In the killing fields. Robert Fisk has spent his life cataloguing the misery inflicted on the Muslim world by the west. Roger Hardy on a remarkable, flawed and deeply draining history

The Great War For Civilisation: the conquest of the Middle East

Robert Fisk <em>Fourth Estate, 1,3

The master of Arab irony, the Syrian poet Muhammad al-Maghut, once imagined a postman "preparing a huge file/About human suffering/To present to God". He appeals to prisoners to send him their "Fears screams and boredom" and peasants to send "Flowers rags/Mutilated breasts . . ." My biggest fear, the postman confides at the climax of this catalogue of pain, is that God may be illiterate.

I was reminded of al-Maghut's darkly brilliant poem (you can find a translation in Penguin's Modern Poetry of the Arab World) while reading Robert Fisk's enormous and brooding book. He, too, has compiled a huge file of human suffering. As readers of the Times and, in recent years, the Independent will know, Fisk has spent almost 30 years witnessing, chronicling (and, one should add, surviving) a succession of wars in the Greater Middle East: Afghanistan and the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s; Kuwait in 1991; the two Palestinian intifadas; Afghanistan again in 2001; and the Iraq war of 2003. They are all here, and more.

One of Fisk's characteristics as a war correspondent is his unflagging energy. Another is his extraordinary and obsessive need to bear witness to war's victims, to give them names and where possible families, to draw out the telling detail that will make them, however briefly, memorable. In the grim killing fields of the Iran-Iraq war, he comes across the body of an Iranian soldier in the wreckage of a tank, "the burned tatters of his uniform hanging to his bones like little black flags". This obsession embraces old wars as well as newer ones. He seeks out old Armenian survivors to tell him of the horrors of 1915-22, and he rages at Turkey's unwillingness to acknowledge the Armenian genocide. He takes time off from witnessing the brutal killings in Algeria in the 1990s to visit a graveyard for that country's former colonial masters: "dead rulers in their Sunday best".

The book reveals much about the dangers and quirks and unexpected pleasures of the life of a foreign correspondent. It is useful, in our modern age of e-mail and the internet, to read of Fisk in an Afghan hotel typing five copies of his stories for the Times - and then, banned by the police from using the hotel telex machine, relying on friends in Reuters and a heroic bus conductor called Ali to smuggle them out of the country by various ingenious routes. This is Afghanistan under Soviet occupation, and on one expedition into the countryside Fisk comes under fire from a Russian helicopter, dives into the first house he sees and, mistaking one Pashto word for another, announces to a startled Afghan family: "I am an English satin bag."

Perhaps the most extraordinary of his tales of derring-do, and one that his fel- low journalists will especially relish, is his account of a madcap moment in the Iran-Iraq war when Jon Snow of Channel 4, kitted out in a black wetsuit, dives into the Shatt al-Arab waterway to help rescue the crew of a freighter trapped in the fighting. Fisk, though no more than a bit player in this heroic (and successful) exploit, loyally takes Snow's film out to Jordan - only to receive a memorable telex from his newspaper in London: "Why you no swam shark-infested Shatt al-Arab River?"

What gives shape to this tombstone of a book? Partly Fisk's passion and partly his effort to turn journalism into history. His title (as sardonic as anything al-Maghut might have penned) is taken from the medal awarded to his father, Bill, a soldier in the First World War. That war, like so many others subsequently, was fought in the name of "civilisation". It also, in a sense, bequeathed to the Middle East the wars that followed - by smashing the dominant Muslim power, the Ottoman empire, and redrawing the regional map to suit European interests.

For all the book's length, however, its scope is uncomfortably narrow - its twin themes (one is inclined to say obsessions) are Arab and Muslim suffering and western betrayal. But while the external causes of Muslim grievance are writ large (the cumulative sense of anger and humiliation over Palestine, Iraq, Chechnya and the rest), what is missing from this book is a sense of the internal dynamics of the Muslim world - in particular the dilemmas of the Muslim third world in its painful transition to modernity. And, given that the shadow of Osama Bin Laden hovers over the book from its first chapter, one might have expected a much fuller account of the roots of radical Islamism. At times, Fisk comes perilously close to suggest- ing that a latter-day crusade is under way between Christianity and Islam - which is Bin Laden's view.

The other great weakness is the book's unremittingly polemical tone. This, too, is part of Fisk's obsession with bearing witness. But a mix of self-righteousness and sarcasm that merely grates in a newspaper article is a far more serious liability in a book of such length and pretension. Fisk seems to see himself as virtually the sole truth-teller within his debased profession. (Among the few others he has any time for are Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker and the Israeli journalist Amira Hass.) The western media are the dupes of Zionist propaganda and, over Iraq, the Bush-Blair web of deception. He mauls not only the New York Times ("gutless") and some of his former editors at the Times and the Independent (for disloyalty) but also the "ever-supine" BBC World Service, where (let me declare an interest) I have worked for the past 20 years.

Brilliant reporter that he is at his best, Fisk-the-analyst can be maddeningly sweeping in his judgements. Like so many critics of the Iraq war, he argues that it was all about oil; or rather, he asserts it to be so, as he sees no need to argue a case. (It is far more plausible to see the war as a misguided product of America's post-9/11 sense of vulnerability.) He shares Hezbollah's triumphalist view that it drove Israel from southern Lebanon in 2000, and dismisses the Camp David peace talks in a few caustic lines. In nei-ther case does he acknowledge the role of Ehud Barak, then Israel's prime minister, for taking far-reaching initiatives in the teeth of intense domestic opposition. It is as if, in Fisk's eyes, polemical excess has become the norm; even-handedness is shameful, neutral language a cop-out.

This is a remarkable, flawed and deeply draining book.

Roger Hardy is a Middle East analyst with the BBC World Service