Sunday, September 23, 2007

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW: ROBERT FISK'S THE GREAT WAR FOR CIVILIZATION

BOOK REVIEW OF ROBERT FISK'S THE GREAT WAR FOR CIVILISATION BY JOHN CHUCKMAN, July 16, 2007


Everyone concerned with contemporary world affairs should read this book. Fisk aims to capture the sweep of events in Western Asia over decades, and he largely succeeds.

It is not a great sweep-of-history book in the sense of Gibbon or Macaulay - Fisk is a journalist, not an historian - although it has great journalistic passages.

Fisk provides an indispensable antidote to much of the propaganda and disingenuousness that plagues mainline media on the subjects of the Middle East and terror, much the way the Internet is plagued with innumerable viruses and Trojan horses.

Robert Fisk is one of the world's great war correspondents, and if you haven't read him at his passionate best, read the sections of this book about the Soviet Union in Afghanistan or the first Gulf War. He has lived in the Middle East for decades, and he has hurled himself into the conflicts there time and again.

To some, particularly defenders of Israel's excesses, Fisk is a controversial figure. But there is relatively little legitimate controversy possible in Fisk's reporting. He writes what he has witnessed, and he has spent many years putting himself at risk to be a witness.

The faults of the book are few.

At over twelve hundred pages, it may prove off-putting for new readers, but if this is a fault from one perspective, it is a strength from another. The book stands as an invaluable, comprehensive reference for events in the Middle East over recent decades. Forgotten a name involved in a famous event or a date? You are almost sure to find it here.

One of Fisk's stylistic manners is to get the name of obscure witnesses, as an individual soldier, or details such as the serial number off the scrap of a shell used in a battle or incursion, verifying where it came from. These are the practices of a seasoned, professional journalist and often provide Fisk with leads to still other stories.

For new readers, it should be emphasized that Fisk generally is a clear writer, so the length of the book should not discourage you.

The other fault is its episodic nature, although again this is a fault only from some perspectives.

The episodic nature undoubtedly derives from Fisk work as a columnist, and I think it likely a good part of the book is taken from re-worked columns or old notebooks. It is important to stress that the book is not a collection of old columns, a common kind of book from so many columnists.

Fisk enjoys reading himself, and the sense of an omnivorous reader of newspapers and history books pervades his work.

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