Rene — Fisk — History Lessons

Topic(s): "War on Terror" | Comments Off on Rene — Fisk — History Lessons

I was recently told that Fisk had retired. Maybe this is a different idea of retirement. Two articles which do not necessarily tell us something we did not know, but attempt, as he has consistently done in his writing, to put the day to day ruminations in a historical perspective. It is a strange kind of journalism, impassioned, mad, committed-committable, giving you a different relation to the idea of objectivity in journalism. We could call it journalism with memory. Or historic(al) journalism. We could call it a kind of strange foil of contemporary journalism. So much of journalism today is either a distraction, a presentation of the tree excluded from its existence in a forest (could also be categorized as myopic or filed under over-information), lies (misinformation), unwitting propaganda (uncritical or structural), sensational (entertainment) … to name but a few major genres. Moreover, one could say that the press has always tried to make the everyday, somehow more meaningful, more grounded in history, the everyday as historical. Yet, it has, one would argue, often failed (in the name of contemporariness), to report history as everyday. If history enters, it is always as scandal. That is, journalism has never lived up to its, allbeit problematic, attempt to stage an encounter between the everyday and history. One could say that some of Fisk’s writings are temporary flares which light such a path. -rg
1. The Only Lesson We Ever Learn Is That We Never Learn
2. It’s not a straight road to dictatorship
1. The Only Lesson We Ever Learn Is That We Never Learn
by Robert Fisk
Published on Wednesday, March 19, 2008 by The Independent/UK
Five years on, and still we have not learnt. With each anniversary, the steps crumble beneath our feet, the stones ever more cracked, the sand ever finer. Five years of catastrophe in Iraq and I think of Churchill, who in the end called Palestine a “hell-disaster”.
But we have used these parallels before and they have drifted away in the Tigris breeze. Iraq is swamped in blood. Yet what is the state of our remorse? Why, we will have a public inquiry – but not yet! If only inadequacy was our only sin.
Today, we are engaged in a fruitless debate. What went wrong? How did the people – the senatus populusque Romanus of our modern world – not rise up in rebellion when told the lies about weapons of mass destruction, about Saddam’s links with Osama bin Laden and 11 September? How did we let it happen? And how come we didn’t plan for the aftermath of war?
Oh, the British tried to get the Americans to listen, Downing Street now tells us. We really, honestly did try, before we absolutely and completely knew it was right to embark on this illegal war. There is now a vast literature on the Iraq debacle and there are precedents for post-war planning – of which more later – but this is not the point. Our predicament in Iraq is on an infinitely more terrible scale.
As the Americans came storming up Iraq in 2003, their cruise missiles hissing through the sandstorm towards a hundred Iraqi towns and cities, I would sit in my filthy room in the Baghdad Palestine Hotel, unable to sleep for the thunder of explosions, and root through the books I’d brought to fill the dark, dangerous hours. Tolstoy’s War and Peace reminded me how conflict can be described with sensitivity and grace and horror – I recommend the Battle of Borodino – along with a file of newspaper clippings. In this little folder, there was a long rant by Pat Buchanan, written five months earlier; and still, today I feel its power and its prescience and its absolute historical honesty: “With our MacArthur Regency in Baghdad, Pax Americana will reach apogee. But then the tide recedes, for the one endeavour at which Islamic people excel is expelling imperial powers by terror or guerrilla war.
“They drove the Brits out of Palestine and Aden, the French out of Algeria, the Russians out of Afghanistan, the Americans out of Somalia and Beirut, the Israelis out of Lebanon. We have started up the road to empire and over the next hill we will meet those who went before. The only lesson we learn from history is that we do not learn from history.”
How easily the little men took us into the inferno, with no knowledge or, at least, interest in history. None of them read of the 1920 Iraqi insurgency against British occupation, nor of Churchill’s brusque and brutal settlement of Iraq the following year.
On our historical radars, not even Crassus appeared, the wealthiest Roman general of all, who demanded an emperorship after conquering Macedonia – “Mission Accomplished” – and vengefully set forth to destroy Mesopotamia. At a spot in the desert near the Euphrates river, the Parthians – ancestors of present day Iraqi insurgents – annihilated the legions, chopped off Crassus’s head and sent it back to Rome filled with gold. Today, they would have videotaped his beheading.
To their monumental hubris, these little men who took us to war five years ago now prove that they have learnt nothing. Anthony Blair – as we should always have called this small town lawyer – should be facing trial for his mendacity. Instead, he now presumes to bring peace to an Arab-Israeli conflict which he has done so much to exacerbate. And now we have the man who changed his mind on the legality of war – and did so on a single sheet of A4 paper – daring to suggest that we should test immigrants for British citizenship. Question 1, I contend, should be: Which blood-soaked British attorney general helped to send 176 British soldiers to their deaths for a lie? Question 2: How did he get away with it?
But in a sense, the facile, dumbo nature of Lord Goldsmith’s proposal is a clue to the whole transitory, cardboard structure of our decision-making. The great issues that face us – be they Iraq or Afghanistan, the US economy or global warming, planned invasions or “terrorism” – are discussed not according to serious political timetables but around television schedules and press conferences.
Will the first air raids on Iraq hit prime-time television in the States? Mercifully, yes. Will the first US troops in Baghdad appear on the breakfast shows? Of course. Will Saddam’s capture be announced by Bush and Blair simultaneously?.
But this is all part of the problem. True, Churchill and Roosevelt argued about the timing of the announcement that war in Europe had ended. And it was the Russians who pipped them to the post. But we told the truth. When the British were retreating to Dunkirk, Churchill announced that the Germans had “penetrated deeply and spread alarm and confusion in their tracks”.
Why didn’t Bush or Blair tell us this when the Iraqi insurgents began to assault the Western occupation forces? Well, they were too busy telling us that things were getting better, that the rebels were mere “dead-enders”.
On 17 June 1940, Churchill told the people of Britain: “The news from France is very bad and I grieve for the gallant French people who have fallen into this terrible misfortune.” Why didn’t Blair or Bush tell us that the news from Iraq was very bad and that they grieved – even just a few tears for a minute or so – for the Iraqis?
For these were the men who had the temerity, the sheer, unadulterated gall, to dress themselves up as Churchill, heroes who would stage a rerun of the Second World War, the BBC dutifully calling the invaders “the Allies” – they did, by the way – and painting Saddam’s regime as the Third Reich.
Of course, when I was at school, our leaders – Attlee, Churchill, Eden, Macmillan, or Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy in the United States – had real experience of real war. Not a single Western leader today has any first-hand experience of conflict. When the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq began, the most prominent European opponent of the war was Jacques Chirac, who fought in the Algerian conflict. But he has now gone. So has Colin Powell, a Vietnam veteran but himself duped by Rumsfeld and the CIA.
Yet one of the terrible ironies of our times is that the most bloodthirsty of American statesmen – Bush and Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfovitz – have either never heard a shot fired in anger or have ensured they did not have to fight for their country when they had the chance to do so. No wonder Hollywood titles like “Shock and Awe” appeal to the White House. Movies are their only experience of human conflict; the same goes for Blair and Brown.
Churchill had to account for the loss of Singapore before a packed House. Brown won’t even account for Iraq until the war is over.
It is a grotesque truism that today – after all the posturing of our political midgets five years ago – we might at last be permitted a valid seance with the ghosts of the Second World War. Statistics are the medium, and the room would have to be dark. But it is a fact that the total of US dead in Iraq (3,978) is well over the number of American casualties suffered in the initial D-Day landings at Normandy (3,384 killed and missing) on 6 June, 1944, or more than three times the total British casualties at Arnhem the same year (1,200).
They count for just over a third of the total fatalities (11,014) of the entire British Expeditionary Force from the German invasion of Belgium to the final evacuation at Dunkirk in June 1940. The number of British dead in Iraq – 176 – is almost equal to the total of UK forces lost at the Battle of the Bulge in 1944-45 (just over 200). The number of US wounded in Iraq – 29,395 – is more than nine times the number of Americans injured on 6 June (3,184) and more than a quarter of the tally for US wounded in the entire 1950-53 Korean war (103,284).
Iraqi casualties allow an even closer comparison to the Second World War. Even if we accept the lowest of fatality statistics for civilian dead – they range from 350,000 up to a million – these long ago dwarfed the number of British civilian dead in the flying-bomb blitz on London in 1944-45 (6,000) and now far outnumber the total figure for civilians killed in bombing raids across the United Kingdom – 60,595 dead, 86,182 seriously wounded – from 1940 to 1945.
Indeed, the Iraqi civilian death toll since our invasion is now greater than the total number of British military fatalities in the Second World War, which came to an astounding 265,000 dead (some histories give this figure as 300,000) and 277,000 wounded. Minimum estimates for Iraqi dead mean that the civilians of Mesopotamia have suffered six or seven Dresdens or – more terrible still – two Hiroshimas.
Yet in a sense, all this is a distraction from the awful truth in Buchanan’s warning. We have dispatched our armies into the land of Islam. We have done so with the sole encouragement of Israel, whose own false intelligence over Iraq has been discreetly forgotten by our masters, while weeping crocodile tears for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have died.
America’s massive military prestige has been irreparably diminished. And if there are, as I now calculate, 22 times as many Western troops in the Muslim world as there were at the time of the 11th and 12th century Crusades, we must ask what we are doing. Are we there for oil? For democracy? For Israel? For fear of weapons of mass destruction? Or for fear of Islam?
We blithely connect Afghanistan to Iraq. If only Washington had not become distracted by Iraq, so the narrative now goes, the Taliban could not have re-established themselves. But al-Qa’ida and the nebulous Osama bin Laden were not distracted. Which is why they expanded their operations into Iraq and then used this experience to assault the West in Afghanistan with the hitherto – in Afghanistan – unheard of suicide bomber.
And I will hazard a terrible guess: that we have lost Afghanistan as surely as we have lost Iraq and as surely as we are going to “lose” Pakistan. It is our presence, our power, our arrogance, our refusal to learn from history and our terror – yes, our terror – of Islam that is leading us into the abyss. And until we learn to leave these Muslim peoples alone, our catastrophe in the Middle East will only become graver. There is no connection between Islam and “terror”. But there is a connection between our occupation of Muslim lands and “terror”. It’s not too complicated an equation. And we don’t need a public inquiry to get it right.
–Robert Fisk
2. It’s not a straight road to dictatorship
Saturday, 22 March 2008
An Italian restaurant in the Irish village of Dalkey caused quite a kerfuffle when it opened a few months ago. It is called Benito’s and – yes – it is indeed named after Il Duce. And there are Italian fascist newspaper front pages on the wall to remind you just how bravely his men fought in the Second World War. A 1941 cover of La Domenica del Corriere carries a dramatic painting of six RAF Hurricanes crashing into the rooftops of Malta after vainly taking on the Italian air force. On another front page of the same year, four frightened British Tommies – a few of the 19,000 captured in the siege of Tobruk – surrender to black-feathered Bersaglieri troops at Sollum on the Egyptian-Libyan border.
It’s not a joke. A relative of the owner was an Italian air force officer in the Western Desert and there are archive photographs, too, on the wall. A handsome young airman is surrounded by photos of sand encampments and of the nose of an Italian fighter aircraft. (For Independent aero-buffs, it appears to be a Macchi C.200 Saetta (“Arrow”), in service with 372 Squadron in Cyrenaica – part of Libya – in 1941.) At Benito’s, the pizzas are great and the chocolate cakes positively ooze. Good old “Eyeties”, as the Eighth Army probably said after capturing their 20,000 Italian prisoners at El-Alamein in 1942.
Now I know that, compared with the epic cruelty of Hitler and Stalin, “Musso” was a softy. The Italian armies of Europe’s first fascist leader lost in Albania, lost in Greece and lost in North Africa. He ended the war strung upside down in a Milan piazza alongside his glamorous mistress after creating the last-ditch Republic of Salo, a state as ridiculous in its pretensions as the Italian dictator himself.
But in 1935, Mussolini invaded and occupied Haile Selassie’s Abyssinia after using poison gas to capture the country. He sent his forces to fight on Franco’s side in the Spanish civil war. “Musso” was an unashamed anti-Semite; his anti-racial laws were administered by a raving Jew-hater called Giovanni Preziosi and the Duce was too frightened of Hitler to prevent thousands of Italian Jews from being deported to their death by the Nazis. Indeed, he sometimes gave orders that they should be. His Italian fascists, along with the Germans, jointly operated an extermination camp at San Sabba near Trieste. Churchill, who called him “a swine”, once sarcastically noted that Mussolini had proclaimed himself the “protector of Islam” while having fewer Muslims under his protection than Britain. In fact, “Musso” deported 80,000 Arabs from their homes in Libya to make way for Italian “settlements”, and executed the courageous rebel leader Omar el-Mukhtar after a war in which 200,000 Muslims were slaughtered. In other words, Benito was a very nasty piece of work.
But wait. When he ended Italy’s crisis of strikes and revolution in the 1920s, Churchill himself admitted to being “charmed … by his gentle and simple bearing and by his calm, detached poise in spite of so many burdens and dangers … anyone could see that he thought of nothing but the lasting good … of the Italian people”. Even a few years before the war, Churchill was to write: “Many people in Britain admired the work which the extraordinary man Signor Mussolini had done for his country. He had brought it … into a position of dignity and order, which was admired even by those who regretted the suspension of Italian freedom.” Mussolini thus started off as a European hero, became a fascist beast, but is now regarded as just a bumbling buffoon, the sort of harmless court jester whose name can grace an Italian restaurant in Ireland.
But there is nothing exclusive about this sort of transmogrification. Back in 1986, I recall, Ronald Reagan called the “terrorist” Colonel Muammar Gaddafi “the Mad Dog of the Middle East”. But two decades after the Americans bombed Libya (with Margaret Thatcher’s help), Jack Straw called him “statesmanlike” for giving up nuclear ambitions which were as mythical as Saddam’s. Reagan himself was widely regarded as a “warmonger” until he visited China and turned into an old buffer who muddled up his White House cue cards and died in a fog of gentle memories from the Washington commentariat.
Arafat was a “super-terrorist” in 1980s Beirut before turning into a “super-statesman” after Oslo and then a “superterrorist” again before he died. Stalin went through the same epic transition. From being the vicious communist dictator of the 1920s and 1930s, he became “Uncle Joe” after 1941 – personally awarded the sword of Stalingrad by Churchill for killing Nazis – before reverting to Soviet arch-tyrant, Churchill himself complaining in 1953 of Stalin’s “bludgeoning xenophobia”.
It happens all the time, this little mis-step in our appreciation of human beasts. Kurt Waldheim started off as a nasty little Wehrmacht intelligence officer working for war criminal General Löhr’s Army Group E in Bosnia. Then he turned into a highly respected UN Secretary-General before being maligned by his respectful colleagues the moment his murky wartime past was revealed. Slobodan Milosevic was a brute until he turned up in the United States to negotiate a Bosnian peace at Dayton, Ohio, when he became a “statesman” – only to be tried as a war criminal after Kosovo.
This transformation happens to whole races of people. The plucky little Serbs of the Second World War became the Nazi “ethnic cleansers” of 1993. The heroic Muslim “freedom fighters” killing Russians in Afghanistan in 1980 became the freedom-hating “terrorists” killing Americans in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 and 2003 and 2004 and 2005 and 2006 and 2007 and 2008…
I think all this twaddle has a lot to do with journalism as well as political opportunism. Told that progressive Colonel Nasser had become the thief of Suez, we turned him into the “Mussolini of the Nile”; just as our old mate Saddam Hussein was helped into power as Iraqi “strongman” by the CIA, supplied with US and British military assistance after his atrocious invasion of Iran, but was then dubbed the “Hitler of Baghdad” after his atrocious invasion of Kuwait, his use of gas and … you know the rest. First we set him up. In the end, we hanged him.
Our own dear Anthony Blair will not be hanged for war crimes, of course. But who can say for sure that he will not make an equally speedy transition through the political-military firmament. From an initially much-loved prime minister, he became an arrogant, messianic liar who sent Britons off to die in an illegal war. Chances are, however, that he will turn out to be the devout – and extremely wealthy – peace-loving envoy who wins the Nobel Peace prize. Who knows, in a few years’ time, I may be slipping into Tony’s for a pizza and a chocolate cake that positively oozes