By Robert Fisk
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The Great War for Civilization

This article is over 16 years, 10 months old
Exclusive to Socialist Review, we print extracts from award-winning journalist Robert Fisk's forthcoming book The Great War for Civilisation
Issue 300

From the Preface

When I was a small boy, my father would take me each year around the battlefields of the First World War, the conflict that H.G. Wells called ‘the war to end all wars’. We would set off each summer in our Austin Mayflower and bump along the potholed roads of the Somme, Ypres and Verdun. By the time I was 14, I could recite the names of all the offensives: Bapaume, Hill 60, High Wood, Passchendaele… I had seen all the graveyards and I had walked through all the overgrown trenches, and touched the rusted helmets of British soldiers and the corroded German mortars in decaying museums. My father was a soldier of the Great War, fighting in the trenches of France because of a shot fired in a city he’d never heard of called Sarajevo. And when he died 13 years ago at the age of 93, I inherited his campaign medals. One of them depicts a winged victory and on the obverse side are engraved the words: ‘The Great War for Civilisation’.

To my father’s deep concern and my mother’s stoic acceptance, I have spent much of my life in wars. They, too, were fought ‘for civilisation’. In Afghanistan, I watched the Russians fighting for their ‘international duty’ in a conflict against ‘international terror’; their Afghan opponents, of course, were fighting against ‘Communist aggression’ and for Allah. I reported from the front lines as the Iranians struggled through what they called the ‘Imposed War’ against Saddam Hussein – who dubbed his 1980 invasion of Iran the ‘Whirlwind War.’ I’ve seen the Israelis twice invading Lebanon and then reinvading the Palestinian West Bank in order, so they claimed, to ‘purge the land of terrorism’. I was present as the Algerian military went to war with Islamists for the same ostensible reason, torturing and executing their prisoners with as much abandon as their enemies. Then in 1990 Saddam invaded Kuwait and the Americans sent their armies to the Gulf to liberate the emirate and impose a ‘New World Order’. In the desert, I always wrote down the words ‘new world order’ in my notebook followed by a question mark. In Bosnia, I found Serbs fighting for what they called ‘Serb civilisation’ while their Muslim enemies fought and died for a fading multicultural dream and to save their own lives.

On a mountain top in Afghanistan, I sat opposite Osama Bin Laden in his tent as he uttered his first direct threat against the United States, pausing as I scribbled his words into my notebook by a paraffin lamp. ‘God’ and ‘evil’ were what he talked to me about. I was flying over the Atlantic on 11 September 2001 – my plane turned round off Ireland following the attacks on the United States – and so less than three months later I was in Afghanistan, fleeing with the Taliban down a highway west of Kandahar as America bombed the ruins of a country already destroyed by war. I was in the United Nations General Assembly exactly a year later when George Bush talked about ‘god’ and ‘evil’ and weapons of mass destruction, and prepared to invade Iraq. The first missiles of that invasion swept over my head in Baghdad. Thus was George Bush’s calamitous ‘war on terror’ given in advance its own supposedly moral foundations.

The direct physical results of all these conflicts will remain – and should remain – in my memory until I die. I don’t need to read through my mountain of reporter’s notebooks to remember the Iranian soldiers on the troop train north to Tehran, holding towels and coughing up Saddam’s gas in gobs of blood and mucus as they read the Koran. I need none of my newspaper clippings to recall the father – after an American cluster-bomb attack on Iraq in 2003 – who held out to me what looked like half a crushed loaf of bread but turned out to be half a crushed baby. Or the mass grave outside Nasiriyah in which I came across the remains of a leg with a steel tube inside and a plastic medical disc still attached to a stump of bone; Saddam’s murderers had taken him straight from the hospital where he had his hip replacement to his place of execution in the desert.

I don’t have nightmares about these things. But I remember. The head blasted off the body of a Kosovan Albanian refugee in an American air raid four years earlier, bearded and upright in a bright green field as if a medieval axeman has just cut him down. The corpse of a Kosovan farmer murdered by the Serbs, his grave opened by the UN so that he re-emerges from the darkness, bloating in front of us, his belt tightening viciously round his stomach, twice the size of a normal man. The Iraqi soldier at Fao during the Iran-Iraq war who lay curled up like a child in the gun-pit beside me, black with death, a single gold wedding ring glittering on the third finger of his left hand, bright with sunlight and love for a woman who did not know she was a widow. Soldier and civilian, they died in their tens of thousands because death had been concocted for them, morality hitched like a halter round the warhorse so that we could talk about ‘target-rich environments’ and ‘collateral damage’ – that most infantile of attempts to shake off the crime of killing – and report the victory parades, the tearing down of statues and the importance of peace.

Governments like it that way. They want their people to see war as a drama of opposites, good and evil, ‘them’ and ‘us’, victory or defeat. But war is primarily not about victory or defeat but about death and the infliction of death. It represents the total failure of the human spirit…

When I first set out to write this book, I intended it to be a reporter’s chronicle of the Middle East over almost three decades. That is how I wrote my previous book, Pity the Nation, a first-person account of Lebanon’s civil war and two Israeli invasions. But as I prowled through the shelves of papers in my library, more than 350,000 documents and notebooks and files, some written under fire in my own hand, some punched onto telegram paper by tired Arab telecommunications operators, many pounded out on the clacking telex machines we used before the internet was invented, I realised that this was going to be more than a chronology of eyewitness reports.

My father, the old soldier of 1918, read my account of the Lebanon war but would not live to see this book. 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.

In the Middle East, it sometimes feels as if no event in history has a finite end, a crossing point, a moment when we can say: ‘Stop – enough – this is where we will break free.’ I think I understand that time-warp. My father was born in the century before last. I was born in the first half of the last century. Here I am, I tell myself, in 1980, watching the Soviet army invade Afghanistan, in 1982 cowering in the Iranian front line opposite Saddam’s legions, in 2003 observing the first American soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division cross the great bridge over the Tigris River. And yet the Battle of the Somme opened just 30 years before I was born. Bill Fisk was in the trenches of France three years after the Armenian genocide but only 28 years before my birth. I would be born within six years of the Battle of Britain, just over a year after Hitler’s suicide. I saw the planes returning to Britain from Korea and remember my mother telling me in 1956 that I was lucky, that had I been older I would have been a British conscript invading Suez.

If I feel this personally, it is because I have witnessed events that, over the years, can only be defined as an arrogance of power. The Iranians used to call the United States the ‘centre 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 17 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 peoples within those borders burn. America invaded Iraq not for Saddam Hussein’s mythical ‘weapons of mass destruction’ – which had long ago been destroyed – but to change the map of the Middle East, much as my father’s generation had done more than 80 years earlier.

From Chapter 22 – ‘The Die is Cast’

The 5th of February 2003 was a snow-blasted day in New York, the steam whirling out of the road covers, the US secret servicemen – helpfully wearing jackets with ‘Secret Service’ printed on them – hugging themselves outside the fustian, asbestos-packed UN headquarters on the East River. Exhausted though I was after travelling thousands of miles around the United States, the idea of watching Secretary of State Colin Powell – or General Powell, as he was now being reverently re-dubbed in some American newspapers – make his last pitch for war before the Security Council was an experience not to be missed. In a few days, I would be in Baghdad to watch the start of this frivolous, demented conflict. Powell’s appearance at the Security Council was the essential prologue to the tragedy – or tragicomedy if one could contain one’s anger – the appearance of the Attendant Lord who would explain the story of the drama, the Horatio to the increasingly unstable Hamlet in the White House.

There was an almost macabre opening to the play when General Powell arrived at the Security Council, cheek-kissing the delegates and winding his great arms around them. CIA director George Tenet stood behind Powell, chunky, aggressive but obedient, just a little bit lip-biting, an Edward G Robinson who must have convinced himself that the more dubious of his information was buried beneath an adequate depth of moral fury and fear to be safely concealed. Just like Bush’s appearance at the General Assembly the previous September, you needed to be in the Security Council to see what the television cameras missed. There was a wonderful moment when the little British home secretary Jack Straw entered the chamber through the far right door in a massive power suit, his double-breasted jacket apparently wrapping itself twice around Britain’s most famous ex-Trot. He stood for a moment with a kind of semi-benign smile on his uplifted face, his nose in the air as if sniffing for power. Then he saw Powell and his smile opened like an umbrella as his small feet, scuttling beneath him, propelled him across the stage and into the arms of Powell for his big American hug.

You might have thought that the whole chamber, with its toothy smiles and constant handshakes, contained a room full of men celebrating peace rather than war. Alas, not so. These elegantly dressed statesmen were constructing the framework that would allow them to kill quite a lot of people – some of them Saddam’s little monsters no doubt, but most of them innocent. When Powell rose to give his terror-talk, he did so with a slow athleticism, the world-weary warrior whose patience had at last reached its end.

But it was an old movie. I should have guessed. Sources, foreign intelligence sources, ‘our sources’, defectors, sources, sources, sources. Ah, to be so well-sourced when you have already taken the decision to go to war. The Powell presentation sounded like one of those government-inspired reports on the front page of the New York Times – where it was, of course, treated with due reverence the next day. It was a bit like heating up old soup. Hadn’t we heard most of this stuff before? Should one trust the man? General Powell, I mean, not Saddam. Certainly we didn’t trust Saddam, but Powell’s speech was a mixture of awesomely funny recordings of Iraqi Republican Guard telephone intercepts à la Samuel Beckett that just might have been some terrifying proof that Saddam really was conning the UN inspectors again, and ancient material on the Monster of Baghdad’s all too well known record of beastliness.

If only we could have heard the Arabic for the State Department’s translation of ‘OK buddy’ – ‘Consider it done, sir’ – this from the Republican Guard’s ‘Captain Ibrahim’, for heaven’s sake. The dinky illustrations of mobile Iraqi bio-labs whose lorries and railway trucks were in such perfect condition suggested the Pentagon didn’t have much idea of the dilapidated state of Saddam’s railway system, let alone his army. It was when we went back to Halabja and human rights abuses and all Saddam’s indubitable sins, as recorded by the discredited Unscom team, that we started eating the old soup again. Jack Straw may have thought all of this ‘the most powerful and authoritative case’ for war – his ill-considered opinion afterwards – but when we were forced to listen to the Iraqi officer corps communicating by phone – ‘Yeah’, ‘Yeah’, ‘Yeah?’, ‘Yeah…’ – it was impossible not to ask oneself if Colin Powell had already considered the effect this would have on the outside world. From time to time, the words ‘Iraq: Failing To Disarm – Denial and Deception’ appeared on the giant video screen behind General Powell. Was this a CNN logo? some of us wondered. But no, it was the work of CNN’s sister channel, the US Department of State.

From Chapter 8 – ‘Drinking the Poisoned Chalice’

When Khadum Fadel returned to Baghdad after 16 years of incarceration, he could remember only sorrow and hunger and rheumatism in an Iranian camp surrounded by barbed wire and mines, often lying in chains. Many thousands of the Iraqi prisoners came home after ten years of near-starvation in Iranian camps, only to find that American-backed sanctions after the 1991 war in which they had played no part were now starving their families. A whole angry army of ex-prisoners – filled with hatred of Iran, of Saddam and of the United States – were now living in misery and impoverishment in Iraq. Amid the mud and sand, they and the millions of Iraqis who avoided both imprisonment and death had learned to live and to die. They learned to fight. Under the lethal imagination of their dictator, they held the line against Iran. They used their tanks as static gun platforms dug into the desert and they burned their enemies with gas or swamped them with tidal rivers or electrocuted them in the marshes. A whole generation of Iraqi lieutenants and captains came 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 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?

From Chapter 21 – ‘Why?’

However one approaches this Arab sense of humiliation – whether we regard it as a form of self-pity or a fully justified response to injustice – it is nonetheless real. The Arabs were among the first scientists at the start of the second millennium, while the Crusaders – another of Bin Laden’s fixations – were riding in technological ignorance into the Muslim world. So while in the past few decades, our popular conception of the Arabs vaguely embraced an oil-rich, venal and largely backward people, awaiting our annual handouts and their virgins in heaven, many of them were asking pertinent questions about their past and future, about religion and science, about – so I suspect – how god and technology might be part of the same universe. No such long-term questions for us. We just went on supporting our Muslim dictators around the world – especially in the Middle East – in return for their friendship and our false promises to rectify deep-seated injustice.

We allowed our dictators to snuff out their socialist and Communist parties; we left their population little place to exercise their political opposition except through religion. We went in for demonisation – Messrs Khomeini, Abu Nidal, Gadaffi, Arafat, Saddam, Bin Laden – rather than historical questioning. And we made more promises. Presidents Carter and Reagan made pledges to the Afghan mujahedin: fight the Russians and we will help you. We would assist the recovery of the Afghan economy. A rebuilding of the country, even – this from innocent Jimmy Carter – ‘democracy’, not a concept to be sure that we would now be bequeathing to the Pakistanis, Uzbeks or Saudis. Of course, once the Russians were gone in 1989, there was no economic assistance.

The problem, it seemed, was that without any sense of history, we failed to understand injustice. Instead we compounded it, after years of indolence, when we wanted to bribe our would-be allies with promises of vast historical importance – a resolution to Palestine, Kashmir, an arms-free Middle East, Arab independence, an economic Nirvana – because we were at war. Tell Muslims what they want to hear, promise them what they want – anything, so long as we can get our armadas into the air in our latest ‘war against evil’. And up they flew. In the sand-blasted mud villages along the border of Afghanistan, we could watch their contrails, white gashes cut into the deep blue skies that would suddenly turn into full circles and – far away across the Kandahar desert – we would hear a distant, imperial thunder. With binoculars, we could even make out the sleek, four-engined bombers, the sunlight flashing off their wings. Then the planes would turn south west and begin their long haul back to Diego Garcia.

From Chapter 22 – ‘The Die is Cast’

What, I kept asking, happens after the invasion? On 26 January I asked our Independent on Sunday readers what we planned to do when Iraqis demanded our withdrawal from their country. ‘For we will be in occupation of a foreign land. We will be in occupation of Iraq as surely as Israel is in occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. And with Saddam gone, the way is open for Osama Bin Laden to demand the liberation of Iraq as another of his objectives. How easily he will be able to slot Iraq into the fabric of American occupation across the Gulf. Are we then ready to fight Al Qaida in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan and Pakistan and countless other countries? It seems that the people of the Middle East – and the West – realise these dangers, but that their leaders do not, or do not want to.’

Travelling to the US more than once a month, visiting Britain on the penultimate weekend of January 2003, moving around the Middle East, I have never been so struck by the absolute, unwavering determination of so many Arabs and Europeans and Americans to oppose a war. Did Tony Blair really need that gloriously pertinacious student at the British Labour Party meeting on 24 January to prove to him what so many Britons felt: that this proposed Iraqi war was a lie, that the reasons for this conflict had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction, that Blair had no business following Bush into the war? Never before had I received so many readers’ letters expressing exactly the same sentiment: that somehow – because of Labour’s huge majority, because of the Tory Party’s effective disappearance as an opposition, because of parliamentary cynicism – British democracy was not permitting British people to stop a war for which most of them had nothing but contempt. From Washington’s pathetic attempt to link Saddam to Al Qaida, to Blair’s childish ‘dossier’ on weapons of mass destruction, to the whole tragic farce of UN inspectors, people were no longer fooled. The denials that this war had anything to do with oil were as unconvincing as Colin Powell’s claim in January 2003 that Iraq’s oil would be held in ‘trusteeship’ for the Iraqi people. ‘Trusteeship’ was exactly what the League of Nations offered the Levant when it allowed Britain and France to adopt mandates in Palestine and Transjordan and Syria and Lebanon after the First World War. Who will run the oil wells and explore Iraqi oil reserves during this generous period of ‘trusteeship’? I asked in my paper. American companies, perhaps?

Chapter 5-‘The Path to War’

The British held out wildly optimistic hopes for a ‘new’ Iraq that would be regenerated by western enterprise, not unlike America’s own pipedreams of 2003. ‘There is no doubt’, the Sphere told its readers in 1915, ‘that with the aid of European science and energy it can again become the garden of Asia… and under British rule everything may be hoped.’

The British occupation was dark with historical precedent. Iraqi troops who had been serving with the Turkish army, but who ‘always entertained friendly ideas towards the English’, found that in prison in India they were ‘insulted and humiliated in every way’. These same prisoners wanted to know if the British would hand over Iraq to Sherif Hussein of the Hejaz – to whom the British had made fulsome and ultimately mendacious promises of ‘independence’ for the Arab world if it fought alongside the Allies against the Turks – on the grounds that ‘some Holy Moslem Shrines are located in Mesopotamia’.

British officials believed that control of Mesopotamia would safeguard British oil interests in Persia – the initial occupation of Basra was ostensibly designed to do that – and that ‘clearly it is our right and duty, if we sacrifice so much for the peace of the world, that we should see to it we have compensation, or we may defeat our end’ – which was not how General Maude expressed Britain’s ambitions in his famous proclamation in 1917. Earl Asquith was to write in his memoirs that he and Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary, agreed in 1915 that ‘taking Mesopotamia… means spending millions in irrigation and development…’ Once they were installed in Baghdad, the British decided that Iraq would be governed and reconstructed by a ‘Council’, formed partly of British advisers ‘and partly of representative non-official members from among the inhabitants’. Later, they thought they would like ‘a cabinet half of natives and half of British officials, behind which might be an administrative council, or some advisory body consisting entirely of prominent natives’.

The traveller and scholar Gertrude Bell, who became ‘oriental secretary’ to the British military occupation authority, had no doubts about Iraqi public opinion. ‘The stronger the hold we are able to keep here the better the inhabitants will be pleased… they can’t conceive an independent Arab government. Nor, I confess, can I. There is no one here who could run it.’ Again, this was far from the noble aspirations of Maude’s proclamation 11 months earlier. Nor would the Iraqis have been surprised had they been told – which, of course, they were not – that Maude strongly opposed the very proclamation that appeared over his name and which was in fact written by Sir Mark Sykes, the very same Sykes who had drawn up the secret 1916 agreement with François Georges Picot for French and British control over much of the post-war Middle East.

By September of 1919, even journalists were beginning to grasp that Britain’s plans for Iraq were founded upon illusions. ‘I imagine’, the Times correspondent wrote on 23 September, ‘that the view held by many English people about Mesopotamia is that the local inhabitants will welcome us because we have saved them from the Turks, and that the country only needs developing to repay a large expenditure of English lives and English money. Neither of these ideals will bear much examination… from the political point of view we are asking the Arab to exchange his pride and independence for a little Western civilisation, the profits of which must be largely absorbed by the expenses of the administration.’

Within six months, Britain was fighting a military insurrection in Iraq and David Lloyd George, the prime minister, was facing calls for a military withdrawal. ‘It is not for the benefit of the people of that country that it should be governed so as to enable them to develop this land which has been withered and shrivelled up by oppression. What would happen if we withdrew?’ Lloyd George would not abandon Iraq to ‘anarchy and confusion’. By this stage, British officials in Baghdad were blaming the violence on ‘local political agitation, originated outside Iraq’, suggesting that Syria might be involved. For Syria 1920, read America’s claim that Syria was supporting the insurrection in 2004.

These extracts are printed with the kind permission of Fourth Estate and the Independent.

Robert Fisk will be speaking about his new book at Bookmarks bookshop, central London, on Tuesday 11 October at 1pm. To book tickets phone 0207 637 1848. Advance bookings advised.

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