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Robert Fisk , 'The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East'

Fourth Estate, 2005; ISBN 1 8411 5007 X; £25

“Peggy [his mother] became a flame of optimism in my young life [during WW2]. And when I once asked what was the point of struggling with my homework when we were all going to die, she replied: “By the time you grow up, they may have found a cure for that ...” “She asked me repeatedly [during the Israeli siege of Lebanon in 1982] why governments spend so much money on guns.” (p793.)

For nearly thirty years, Fisk has been a journalist in the Middle East - through peace, war and politics - observing and writing for the British press. But this 1000+ page work is more than a chronological ordering of his detailed and personal reporting. Fisk combines his journalism of immediacy with a deeper sense of history and context and it is that knowledgeable combination of readable reporting with solid historic research that makes this a valuable resource for those of us concerned with today's events in the Middle East. His longer view of human events - that is so lacking in current political discourse - also makes this book particularly useful.

His father may have imparted a sense of history in his son, but it was his mother who asked the questions that Fisk is still seeking to answer. His father fought in the First World War and on one of his war medals is a portrayal of winged victory; the other side of it is engraved: “The Great War for Civilization”. Wars are still being fought for someone's version of civilization, and Fisk says he thinks of that when he interviews everyone - from bin Laden to shopkeepers and mothers in bombed-out homes in Iraq.

In this book I found many answers to the why and the how of our constant wars to help one or another empire to dominate - and the responses of those who defy domination with their own vision of civilisation. We need to continue to study history, ask the right questions and find the cure for war that Fisk's mother envisioned.

His closing words are both poignant and instructive:

“I think in the end we have to accept that our tragedy lies always in our past, that we have to live with our ancestors' folly and suffer for it, just as they, in their turn, suffered, and as we, through our vanity and arrogance, ensure the pain and suffering of our own children. How to correct history, that's the thing...”