Monday, July 13, 2009

The Case for Uncivilisation

Every so often, I do the odd blog spot about a book I have read – mainly about a non fiction work that describes some aspect of the social, economic or political world in which we live. This is going to be another one of those times. And this time, the book is The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East by Robert Fisk.

Much like the book Mao by Jung Chang, this is a huge tome that can at times be a very hard slog to get through, though it is definitely a very enlightening and rewarding adventure in the process. It weighs in at 1283 pages, excluding bibliography and notes, and recounts the various conflicts in the Middle East throughout the 20th Century, ending with the Second Gulf War, and relating how lessons learned from the past have been studiously ignored by those in the present, probably deliberately.

It is a deeply disturbing book, unsettling in that it shows humanity – in the brutality of the extremists, the ignorance of colonial powers, the laxity of the media, or the wilful hypocrisy and manipulation of so-called open and democratic governments – as a species of deception, deceit, outright lies, self interest and slaughter.

The historical context for conflicts in the Middle East is told in a very compelling, informative and occasionally episodic (betraying the newspaper column origins, perhaps) way. The French, British and local regimes and those who have struggled against them all are portrayed in both positive and negative lights, though always related back to the human context in which they occur and the people who are directly impacted by what went on. Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Afghanistan all are treated to at least a (relatively) brief synopsis of what has happened, is happening and, most importantly, Fisk tries to relate, to the best of his ability and knowledge, the why. The “why” is, of course, the bit most Western – and Middle East – politicians try to forget, or else just ignore.

Other targets are given less cover by historical precedent and injustice: The arms dealers and weapons manufacturers come under intensive fire near the end of the book, highlighting the way they have (for the most part) cloaked themselves in the blanket of “weapons that protect” when, of course, weapons only protect by killing (or threatening to kill) someone else, no matter how many times they may claim to be “anti tank” only. While the vehicles themselves are claimed “safe”, the weapons they project are accurate, devastating, but not necessarily described as “deadly”. And of course, they should only be used by responsible adults, who only intend to attack military equipment. Of course, Fisk brings to these harbingers proof that the latter is not always the case.

The book covers a huge amount of ground, and I found it unbelievably educational, so I was surprised when the last Gulf conflict, the Bush/Blair Offensive, dubiously linking Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden and thus the 9-11 attacks on US soil, and then shifting to the supposed (and now proved untrue) threat of Saddam and his Weapons of Mass Destruction, was covered fairly lightly. Perhaps this is because it is still ongoing history in the making, and the proximity of the book’s release to the actual events described, but does feel a bit underdone. However, considering everything else that has come before, the reader can kind of come to their own conclusions about the motivations of the aggressors, the role of the mainstream media and the impact on the lives of ordinary Iraqis of all of these events.

In the end, I did get the impression Fisk blamed the situation in Israel/Palestine and the Israeli government for far more than could actually be proved, though there can be little doubt that Israelis have not profited from their very unique relationship with the Western powers. It is perhaps easy to be hard on Israeli ambitions: listening to a report from the Middle East recently, I did note how the UN-mandated Palestinian territories under Israeli control were referred to as “disputed” rather than “occupied”, a small slight of tongue the significance of which I would not have picked up previously. Considering the Christian West’s past treatment of Jews, this “blind eye” can be perhaps understood as an appeasement of guilt (or, in the case of Christian Fundamentalists, to increase the speed of the Armageddon’s arrival), but the impact this has on the people it most affects does not really seem to enter into the equation - not very Christian at all.

What is condemned more in its deeds, if perhaps not quite so obviously by Fisk’s words, is the complete failure of the United Nations to act as an independent and impartial arbiter between nations. Once, I was a huge fan of the UN concept, but the reality of its “rubber stamping” of a Western agenda fraught with its inconsistencies and blatant hypocrisy has left me somewhat disillusioned. And the recent appointment of Tony Blair as Middle East Peace Envoy is, I suppose, going to cause an updating to the old saying that “Only Nixon could go to China”

Whatever, the end result is that the book left me with an extremely pessimistic view for the outlook for that Middle East region. Too much history, too much blood, too much religion, too many cooks and, of course, too much oil mean that I ended up feeling that there is no way that the Middle East problems can ever really be solved when there is so much self interest and self deception that gets in the way.

Verdict: As massive a tome it is, the book really only just begins to describe the complexities and realities of the situation in the Middle East, and the interests of the Western powers in the same region. It is an incredible introduction, especially for one such as myself not versed in the history of that region, though obviously told with a less FOX News and more Al Jazeera perspective on events, so perhaps not for those more conservatively inclined. 1000 out of 1283.

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