Interview: The Imperial Blowback

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Robert Fisk explains to Simon Assaf why there can be no peace in the Middle East until Britain and the US get out.

You are currently writing a book - what is it about?

It's called The Great War of Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East. It studies the way in which history traps us, and how we are never free to make decisions because we are always caught by history.

It is partly about my father who was a soldier in the First World War. He was much older than my mother and died in 1992, aged 93. At the age of 19 he was in the third battle of the Somme. In a period of 18 months following the First World War the victors drew the borders of Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia and most of the Middle East. I've spent my entire professional career watching the people inside those borders burn - these are the areas that I have been in.

So the book is a reflection on what I have seen in the Middle East over the last 30 years: how we made the borders, how we created the countries, and what we have made of it since, and how we go there with our aircraft and our armies and our tanks and our infantry and 'save' them from themselves and their leaders. We always turn up with all this firepower saying we're there for their good. I've got on my wall beside me a proclamation issued by General Sir Stanley Maude in Baghdad in 1917 in which he said, 'We come here not as conquerors but as liberators to free you from generations of tyranny.' This is an address to the Iraqi people - vaguely familiar.

The book is about the way we allow history to govern our lives, and of course it includes my own first person accounts of the invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war, the First Gulf War and the Second Gulf War, Algeria, and Osama Bin Laden. I look at it all in the light of history and the fascination history has for the people of the Middle East, including Bin Laden who constantly refers to it.

The other theme is 'challenging authority'. My father was a right wing man, very conservative; he believed in law and order, in bringing back hanging. Yet in the First World War he broke the rules twice. The first time he took a camera to the trenches against all the orders and rules. So I now have a unique set of photographs of life in the First World War, pictures of my father in his uniform in Arras and so on.

And the second thing he did was at the end of the First World War. He was ordered to command a firing squad set up to execute an Australian soldier for the killing of a British policeman in Paris. My father refused. He argued it was wrong to kill soldiers. The man was executed anyway. But it is also the story of my father's refusal to do that, how he refused to obey authority.

His punishment was to go around digging up bodies in no man's land and burying them in the big British military cemeteries. He was a second lieutenant in the King's Liverpool Regiment, which was based in Cheshire. I got the British government to release the papers of the man who was executed. He was a soldier of my father's age who had served in Gallipoli, fighting the Ottoman Empire. He had been invalided by the Australian army then rejoined the British army - his fatal mistake. Just after the end of the war he went to Paris, got drunk and shot a British policeman.

I've actually found that the hotel where he was staying in Paris is still a hotel. I've actually slept in his bedroom for a night, and found the exact staircase where he murdered the British military policeman. I did get the execution papers, where he states, 'I'm 20 years of age, I joined the Australian army in 1916 when I was 16 years of age... I had no intention whatever of committing the offence for which I am now before the court. I ask the court to take into consideration my youth and to give me a chance of leading an upright and straightforward life in the future.' His sentence was carried out by a firing squad at 04:14 hours on 27 May at Le Havre in northern France.

So the book is about challenging authorities and challenging governments. It follows the ideas of Amira Hass, a really fine Israeli reporter on the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. She described to me her definition of journalism as monitoring the centres of power. This is a great definition, which I use now as my own.

So the book is also about journalism. It's about the weakness of correspondents who won't tell the truth about the Middle East. It's about the wars that I witnessed. It's about the story of my father. It is a kind of biographical book but it's very much about the Middle East - it has, for example, an account of when I witnessed the Iranian Revolution and its aftermath. So it is about the last 30 years and I suppose by the time you get to 2001 and 11 September, when I was in a plane crossing the Atlantic, you'll probably have some idea of why there are 19 Arabs who flew their planes into the World Trade Centre.

You've just returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. What are your impressions of what is happening there?

I haven't been in Iraq for a couple of months now. It's a hell disaster, it's a war built on lies, it's a war which the British and US governments still lie about. There are no weapons of mass destruction; Saddam Hussein was never involved in 11 September 2001. It puts the US military into the biggest trap you could find in the Middle East. Of all places they decide to turn Iraq into a democracy. And now the destruction of Fallujah is the final proof of the folly of ever going there. There won't be any elections in January or February or any other months in the near future. It's impossible - the country is in the hands of the insurgents. Yet still Tony Blair tries to spin this as a great success.

What is your view on the insurgency itself? Do you see in it die-hard Islamists, Ba'athists or is there something more going on there?

Nationalists are Iraqis: they involve both Sunni and Shia. When you meet people who you know are involved in the insurgency they are from different backgrounds. Some of them were senior army officers in the Iraqi army in Saddam's time. This doesn't mean they were Ba'athists - it means they were soldiers. Some of them, clearly, are ex-Ba'athists because effectively when Paul Bremer took over the job of US pro-consul in Iraq he decided that all Ba'athists will be out of work. Big mistake. Many people joined the Ba'ath party to earn a living, not to support Saddam Hussein. You've got to realise that during the last years of UN sanctions a lot of Iraqis became very religious, particularly the Sunni community. When Saddam decided to build the 'mother of all mosques' [the big new mosque that was going to be constructed in Baghdad], and when he added 'God is great' to the national flag, he didn't do it to give himself Islamic credentials - he did it to try to reflect what was clearly a growing mood of Islamic interest inside Iraq itself.

So do you see Iraq very much like what happened in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s?

I don't think these parallels carry very well between countries. The problem for the US in Iraq is that if there are fair elections the Shia will win and Iraq will become a Shia republic - that's why they postponed the elections originally when they could have happened. Now they are desperate about having elections. The problem is you can't pass one cause to another. The Palestinian intifada, particularly the second one, is very much indebted to Hezbollah's rising against the Israelis in the south of Lebanon. But you can't pass on the tactics without a new cause: the Palestinian cause is not the same as Hezbollah's.

In the same way, if the suicide bombing tactics of the Palestinians have been passed on to the Iraqis the cause in Iraq was accepted because it is anti-occupation; it is nationalist. Iraq is a very patriarchal, nationalist, proud society and the people don't want to be ruled by foreigners. And to turn around and say they are all led by Zarqawi or Al Qaida, or 'die-hards', or 'blow-hards' or whatever bullshit they put out, is a deliberate attempt to obscure the fact that this is a major nationalist insurrection which has caught fire and is now unstoppable.

You can go on destroying Fallujah and destroy Mosul, destroy Samara and then Baquba and then Ramadi, but they've talked about 'liberating' Iraq two, three or four times. As for the actual resistance, although it is not fully coordinated, it is becoming united and it is very efficient. I was discussing this with Newsweek correspondent Tony Clifton. He and I covered the Iran-Iraq war together - which lasted for eight years and killed a million and a half people on both sides. His view, which I very much endorse, is that the Iraqi army learnt how to fight against overwhelming odds - the Iranians outnumbered the Iraqis by eight to one and of course the Iraqis used poison gas courtesy of the US and British governments. But the Iraqi soldiers fought with immense courage against these overwhelming odds even though they were fighting for a horrible dictator.

But although they could fight and wanted to, they didn't have their own initiative - they couldn't because the hand of Saddam was there; you couldn't do anything without permission from the 'boss'. Suddenly now these sergeants, corporals and captains, 20 years on, can fight without having their initiative curbed. I think the US and British governments' encouragement of the Iraqis to fight Iranians has become a blowback. We are now finding all those men who spent eight years in the mud and filth of the trenches of the Iran-Iraq war. We helped to breed a generation of fighters - these are the people fighting the 'coalition' armies. All this talk of Zarqawi, foreign fighters and Islamicists is irrelevant. The US and British armies are now fighting the young men of the Iran-Iraq war who have been propelled into this war by our governments, and this is our retribution.

Going back to your book. You talk about monitoring the centres of power - do you feel that the journalists have failed with what's going on in Iraq?

Not all of them. I can think of people like Martin Woollacott, David Hirst, and John Pilger. Seymour Hersh in particular produces some brilliant work. They challenge the centres of power. But most journalists, unfortunately, don't seem to do that. And you only have to watch the bland, incomprehensible, safe, uncontroversial, hedged with clich├ęs reports on the BBC or CNN to understand that. If you watch the average CNN programme they won't talk about the 'occupied territories', they talk about 'disputed territories'; settlements are called neighbourhoods. They change the semantics to such a degree. You see why they do it: if you call it 'occupied land' you can understand why someone would fight for it. But a 'disputed land' is something that you can resolve before a law court, and any violence used is obviously mindless and therefore people using violence are 'mindless terrorists'. So by changing the adjective from 'occupied' to 'disputed', which journalists largely go along with, they have taken away from the Palestinians their humanity and turned them from a group of people fighting occupation to a group of people who are generically violent and don't know how to settle problems peacefully.

Do you feel you are entering a big debate with your book?

I don't know at the moment. Once you start writing a book and you're a few chapters in it takes on a life of its own. My previous book, Pity the Nation, was the story of the Lebanon war and came to 700 pages. This is the story of our cruelty and the cruelty to us in the Middle East, which is on a massive scale. I suppose I'm learning from the book as I go along. I learn about why things happened which I was present at and I reported about at the time. But you have a daily deadline and you work hard all day and you sleep all night and you don't put them together. And suddenly when you are actually sitting with piles of documents around you, it makes much more sense; you realise that something that happened in July meant that something would happen in November.

I have a French researcher going through my archives; I've kept every notebook for 30 years. She has to deal with 338,000 documents and files, and I'm using much of them. I work 18 hours a day and sometimes when I'm going to bed I feel quite depressed. I do find when I go back over my manuscript, that I've really spent 30 years of my life recording suffering on a pretty unimaginable scale: torture, death of young people, violent deaths. I'm amazed I've found so many different ways of describing it. There is a wearying, depressing element to it. Sometimes I go for a long walk just to clear my head of it. But it's only when you put it in book form that you realise how much of your life you've spent actually witnessing terrible things, which no one should need to witness.

How much has your experience covering the Lebanese civil war shaped your views about the Middle East?

Lebanon taught me to stay alive. When I was badly beaten in December 2001 on the Afghan border, at one point I was giving up. There were so many young men holding stones, bashing them into my face. I was thinking, 'How long does it last, how long does it take to die?' And I remembered the Lebanese saying to me, 'Whatever you do, don't do nothing.' That's what made me start bashing them and eventually I got away.

Lebanon taught me a lot. I was younger, of course. I went to Lebanon when I was 29, and I still feel 29 actually. It taught me that you can find out the truth and get to the bottom of it. Most people tell the truth most of the time. You can get the bad guys from their lies whether they're malicious leaders, Israeli officers, Lebanese politicians or American statesmen. When they lie you can pick them up; it's our job to do that. That's monitoring the centres of power.

I'm still based in Beirut; I'm only in Ireland because I'm writing this book. I enjoy the life I have in Lebanon even though it has been very dangerous. The Lebanese are very intelligent, bright, imaginative people; they read books and speak foreign languages. In a way it's a great satisfaction to have gone through that war with people who were very well educated, who could talk. And their experience of occupation and their response to it and their eloquent way of explaining their response to it meant that once the US occupied Iraq, I knew immediately there was going to be an insurrection. I can get you a quote to prove this. This is in the Independent on 17 April 2003, a week after the fall of Baghdad. Here's the last paragraph: 'It's easy for a reporter to predict doom, especially after a brutal war that lacked all international legitimacy. But catastrophe usually waits for optimists in the Middle East, especially for false optimists who invade oil-rich nations with ideological excuses and high-flown moral claims and accusations such as weapons of mass destruction, which are still unproved. So I'll make an awful prediction. America's war of "liberation" is over, Iraq's war of liberation from the Americans is about to begin, in other words the real and frightening story starts now.' And Lebanon was the experience that made me write that.

What would you say to a young journalist? What advice would you give them about how to begin to untangle the lies from the truth?

Read lots of history books. Take the history books with you into wars. Don't trust authority - anybody's. Go and see for yourself; talk to local people. Write the histories of the place, day by day, and write books later.


Robert Fisk is the award winning Middle East correspondent for the Independent. His new book The Great War of Civilisation will be out in May, and is published by Fourth Estate, Harper Collins.