This book is a tome. It weighs in at 1286 pages and another 50 pages of bibliography and notes. It has taken me the best part of 6 months of reading – in bits and pieces – to get through it. Probably because of the way I read it, but also because of the sheer depth and breadth of what is covered in this book, I don’t have a quick summary. I can only tell you my learnings and lasting images. These aren’t pretty images and this is not a book for the faint hearted.
Thishad 2 main themes for me – The personal story of Mr. Robert Fisk – Reporter Extraordinaire, of how he dodges bullets and obstacles and gets the story back to the press office in London, and of history, a history which so few of us know about but we can see it being repeated over and over again.
Fisk’s writing is very emotional and personal. Its not a history book by any stretch of imagination but history is a very important aspect of it. Fisk is fairly balanced at most times but does come across strongly on a few things. The excitement in this book come from first hand accounts of Fisk’s experiences in covering the Palestinian situation, the Iran Iraq War, the first gulf War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and finally the post 9/11 mess in the middle east. From being handed a soviet rifle by a soldier for self protection while travelling with the “enemy” during the cold war, to dodging bullets on both sides of the front line in the Iran-Iraq war. First hand accounts of the sheer madness of war – of young teenage Iranian militia-men going back from the battle reading the Koran while they spit blood after inhaling Saddam’s nerve gas, to teenage American soldiers who have left their homes not knowing why they are out in a godforsaken desert halfway across the world, waiting to go back. Unfortunately, given the climate in which this book was released, his interviews with Osama bin Laden have been played up quite a bit. But in my opinion, that is not even remotely as interesting as his descriptions of other experiences.
He comes off very strongly against the hypocrisy of Western democracies. For example, the US armed Saddam’s military (the funds were primarily from Saudi Arabia) and the Germans sold them nerve gas during the Iran-Iraq war. Israel and the US sold weapons to Iran which were made in the US. They even accepted an apology from Saddam for killing 37 American soldiers on the USS Starc at one point. And when it is convenient to label Saddam as a monster – they do. Again, in such cases, the culpability of the press in western democracies – always plying the government line – meant that such flagrant abuses of sensibilities were rarely noticed or acted on by the voters. Fisk also talks about something which I have noticed myself much earlier – the way in which the press has misused the words “terrorist” and “terror” and dehumanised the entire Muslim world in the west.
Finally, there are a number of events which we were never taught in school – some which were downright horrifying. One of them which stands out is the shooting down of an Iranian passenger aircraft by an American cruiser in 1988. All 290 civilians were killed including 66 children. Subsequently, the US government said they “regretted” the loss of life but never apologised. In fact the crew of the battle cruiser were awarded medals.
Another, is the chain of massacres which took place in and around the Lebanese Civil War and later involving the Israeli Phalangist Militia. The loss of life is astounding-
Karantina Massacre (Jan 18, 1976) – 1000-1500 dead
Damour Massacre (Jan 20, 1976) – 150-582 dead
Sabra and Shatila Massacre ( 16-18 Sept, 1982) 762-3500 dead
No one knows the exact numbers of people who were killed and the numbers have been disputed with each interested party claiming the figure to be closer to what would be good for their cause. In some ways I can imagine these accounts being similar to those which surround the partition of India, though thankfully not at that scale. But I have felt that Indians forget more easily than other cultures – and long may it be so. The book covers so much more death and destruction which comes back to me in waves as I write this. But there is no way to put it across in a little review like this. The pictures of the horrors of war are something which every person, I believe, should have in their mind. Because if they do, they would never wish for war.
If there are 2 lessons that I have from this book, they are:
1. That you can’t trust what you see in the news. Ever. There is another side to the story and that side is ugly. No one will show you this because you won’t be able to take it.
2. The whole issue with the Middle East was caused due to Western powers’ political deals at the end of World War I. If you don’t meddle in others’ issues they won’t meddle in yours.