My Review of The Great War for Civilization by Robert Fisk:
I just finished The Great War for Civilization by author Robert Fisk of the Independent (a British news source). While I don’t agree with all of the conclusions that Fisk draws, it is an excellent book. In it, Fisk covers almost everything that has happened in the Middle East since the 1970s, and in some cases even delves into subjects from much earlier. In fact, the great war for civilization that he’s describing began with the events described in the book 1453, if not earlier.
How does Fisk know so much about the Middle East, Islam, and the War on Terror? Because he was there, reporting on the terrifying events described in The Great War for Civilization as they were happening.
He was on both sides of the border during the Iraq-Iran War and the formative years in those countries, in the streets of Algeria during its quasi civil war between Islamists and the oppressive government, in Palestinian villages and Israeli settlements, in the mountains of Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion and US invasion, and in the Kuwaiti desert during Operation Desert Storm. His experiences were as varied as they were terrifying, and his wealth of knowledge shows through in this excellent book.
The Great War for Civilization, which I will summarize and analyze in this post, should appeal to anyone who is interested in Islam, the Middle East, military history, or current geo-politics. It gives more insight than the memoirs of the failed American generals that gave fought in it, such as McChrystal. I highly recommend you buy a copy of The Great War for Civilization and read it for yourself!
Summary of The Great War for Civilization:
Forever War in Afghanistan:
Fisk pretty much begins and ends the main content of his story in Afghanistan, which makes sense given its central place in many of the Middle East’s problems today. During his time as a journalist, Fisk reported on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its struggle with the Mujaheddin, Osama bin Laden’s retreat there during Taliban control in the 1990s, and then the American invasion after 9/11 attacks.
As reported by Fisk, Afghanistan’s story is one of tragedy, but also resilience and heroism in the face of overwhelming odds and great suffering.
The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan:
Robert Fisk is an Englishman, so it makes sense that he sets the scene in Afghanistan by giving a quick summary of English involvement. He does so mainly by quoting English military sources from the successive attempts of the British Empire to tame Afghanistan, which finally ended when the Empire was able to establish a monarchy. Afghanistan then played a central role in containing the Russian Empire, so it made sense that once the British retreated the Soviets readied themselves to step in. The war of influence never really ended, the names of the nations involved just changed.
In 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan under the guise of supporting the Soviet-friendly regime in Kabul, which had overthrown the British-established monarchy. Fisk was there to report on it all, and the stories he tells are chilling.
As described in The Great War for Civilization, Fisk rode with a Soviet convoy as it fought its way through the mountains and he saw the brutality of both Soviet soldiers and Mujaheddin fighters first hand. The Soviet massacred entire villages, bombed refugees, and scattered mines across the landscape to kill fighters, civilians, and livestock. Their reign of terror lasted until 1989.
Similarly, the mujaheddin fighters skinned Soviets alive, took no prisoners, enforced Islamic law, and destroyed the education system in Afghanistan. CIA supplied Stinger missiles, the best of American anti-air military technology, plucked hundreds of Soviet helicopters and planes out of the sky.
Civilians suffered in silence until they snapped and attacked any Westerner in sight. The Mujaheddin fighters are still present today and fight for either the Taliban or Northern Alliance. And Afghanistan’s civilians continued to suffer and flee, as Fisk reports in The Great War for Civilization while describing the Afghan Civil War.
Afghanistan became the USSR’s Vietnam. It lost tens of thousands of soldiers killed and wounded in Afghanistan’s harsh mountains and chaotic cities but couldn’t implement the same effective processes to hunt down enemy militants as the US eventually learned to do, which you can read about in Stalking the Vietcong. In the process, it killed at least a million Afghans and caused millions more to flee. And Fisk was there to see the terror firsthand.
The Afghan Civil War:
After the 1989 Soviet retreat from Afghanistan, Fisk returned to interview Osama bin Laden, the famous mujaheddin fighter turned terrorist. Fisk interviewed him before the 9/11 attacks, however. While in Afghanistan for that interview, Fisk saw the misery of Afghanistan’s civil war first hand. Warlord fighting warlord, militant group fighting militant group, for control of worthless territory. Fighting was all they had left, much like Libya today.
All of that misery is described in The Great War for Civilization. Militias battled in the countryside and rained rockets down on cities held by the other side. Afghan warlords grew and smuggled opium to finance their private armies. Misery ruled the land more than any group, especially as the few just Mujaheddin commanders were killed off and replaced by barbaric warlords or Taliban fundamentalists.
Fisk doesn’t describe Afghanistan’s civil war in depth because he was only there for a few days. But what he does describe is terrifying. Militias and private armies setting up checkpoints. Angry refugees and complete destruction of cities. Anti-Soviet fighters turning into drug smugglers and warlords. No wonder the Taliban and al-Qaeda were able to thrive and grow in such a frightful environment.
The US Invasion of Afghanistan:
Fisk begins to wrap up The Great War for Civilization by describing the post-9/11 US invasion of Afghanistan. After the horrible events of that day, which he describes in-depth based on his experiences (he was actually flying at that time), Fisk relates what happened in Afghanistan. US bombs and cruise missiles rained down on Taliban strongholds, killing Taliban fighters and civilians.
CIA contractors and agents, not there since the Soviet invasion, worked with Special Forces troops to support the Northern Alliance and guide American pilots. The Taliban was utterly crushed in the days after 9/11, and al-Qaeda leadership was decimated.
But then America made the mistake of staying. We got bogged down in a civil war (the Afghan Civil War had never ended) and supported the Northern Alliance. It was a group of thugs little better than the Taliban according to Fisk. It produced opium, smuggled drugs, and massacred civilians.
But, it also helped us overthrow the Taliban so we turned a blind eye. So in Afghanistan, Fisk says we made two classic Western mistakes, which he describes in The Great War for Civilization: we intervened in an interminable civil war and supported a faction that many saw as the bad guys. And the war is still going on today. We couldn’t get out.
Iraq and Iran:
A major portion of The Great War for Civilization covers the constant violence and trouble in Iraq and Iran. Like with his sections about Afghanistan and its wars, Fisk begins his discussion of the instability in Iraq and theocracy in Iran by describing Western interference in the two nations after World War 1 and 2.
Iraq, like the other Gulf States, was created by the arbitrary and hated Sykes-Picot Agreements. It was ruled by the British, and like Saddam after them, they ruled with an iron fist and enforced their rule with mustard gas. Similarly, the Shah of Iran was put in place by the US and England during the early Cold War with a CIA coup. However, Iran has a much longer history as a state than Iraq. Iraq’s borders are completely artificial, as was its government. In the case of Iran, only its government was artificial.
Because the stories of Iraq and Iran are so intertwined, Fisk often alternates between them. Although each chapter is kept separate, the stories are very related. Their stories are especially intertwined because of the Iraq-Iran war.
The Iraq-Iran War:
Before diving into Fisk’s accounts of his experiences in Iraq and Iran individually, I think it would be a good idea to discuss his experiences in the Iraq-Iran War. That war was, as reported by him and others, horrendous. Iraqi missiles rained down on Iranian cities and Iraqi gas poisoned Iranian troops and Iraqi dissenters alike. Iranian “Basij” militia forces and IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps) troops launched human wave attacks on Iraqi trenches.
The Iraq-Iran war was an orgy of slaughter and stagnation reminiscent of World War I. Trench warfare, human wave assaults, and poison gas were all common. Fisk was able to see and report on the warfare as it happened; he traveled to both Iraqi and Iranian forward positions, stood in trenches and cities as they were assaulted, and visited the hospitals and POW camps to hear stories from the front lines. He was there to witness it all and describes the horrors of the war as he saw them.
So what started the Iraq-Iran War? Saddam Hussein’s greed and territorial ambition. Hussein wanted Iranian oil and control of both sides of a river, so he invaded and hundreds of thousands of people died. But, as Fisk repeatedly states, the West turned a blind eye to Saddam’s guilt and propped up his regime. The US and its allies in Europe and the Gulf States sent Iraq tanks, missiles, helicopters, jets, money, and the chemicals needed to make poison gas.
Because of our anger towards the Iranians, we supported an evil regime in Iraq as long as it served our interests. Fisk won’t let you forget that. To understand the war, it is important to understand the nature of the two regimes that fought in it; the Baathist Iraqi regime and the theocratic Iranian regime. We should have just stayed uninvolved and let them fight it out on their own, as I discussed in my post on democracy in the Middle East.
The Iraqi Regime:
Fisk’s story of Iraq in The Great War for Civilization begins with Lawrence of Arabia and the British Mandate in Iraq. After World War I, Britain and France reneged on their promises to their Arab allies and split up the Middle East into “mandates.” Iraq was a British mandate, and the British enforced their rule mercilessly. Then, things changed. The British Empire retracted and disappeared and a new Iraqi state formed. Eventually, Saddam Hussein rose to power and solidified his rule mercilessly.
Like other tyrants, Saddam was fond of torture. His prisons rivaled the Shah’s in barbarity. Fisk was able to see some of the torture chambers, and their results, firsthand. In The Great War for Civilization, he describes the horrendous torture apparatuses and their effects on people. And he says that Western states had knowledge of them.
But, because Saddam was fighting the Iranians, building up living conditions in Iraq, and keeping Iraq stable, we supported him and his atrocities. Like the British before him, he used mustard gas and executions to cement his rule. And the world turned a blind eye, letting him massacre his people. However, that led to him growing too cocky and eventually invading Kuwait, leading to the First Gulf War. With that, the great war for civilization marched onward.
The First Gulf War:
Until Saddam invaded Kuwait, the US and the Gulf States had been allied to Saddam Hussein. They supplied and funded his military and turned a blind eye to his atrocities. But, as with Iran, he grew greedy. As Kuwait boosted its oil production, Iraq grew greedy for Kuwaiti oil and invaded.
The US, at the behest of Saudi Arabia, intervened. Saudi troops were no match for Iraqi forces and quickly retreated, despite their better equipment. US troops were needed to defend the Gulf, but their presence on Saudi soil has caused generations of problems because of Islamic reluctance to have “infidels” on the holy soil of Saudi Arabia. Even if those “infidels” are protecting them from other Islamic armies.
Fisk takes a negative view of the Gulf War in The Great War for Civilization. While he strongly condemns Iraq and its atrocities in Kuwait, he also points out the US bombing of civilian infrastructure in Iraq, post-war Kuwaiti ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, and the slaughter of thousands of retreating Iraqi troops.
Because he avoided becoming an “embedded” journalist, Fisk was able to report on lesser-known events and battles without having military censorship of his writing while there or his writing in The Great War for Civilization. Much of what he says he saw, especially of US bombing, goes against general beliefs about the war. While I have different opinions than him of it, I think he is telling the truth and his opinions of it are definitely worth hearing.
As we all know and Fisk describes in The Great War for Civilization, the US quickly won the war and forced Iraq out of Kuwait. But, the fight against Iraq wasn’t over because now we weren’t turning a blind eye to Saddam. The results of the end of the First Gulf War led to the end of Iraq.
The End of Iraq:
In truth, The Great War for Civilization, doesn’t really end with Afghanistan. It ends with the sanctions regime placed on Iraq until the 2003 invasion and then the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. But, I count the real end of the book as his discussion of the war in Afghanistan. The ending sections on the sanctions on Iraq and 2003 invasion are almost all clouded by his hatred of George W. Bush’s administration and continued US military involvement in the region.
While most of The Great War for Civilization is excellent reporting that is factual and relatively unbiased, the last few chapters on Iraq are so tinted by his view of the war that they feel out of place. In my opinion, they should be in a separate book because they don’t match the tone or substance of the other chapters in The Great War for Civilization.
Fisk was in Baghdad as it fell and reports on the immense suffering and “shock and awe” bombing that was carried out by the US and British. He tells some interesting and terrifying stories, as he does throughout The Great War for Civilization. But, they are so dripping with contempt for the US that they aren’t as thought-provoking. They’re good stories, but not up to the rest of the standard set in the book. As such, much less information can be gleaned about the end of Iraq than I would have liked. Much more is found in books like Extreme Ownership.
The Iranian Regime:
The other belligerent in the Iraq-Iran War was the theocratic Iranian regime. A regime that still hangs dissenters, drug addicts, and other political enemies. A regime that if not as outwardly barbarous as Saddam’s Iraq, is just as bloodthirsty and, even if there are limits on its power and influence, remains a serious threat to peace in the Middle East and will likely be the next piece of the puzzle in the great war for civilization. Especially if it continues to attack Americans.
But, that theocratic regime was not always in place. In the 1950’s, the height of the Cold War, the US and Britain installed the Shah to protect oil interests and make sure Iran didn’t become a communist nation. Thus began the Pahlavi dynasty.
Its agents tortured and murdered political dissidents in much the same way that Iraq’s agents did, and like with Saddam’s Iraq, the US turned a blind eye to atrocities. Fisk makes sure to describe that in The Great War for Civilization. But the Iranian people didn’t turn a blind eye to those atrocities. They launched the Iranian Revolution and overthrew the Shah, and Fisk was there in the early days to see and report on it in The Great War for Civilization.
Eventually, the revolution turned bloodthirsty. Thousands were executed by sham revolutionary courts like in the French Revolution, and Fisk was there to see those unfair courts in action. Additionally, he saw the revolution transform into a religious movement that turned Iran into the hated theocratic state it is today. A remnant of the middle ages. So, when we ask “What does Iran want?”, as I did in a previous post, its history must be remembered. Reading Fisk’s reports on it in The Great War for Civilization is a great way to do so.
Unlike with Iraq, Fisk doesn’t spend much time on Iran’s later days or what it wants now. After the Iraq-Iran War, it is mostly out of the picture, other than when he says the US and allies have used it as a boogeyman to support their continued military sales to Israel and Gulf States.
However, while describing other states, such as Syria and Lebanon, he does a great job of showing both the extent and limits of Iran’s influence in the region. His descriptions of its reach, activities, and influence will leave you much better informed about the limits of Iran’s influence (which I also discuss here: The Limits of Iran’s Influence).
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict:
A major portion of The Great War for Civilization centers on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Fisk traveled throughout Israel, Palestine, and grey area regions like Israeli settlements in Jerusalem, and because of that, he is well-equipped to discuss the problems faced by both entities, just like the authors of The Israel Lobby.
Unlike with Iraq and Iran, Fisk doesn’t spend much time discussing the formation of Israel. Instead, he mainly focuses on the aftermath of its wars with the surrounding Arab states and how the land seized during those wars has led to continued conflicts with the Palestinians.
Through writing about his personal experiences while traveling throughout Israel and Palestine, Fisk is able to capture both the facts and emotions surrounding the Oslo Peace Process and its failure, the intifadas, their causes, their results, and continued violence between Israeli troops and Palestinian protesters.
One of the more interesting issues Fisk dissects is Palestinian political representation. His views and reporting on that mainly stem from his interactions with Yasser Arafat and his view that Arafat was unable to seal any sort of useful deal for Palestine and gather the political backing to force Israel to stick to a deal.
Instead, like the pacts with the Indians discussed in the best book about the Gilded Age, The Republic for Which it Stands, Israel signed treaties and then discarded them. Because of that, Palestine lost more and more land to Israeli settlements and more and more lives to Israeli bullets and rockets.
Fisk is definitely on the side of Palestine. However, he also points out Palestinian atrocities. For example, while discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he writes about both the horror of Israeli tanks and helicopters killing civilians, and the horror of Palestinian suicide bombers blowing up Israeli women and children. Through doing so, he makes his account of the conflict much more factual, believable, and even handed than his account of the end of Iraq.
The Rest of The Great War for Civilization:
Fisk relates many more of his experiences across the greater Middle East in The Great War for Civilization. Because of the depth and length of the book, there are too many interesting stories and small pieces of history to describe here.
He describes the Algerian counter insurgency in great detail. While in Algeria, he interviewed both government troops and leaders and Islamist insurgents. He witness insurgent atrocities and government troops “disappearing” political enemies.
Although he makes the regime sound slightly less than Saddam’s regime, he still makes it clear that many war crimes were committed. The Algerian war in the late 20th Century was an area of military history that I hadn’t heard about before. It was very interesting to learn about everything that happened.
Also, Fisk writes about the Armenian genocide in The Great War for Civilization, which was a horrific act that Turkey still denies vehemently. In painful, emotional interviews he recounts the stories of the Armenians persecuted by Turkey. He also describes the Turkish and Iraqi persecution of the Kurds (who had participated in massacring the Armenians). Every story is full of tragedy, but also resilience. In that respect, their story is very similar to that of Afghanistan.
Furthermore, they show how every group and country is connected within a web of past wrongs. Each group attacked or was attacked by another, creating a dense web of sectarian hatred and violence. It makes the problems posed much more difficult to find a solution to.
Finally, an overarching story in The Great War for Civilization is the involvement of the US arms industry. Our military technology is advanced and desired by everyone, and we have been willing to sell it to tyrants and democracies alike.
Algerian troops killed civilians and terrorists with US bullets and grenades. Israeli pilots used American helicopters and jets to shoot American missiles at Palestinian targets. Iraqi and Iranian pilots strafed each other with American fighter jets.
The US arms industry is hugely innovative and our weapons have been supplied across the region. Fisk recounts stories of those weapons being used and how their use against civilians has engendered hatred against the US. American weapons are viewed as American support, so many of the civilians attacked by them hate us.
The truth about the F-35 is that it’s a great plane, but the use of it against civilians will breed anger against America. Fisk does an excellent job of presenting the argument that US weapons should not be sold to countries that will use them in ways that hurt US national security. Unfortunately, it might be too late. Palestine, Yemen, and many other areas are being pummeled by US bombs dropped from US planes, as Fisk describes in The Great War for Civilization.
My Analysis of The Great War for Civilization:
What I liked:
I really enjoyed reading The Great War for Civilization for most of the book. The sections on the Iraq-Iran War and Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan was particularly interesting. In fact, those sections could have been stand-alone books and they still would have been excellent books about those two wars.
Additionally, I thought Fisk’s analysis of the Israel-Palestinian conflict in The Great War for Civilization was mostly even-handed in the same way that The Israel Lobby is. Even if he is obviously in support of Palestine rather than Israel, he still does a great job of explaining the problems with the situation. His passion for the subject and knowledge of it from working as a reporter for decades shines through.
Fisk’s knowledge of the subject matter, ability to relate it to past events and give historical context, and personal bravery in visiting the front lines to discover the truth about a war or battle makes The Great War for Civilization an excellent military history book and one that I would highly recommend reading.
My Problems with Fisk’s Reporting:
While Fisk’s passion and knowledge are obvious in his work, his ability to reign in his own biases is not. I liked his work, The Great War for Civilization, is an excellent book, but my liking is was despite his obvious liberal biases.
He continually rants against Israel, American arms manufacturers, and US involvement in the region. He is quick to point out steps towards peace that his favored political entities make, but not so quick to point out steps in the right direction made by Israel or other nations.
Similarly, he decries America standing by and allowing the Saddam regime to massacre its civilians (which is probably a fair criticism), but he also attacks America for later intervening as part of the war in the shadows against jihadis.
That damned if you do, damned if you don’t attitude towards the West makes his criticisms of certain policies in The Great War for Civilization less impactful. They simply seem like rants against Britain and America rather than accurate criticisms of complex topics that take all the hatred and intricacies of Middle-Eastern politics into consideration. Robert Gates’s book, Exercise of Power, does a much better job of accurately describing America’s actions in the region.
Another problem I had with Fisk’s commentary of events and criticisms of those events was that he seemed to have little comprehension of the chaos and fog of war. Yes, he was there on the ground, as he repeatedly reminds the reader in The Great War for Civilization.
He has seen battles and should understand that they are chaotic. Yet he criticizes every stray bomb or misidentified target. It is as if he expects perfection from the American Air Force, which is obviously unrealistic and an unfair standard. While he attacks America for sending precision weapons to Israel and Saudi Arabia, he doesn’t even mention the damage that would happen without those high-tech weapons.
Yes, there are still civilian casualties. But, advances in modern military technology mean that those casualties are far fewer than they would be otherwise. I think that needs to be taken into account when looking at civilian casualties during wartime and Fisk should have mentioned it in The Great War for Civilization.
Finally, Fisk’s reporting on Iraq from the Gulf War to the 2003 invasion is so obviously biased that it almost detracts from the rest of the book. His obvious anger against America and the West makes his critiques less pointed.
He mentions Saddam Hussein’s atrocities but doesn’t seem to understand the strategy of weakening the regime through sanctions before overthrowing it. The human aspect of war is obviously something Fisk understands. But the geopolitical and grand strategy aspects of it aren’t- I don’t think he would have predicted that Trump would end the interventionist era, for example. So, I think The Great War for Civilization would have been immensely better had he been able to reconcile all of those aspects.
Conclusion: Should You Read The Great War for Civilization?
You should buy and read The Great War for Civilization. Although very biased at times, it is still a great way to gain a better understanding of the past few decades of war in the Middle East and to see if America is really fighting for freedom. Fisk’s passion for the subject, excellent writing style, and his ability to use firsthand experiences to tell an overarching story make it a great book. The bias is a problem and detracts from the book somewhat, but it is still a book that you should definitely read if you want to learn more about the modern wars in the Middle East.
By: Gen Z Conservative
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