For a couple of months I have been absorbed in a book, the great war for civilisation by Robert Fisk. It’s a book about war and the failure of the human spirit. It is vivid and fleshy, filled with details that make your skin crawl and remind you that what it contains is real. It’s a book about the Middle East and the wars fought there. Wars for the greatest of all resources or in the service of them, religion, holy lands, oil and more. There is a passage in the book that brings to life what war is really about.
Florence Nightingale never reached this part of the old Ottoman empire but her equivalent is Dr. Khaldoun al-Baeri, the director and chief surgeon, a gently spoken man who has slept an hour a day for six days and who is trying to save the lives of more than a hundred souls a day with one generator and half of his operating theatres out of use-you cannot carry patients in your arms to the sixteenth floor when they are coughing blood. Dr. al-Baeri speaks like a sleepwalker, trying to describe how difficult it is to stop a wounded man or woman from suffocating when they have been injured in the thorax, explaining that after four operations to extract metal from the brains of his patients he is too tired to think let alone in English.
As I leave him he tells me that he does not know where his family is. "Our house was hit and my neighbours sent me a message to tell me they sent them away somewhere. I do not know where. I have two little girls, they are twins and I told them that they must be brave because their father has to work night and day in the hospital and they mustn't cry because now I have to work for humanity. And now I have no idea where they are." then Dr. al-Baeri choked on his words and began to cry and could not say goodbye.
War is not pretty. It’s not the coming together of the brave and the true, it’s not about victory, honour and dignity is the hypothesis of the book. War is about suffering and death and horror. Over and over he repeats that war represents the total failure of the human spirit and turning page after page of the book it’s impossible to doubt this. The above passage comes from the invasion of Iraq by American and British forces in response to weapons of mass destruction which when proven a myth became a crusade against a tyrant. It became about liberation of the Iraqi people and the importing of concept of democracy into the land of Babylon, Persia and the Iraqis. No one wants to be occupied, self-determination is actually recorded in a UN charter somewhere that my law knowledge can no longer access. The ability to control your own destiny and decide for yourself is ultimately what makes adulthood so much better than childhood. He quotes one of the Iraqis as saying that he would not fight the Americans till Saddam was deposed because he didn’t want Saddam back but once he was caught it would be bombs on. Another man says he would strap his one year old daughter in a bomb and send her off to kill troops.
The book then does amazing things, it asks why? Why did they strike against everyone and it delves into historical analysis of the region of a type that I have never seen before. He doesn’t flinch away from laying blame and laying it all around. He shows step by step the harassment of the Muslim people in our lifetimes and the lifetimes of our fathers. Endless was of oppression, the foisting of dictatorships that served the interest of other countries, the endless bloodshed that war by remote brings about.
Planes take you away from the actual pain of killing. It could be a video game when you are so far up and you spray fire on what could be ants. You don’t see the life being extinguished, you don’t see the children. It’s always the children who suffer the most. Sanctions imposed after the first time Iraq and America were at war resulted in the death of about 500,000 children he says when you do the math that's 166 times the number of people who died in 9/11 . This is a huge figure; this is a figure that makes sense only when you speak in such terms. When you don’t really know that it’s one child who died after another and another and another and another till the anothers would fill more words than I could write. But in this book you don’t forget that. You never do, he was a reporter and he dutifully notes names and ages of the dead. You read of 3 year old girls with brains leaking out of their ears and missing limbs. Bombs placed by both sides and the sides become so entangled that it’s really all sides doing this.
Death follows death. And then more die and then the lens of the book goes back and looks at the partition of the middle east, the death of the ottoman empire the slicing of Lebanon from Syria, the creation of Jordan, and that question that may confound all of us for years to come the creation of the state of Israel and what it mean for the state of Palestine.
It seems everything revolves around this or tries to. The integrity of Israel and the protection of Palestine are used over and over to justify, to unite, to enmify people from everywhere. Here too a historical analysis is given. He looks at the sides and he condemns acts everywhere. He condemns the suicide bombers of Palestine but asks the question why. Why did Israeli soldiers answer stones with bullets and slingshots with real shots? How can a people react when their home they are kicked out of and the given into a refugee camp?
Every chapter begins with a poem or a quote. In one he quotes Tolstoy on war a passage that I always remember:
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
Lest we forget that’s what war is. It is the forgetting of decency. Its object is murder. Murder and theft. Kill the soldiers and take their land. It results in looting and rape. It is accompanied by fire and blood, by screams of anguish and whispers of loss. And the Middle East seems embroiled in wars that have no end in sight.
He chronicles the 8 year war between Iran and Iraq. 8 years is a long time to be at war. 8 years ago it was 2004. I was a high school student. My biggest concern was passing exams.my stress was at a minimum, I had never even made a CV all I did was live. So much has happened in those 8 years in all our lives. To live them in subservience to war, death and suffering is unimaginable for me. And when these two nations went at it they went at it. There was no pause in the war, no quarter, they tore each other apart in a war whose stories could give the devil nightmares.
He looks at Afghanistan, forever occupied by empires on their decline. Alexander the Great tried for it. The British were driven out, the Russian were driven out and the American came barging in. I can’t remember the exact quote right now but it was he quoted something about about them coming over the hill of destiny and meeting those who had gone before and that we learn nothing from history except that we learn nothing from history.
And the history recounted tells us this over and over. We see so many parallels between the ways empires have carved out portions of the Middle East for themselves. It’s the rewind button of fate, the way the world reminds itself of what’s happened. A failing of human beings is our amnesia. We forget in lifetimes their lessons and generations never keep within them the history the tattooed stories of loss and destruction that war brings.
He brings us to Algeria and the sadness of the wars fought there. The French leaving and the government that took over from them leaving. The parallels again are astounding. We are doomed to repeat its mistakes and we do.
Then there’s a list of names. There’s a visit to a hospital and you see the horror of war laid out in front for all to see. And its face is that of a five year old girl or a 12 year old boy. Its voice is that of a mother weeping for her children. A father pretending pride and suffering sorrow as he hears of a son who died.
The writing is so vivid I would fall between two worlds. In no time at all I would get a visa to another place and look out of a balcony in Lebanon, confront arms manufactures with the stories and evidence of their trade. I would meet Osama bin laden and hear his justifications for what he did. Look at foreign policy through Fisk's eyes and have mine cloud over by the short-sightedness and blindness of some of the decisions therein
I have never understood the middle east better than I do now. I have never been such an authority on why things are the way they are. But then remember the old maxim, the more you know the more you know that you don’t know. 1,300 pages is a ghost, it’s a skeleton. Their production required a body of work and sacrifice and he did. The life of covering the Middle East is not easy. He shuttled from war to war surrounded by corpses and limb and the ghosts of the gone, the misery of the survivors and the pain of the nations. But all i did was read and though i know more now than i did before, "i know nothing"
And then there were more names. The details, the lives and in some cases the letters they wrote each other. These things happened they were horrible and they ruined the world. and if we are not careful they will happen again.