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January 11-17, 2006

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Book Box


The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East
Despite the onslaught of suicide bombings and IEDs, we continue to get emails titled "More Good News From Iraq." Veteran war correspondent Robert Fisk, who worked for The Times of London before moving to the Independent, offers a 1,000-pages-plus counterpoint to such mindless wishful thinking in The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, a sprawling summing up of his 30 years of front-line journalism. From Algeria and Lebanon to Kuwait and Aghanistan, Fisk has witnessed the brutality of war—both Westerners vs. Arabs, and Arabs vs. Arabs. At times, when describing the wholesale descent into madness that was the Iraq/Iran war, for instance, Fisk sounds a note of universal outrage at the capacity of humans to inflict misery on each other in the name of ideology—as the Kurds were gassed by Saddam, so they in turn committed massacres of their own. In a Michael Moore-like sequence, he discovers a piece of an Israeili-fired missile that destroyed a Lebanese ambulance and tracks it back all the way to the American munitions makes and grills them on how they soothe their consciences at night. At other times, especially when he is excoriating Bush, Blair and Sharon in repetitive, overcooked rhetoric, Fisk can come off sounding self-righteous. In a sense, the book represents a reporter's revenge on all the editors and home-office drudges who cut or censored his copy over the years. Fisk, however, would have been well-served by a tough editor—The Great War for Civilisation suffers from numbingly graphic accounts of atrocities and a leapfrogging narrative. Fisk does illuminate some major events not well covered in the mainstream media—especially the quashing, with bloodletting to spare on both sides, of the Islamists who won a democratic election in Algeria in the early 1990s. He can, unfortunately, also be self-absorbed—on the day of the World Trade Center attacks, his first instinct is to fret that one of his articles will be bumped from the front page. Most interestingly, Fisk uses the story of his father, a World War I British solider, as a framing device to discuss a century's worth of disastrous meddling in the Middle East by Europe and the United States. In one chilling passage, he digs up a quote from the past about the British attempts to control Iraq after the Great War that is chillingly apt today: "'How much longer,' The Times asked on 7 August 1920, 'are valuable lives to be sacrificed in the vain endeavor to impose upon the Arab population an elaborate and expensive administration which they never asked for and do not want?'" (By Robert Fisk; Knopf; 1,107 pages; $40 cloth)
—Michael S. Gant


Desert Queen
Some of the historical blunders alluded to by Robert Fisk in The Great War for Civilisation can be savored in detail in Janet Wallach's biography of the remarkable English traveler, writer and government adviser Gertrude Bell (1868-1926). The precocious daughter of an industrial magnate, she was the first woman to receive a First in Modern History at Oxford. Bell discovered her true calling in Mesopotamia, where she explored ancient ruins and dined in the tents of nomad chieftains. She eventually parlayed her contacts into a job with British Intelligence. After the disastrous Sykes-Picot agreement of 1917 that betrayed the Arab allies and gave Syria to the French, Bell championed the Saudi prince Faisal as the king of the new Iraq—with lots of oversight from London. Wallach is a partisan observer, always taking her subject's side, although, reading between the lines, it's clear that Bell could be a royal pain. The parts devoted to Bell's purported romantic angst (she never married but carried on passionate although unconsummated relationships with several men) read like passages from a bodice-ripper ("And then, like a starving waif suddenly handed a box of chocolates, she turned from despair to joy. Dick was coming back from Ethiopia") and do an injustice to an influential figure who had as much to do, for good and evil, with the formation of the modern Middle East as Lawrence of Arabia. (By Janet Wallach; Anchor Books; 424 pages; $15.95 paper)
—Michael S. Gant


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