bitterly opposed to this war, it is hard to escape the impression that Fisk’s justified anger at America, and well-founded skepticism about its motives, has prevented him from seeing the Middle East in general, and the Iraq war in particular, in their full complexity. History does not follow a moral chart. And dubious intentions can sometimes have unexpected results.
For example, one can accept the legitimacy of all Fisk’s charges, acknowledge American hypocrisy, callousness and self-interest, and still argue that the war could have ended well. What if we had sent 200,000 troops, as Gen. Shinseki recommended before he was unceremoniously retired? What if we prevented the looting that destroyed Iraqi confidence in U.S. intentions and competence? What if we had not disbanded the Iraqi army? Perhaps none of this would have made a difference. But Fisk never even considers it, as if even to imagine a positive outcome would be to confer approval. Fisk aspires to be both a polemical journalist and a historian. But the mode of analysis is not always the same. The polemicist is allowed to have his thumb on the scales. The historian is not.
Another example of how Fisk’s ideological slant can distort his analysis is his coverage of the Iraqi insurgency. While he acknowledges its multifaceted nature, he tends to treat it as a classic nationalist guerrilla war against an occupying army. Yet, as Paul Starobin has argued convincingly in a detailed analysis of Iraq’s civil war, this view is reductive. “[B]y the end of 2003, close observers of Iraq were seeing in the conflict a localized, sectarian element that was separate and apart from Arab or Iraqi nationalist stirrings against the United States as occupier,” Starobin writes. Fisk is not unaware of the sectarian dangers facing Iraq — he lived through a hellish sectarian war in Lebanon — but his view of the U.S. as quasi-colonialist occupier leads him to paint the opposition in overly simplistic colors.
Fisk’s account of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan also suffers from ideological rigidity. Fisk clearly regards the invasion as unjustified. As with Iraq, he focuses on U.S. misdeeds, on failure: civilians killed by U.S. bombs and bullets, refugees, starvation, the return of opium production, the rise of brutal warlords, etc. Indeed, Fisk does little to distinguish between the two wars. Yet there are compelling arguments that this war, unlike the Iraq disaster, was necessary. Fisk never even addresses the possibility that police action, apparently his preferred mode of fighting al-Qaida, would have been ineffective against the Taliban. (It is difficult to know exactly what Fisk would have recommended: Throughout the book, he is better at criticizing than coming up with solutions.) And although he unflinchingly reports on the Taliban’s barbarism — to his credit, Fisk never makes excuses or tries to ameliorate horror, whoever perpetrates it — he seems too quick to posit that the U.S.-backed Karzai regime represents no improvement on it. Again, Fisk’s crystal ball may prove to be correct — Afghanistan is in a fragile state, and things could collapse there. But simply because the U.S. is an arrogant superpower with a bad record of meddling in the region does not make that outcome inevitable — or this war necessarily evil.
In fact, Fisk has difficulty accepting the concept of the lesser of two evils. Yes, war is dreadful. But there are times when war is necessary to prevent other, worse wars, or to prevent massive injustice. It is true that few of the wars that have wracked the Middle East fall into that category: “The Great War for Civilisation” is a record of appalling, pointless loss of life. But Fisk is so averse to pious official cant about “great wars for civilisation” and other such lofty phrases that he tends to flatten out moral distinctions.
Yet Fisk’s weaknesses are inseparable from his strengths. His evil eye for “the arrogance of power” leads him to courageously report on issues that governments — and sometimes the media — want to cover up. His account of the U.S. cruiser Vincennes’ shooting down of an Iranian passenger jet over the Gulf in 1988, killing 289 innocent people, is a masterpiece of reporting — and one that resulted in Fisk’s resigning from the Times of London. The paper’s editor ripped apart Fisk’s story without his consent, removing the reporting that proved that U.S. incompetence was to blame for the tragedy. Rupert Murdoch had taken over the Times, and did not want to print a story critical of the U.S. Fisk left and went to work for the Independent.
Of that sorry episode, Fisk writes, “When we journalists fail to get across the reality of events to our readers, we have not only failed in our job; we have also become a party to the bloody events that we are supposed to be reporting. If we cannot tell the truth about the shooting down of a civilian airliner — because this will harm ‘our’ side in a war or because it will cast one of our ‘hate’ countries in the role of victim or because it might upset the owner of the newspaper — then we contribute to the very prejudices that contribute to wars in the first place.”
These are words that should be read by every “embedded” reporter and every “patriot” working at Fox News. Perhaps a few journalists at the New York Times — which Fisk blasts as “gutless” — could profit from them as well.
Critics have accused Fisk of not being objective. It’s a valid charge — but it’s equally valid to note that no reporter, editor or historian is objective. Why is one story written and not another? Why does one appear on Page One, another on Page 18? Why does the New York Times have a reporter in Jerusalem, but not in Ramallah? Why are “anonymous government officials” acceptable sources in stories about Saddam Hussein’s WMD, but not other stories? All too many “balanced” pieces are simply covers for intellectual laziness, for an unwillingness to challenge conventional wisdom. Fisk would argue that such pieces are not in fact “balanced” at all: They are de facto apologies for the status quo. The letter of “objectivity” can kill.
Fairness, however, is quite another matter — it is indispensable to a journalist. And like him or not, Fisk is fair. He presents both sides. Whether he believes both sides is something else entirely.
In the book’s preface, Fisk writes that “we journalists try — or should try — to be the first impartial witnesses to history. If we have any reason for our existence, the least must be our ability to report history as it happens so that no one can say: ‘We didn’t know — no one told us.’” Fisk then describes a conversation he had with Amira Hass, the great reporter for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz whose reports on the occupied Palestinian territories, he accurately notes, “have outshone anything written by non-Israeli reporters.” “I was insisting that we had a vocation to write the first pages of history but she interrupted me. ‘No, Robert, you’re wrong,’ she said. ‘Our job is to monitor the centers of power.’ And I think, in the end, that is the best definition of journalism I have heard: to challenge authority — all authority — especially so when governments and politicians take us to war, when they have decided that they will kill and others will die.” That this credo probably sounds extreme to many American journalists today is a sad commentary on the state of the profession.
But along with monitoring the powerful, Fisk is determined never to let us forget the powerless. He speaks up for the victims — the small people, the ignored, the voiceless. Even those who disgree with some or all of his ideological convictions should be moved by his courage and tenacity in telling these stories. Beyond politics, he stands up for fairness and compassion in a world that sees too little of it.
One could choose from dozens of characters and episodes in the book to illustrate this point. But for me, three stick in the mind.
During the Iraq-Iran war, as Fisk staggers under fire down the beach at Fao, he sees a body in a gun-pit, “a young man in the foetal position, curled up like a child, already blackening with death but with a wedding ring on his finger. On this hot, spring morning, it glitters and sparkles with freshness and life.” At the very end of the book Fisk again recalls the ring on that young man’s hand, a symbol and memory of the waste of war, one death standing for the thousands he has seen.
Then there is an Iranian man of about 30, the brother of an Iranian soldier on trial in one of Khomeini’s hanging courts, who furtively approached Fisk outside the courtroom. “‘Do you think this is a fair trial?’ he asked. ‘My brother has no defense counsel … This court has killed every prisoner it has tried.’ There was a sad pause while the man tried to stop himself from weeping. ‘My brother has a little boy. He has told the other children at his school that he will kill himself if the court killed his father.’” Soon afterward, Fisk learns that the soldier was executed. We do not learn what happened to his little boy.
And finally, there is the story of Raafat al-Ghossain, a beautiful 18-year-old artist who was killed when American planes bombed Tripoli in an attempt to get rid of Ghadafi. She was killed when the wall of the TV room where she was sleeping collapsed on her. Her mother, Saniya, treasures two crumpled pieces of paper she found in the destroyed villa. Papers containing the last brooding thoughts and dreams of an innocent teenager, they bear a poignant resemblance to the diary kept by another doomed young girl, a Jewish girl from Holland killed in a Nazi concentration camp more than 60 years ago.
“People are only faces, images, masks worn by each one of them to deceive the other … Meanwhile, I am here watching, trying to survive, among a group of actors who try to show as if they understand it all but really have understood nothing, [the] hypocrites. Life is a game, a gamble, and people are its victims, its players … I hope that one day I shall find that stream of light, that breath of life which will open my soul up and let [me] go FREE, FREE, FREE to eternity.”
“At the bottom of the letter,” Fisk writes, “Raafat has drawn the wings of four great white birds.”
History has vindicated Fisk. As he predicted, George W. Bush used the 9/11 attacks to declare a war between good and evil — between the blameless Americans and those, in Bush’s infantile phrase, who “hate our freedom.” As he also predicted, that war went terribly wrong, and has resulted in America being less safe, not more. Yet Fisk is accorded precious little respect for his prescience. Even liberals attack him for his excessive zeal, his unseemly frankness. In his review of “The Great War for Civilisation” in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote, “Fisk’s condemnations, and his tone of voice, are so sweeping as to damage his own case.” Citing Fisk’s piece arguing that the 9/11 attacks did not just emanate from pure evil but also had to do with “American missiles smashing into Palestinian homes,” Wheatcroft writes, “He still feels sorry for himself about the torrent of abuse he received, unable to see that, although there is a great deal to be said in criticism of American policy in the Middle East, Sept. 12, 2001, might not have been the best day to say it.”
Yes, Sept. 12 was perhaps a little early to ask Americans to search their souls about their nation’s foreign policy. But what is more important — sounding an urgent alarm about matters of life and death, or tiptoeing around our delicate sensibilities? Is there a polite way to scream that someone’s house is burning down? In fact, the point Fisk tried to make is scarcely being heard even now. When will it be?
Fisk is cantankerous and angry and tendentious. But as America sleepwalks through a self-destructive “war on terror,” his cold-blooded clarity is essential. In this blinkered and timorous age, we need more Robert Fisks.
Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.More Gary Kamiya.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)