We have to hand it to them. Just in time to miss the cut-off date for choosing the 100 Notable Books of 2005, the editors of The New York Times Book Review have done themselves proud today with a front-page review of Robert Fisk’s “The Great War for Civilisation,” which offers notable, if grudging, admiration.
Written by the eminently fair-minded British historian Geoffrey Wheatcroft, author of “The Controversy of Zion” and other books, the review is lengthy and circumspect and, we might add (not that we take credit), has appeared soon after our swipe at the NYTBR for ignoring Fisk’s work. (As was noted at the time, “For all we know, a forthcoming review is in the works.”)
Wheatcroft’s fair-mindedness notwithstanding, we do have some bones to pick with his judgments and taste. He begins, weirdly in our view, by making a claim hard to square with reality: “Even those of us who are not optimists by disposition have to admit that there are good reasons for being cheerful when we look around the world today.” Really?
We got past that peculiar hurdle quickly enough to Wheatcroft’s concession that, well, the picture in Africa is “often tragic” and not too “rosy” in Latin America, either. But most of all, it’s the Middle East which is the singular exception to any reason for cheerfulness — the “one region on earth,” he writes, “that gives ground for the deepest gloom.”
This segues into a reasonable summary of Fisk’s career as a longtime hand in the Middle East, “one of the most controversial journalists of the age, winner of numerous prizes, much admired by some, including colleagues who respect his obsessive attention to detail and sheer physical courage, execrated by others because of what has been seen as his open hostility to Israel, America and the West.”
And so to the meat of the matter — Fisk’s “Big Book (and how) and his testament,” as Wheatcroft terms it — which is where we started objecting. For instance, he points out that Fisk “lets it all hang out, diffuse and inchoate, made worse by a penchant for Fine Writing.” We’ll grant “diffuse” but not “inchoate.” Yes, the book could have been shorter. (It’s more than half a million words by Wheatcroft’s count.) It could have been less spread out, less repetitive. But it is not shapeless or formless or rudimentary. And the examples of Fine Writing that Wheatcroft singles out not only don’t make his point, they disprove it. (Later for that.)
Most important: “What Fisk’s enemies will be scanning the book for is not so much stylistic lapses as the bias of which he is often accused,” Wheatcroft writes, “and here I believe he can be defended, at least in terms of personal honor. Robert Fisk is not a crooked journalist like — well, some sentences are better left unfinished, but quite a few names come to mind.” Yet Fisk’s “brand of reporting-with-attitude,” the sort of “angry partisanship” that “could almost be Fisk’s heraldic motto,” does him no good with a fair-minded reviewer who concedes he “largely shares Fisk’s broader outlook, if one can filter out the rage and exaggeration.”
Reporting-with-attitude means Fisk “doesn’t let us forget that he loathes Saddam Hussein, and is contemptuous of Yasir Arafat even as he sarcastically mentions his own anti-Israeli reputation,” Wheatcroft points out. It means Fisk is more than willing to criticize what he calls “Israel’s policy of state murder.” It means that he heaps contempt upon “American journalists who report in so craven a fashion from the Middle East,” not least The Times and Times writers, who are, Wheatcroft notes, “regularly pummeled.”
What Wheatcroft objects to above all, however, is that this “ungovernable anger may do [Fisk’s] heart credit, but it does not make for satisfactory history.”
His book contains very many gruesome accounts of murder and mutilation, and page after page describing torture in almost salacious detail. This has an unintended effect. A reader who knew nothing about the subject — the proverbial man from Mars — might easily conclude from “The Great War for Civilisation” that the whole region is mad, bad and dangerous to know, which is presumably not what Fisk wants us to think. Nor does he much abet the argument by George W. Bush and Tony Blair that Islam is essentially a peaceful and gentle religion. Most of the Muslims met here seem cruel and crazy, exemplifying Shelley’s line about “bloody faith, the foulest birth of time.”
Well, the effect is unintended if you believe Wheatcroft’s presumption — which, having read the book, we don’t. We’re also totally mystified as to why he thinks Fisk would want to abet any argument by two political leaders whom he believes to be war criminals. And if “bloody faith” is not the cause of the gruesome murder and mutilation Wheatcroft would rather Fisk were less willing to describe, why then did he himself single out the Middle East as the “one region on earth that gives ground for the deepest gloom”?
He contends, furthermore, that Fisk’s “relentless catalog of butchery also misses the point” because, “unless one is an unconditional pacifist, one must accept even the death of innocents.” Wheatcroft tries to prove the point by comparing the violence in Iraq with that of World War II, which, while utterly deplorable, he says, did not mean the war was unjustified. “Likewise,” he adds, “there is a distinction between the violent consequences of the present operation in Iraq, and the question of how far it was wise or virtuous in the first place.”
So putting the slaughter aside, just what is the virtue and wisdom of the invasion of Iraq? Talk about missing the point!
Wheatcroft criticizes Fisk for damaging his own case because his “condemnations, and his tone of voice, are so sweeping.” He explains, for example, that Fisk “became particularly unpopular four years ago because of what he wrote after the attacks in New York” by Al Qaeda:
This is not the war of democracy versus terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming hours and days. It is also about American missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and U.S. helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996. . . .
The real trouble was caused, though, by when he wrote that. “[A]lthough there is a great deal to be said in criticism of American policy in the Middle East,” Wheatcroft explains, “Sept. 12, 2001, might not have been the best day to say it.” Instead of noting Fisk’s courage for saying it that day, not to mention his prescience, the review asserts that Fisk “still feels sorry for himself about the torrent of abuse he received.” Perhaps Wheatcroft has personal knowledge of that. Maybe he read it somewhere. But it’s not evident from the book.
Further — and this Wheatcroft does base on his reading of the book — he asserts that Fisk does not “allow for historical context.” Yet adducing Fisk’s tale of the 1953 coup in Iran, which installed the Shah, Wheatcroft is capable of being wondrously obtuse. He defends the coup plotters — the C.I.A.’s Kermit Roosevelt and unnamed British agents — by offering an anecdote. “As it happens, one of the conspirators is a neighbor of mine, a charming and courteous old gentleman” who joined MI16 after serving in the Royal Navy and who to this day, Wheatcroft wants us to know, “is impenitent about that power play in the cold war.” Why not? Because the lovely old gent “and his fellow plotters didn’t delude themselves that they were trying to bring good government to the Persian people.” All we’re missing is the Noel Coward music.
If this is the sort of preposterous historical context Wheatcroft prefers, give us Fisk’s lack of it anytime. Especially when fair-minded Wheatcroft fesses up that “there is plenty” in the book “to make us think again about where the [Middle East] is heading and why.” Actually, “some of Fisk’s points are very telling,” he writes. Such as? “Next time the president informs us of the noble and beneficent cause of democracy, read Fisk on Algeria, which did indeed have democratic elections, only they were unfortunately won by the wrong party in the form of the Islamic extremists.”
So yes, Wheatcroft is willing to concede that, “at least in part, ‘The Great War for Civilisation’ is a stimulating and absorbing book.” And well he should, since the dramatic conclusion of his review — the best thing about it — is not just rich in deeply ironic historical context; it is a direct steal from the book (see page 147). He cites what that problematical Arabist T.E. Lawrence had to say 75 years ago in words which have the sting of truth today more than ever.
We might as well give the full quote, precisely as Fisk gives it:
The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiqés are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows . . . We are today not far from disaster. [The ellipsis is Fisk’s]
You don’t have to read America for England, Iraq for Mesopotamia, or Peter O’Toole for Lawrence of Arabia, to get the picture.
— Tireless Staff of Thousands
Postscript: As to literary style, you be the judge. These are the two examples of Fine Writing that Wheatcroft disparages: “The night wind moved through the darkening trees, ruffling the robes of the Arab fighters around us.” And: “I have woken in my bed to hear the blades of the palm trees outside slapping each other in the night, the rain smashing against the shutters.”
He’s also offended by these “tiresomely portentous sentences,” because chapters begin with them: “Ben Greenberger doesn’t trust the Arabs.” And: “Roger Tartouche grins at visitors from beneath his steel French army helmet, head turned slightly to the left, his battledress buttoned up to the neck” — on his gravestone, that is, our reviewer notes with disapproval.
It’s a matter of taste. They’re all Perfectly Fine to us.
PPS: Several letters about the 100 Notable Books, “The Great War for Civilisation,” and Wheatcroft’s review, have since been published in the Book Review (in the issue of Dec. 25, 2005).