Munich American Peace Committee (MAPC)
Radio Lora, 12. April 2006
Über Krieg, Journalismus und den Mittleren Osten
Sydney, Australien am 16. Oktober 2005
Robert Fisk, der Nahost-Korrespondent des „Independent“, lebt seit 30 Jahren in Beirut .Der Träger des Amnesty International UK Press Awards, der siebenmal als britischer "Auslandsjournalist des Jahres“ ausgezeichnet wurde, schrieb u.a. „Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon“ und „The Great War for Civilisation“.
Als ich noch ein kleiner Junge war nahm mich mein Vater jedes Jahr zu den Schlachtfeldern des 1. Weltkrieges mit: nach Ypern und Verdun und zu den vielen anderen Gräberfeldern mit ihren überwachsenen Schützengräben und verrosteten deutschen Granatwerfern. Er hatte im sogenannten „Großen Krieg für die Zivilisation“ viele Auszeichnungen erhalten und weil auch all die Kriege, über die ich später berichtete, angeblich im Namen der Zivilisation geführt wurden, habe ich mein neues Buch „The Great War for Civilisation“ genannt.
Die russischen Soldaten kämpften in Afghanistan für ihre Ehre und gegen den „internationalen Terror“ die Afghanen für Allah und gegen die „kommunistischen Aggressoren“. Im sogenannten aufgezwungenen „Wirbelsturm-Krieg“ verteidigten sich die Iraner gegen Saddam Hussein. Um das Land „vom Terrorismus zu befreien“, überfiel Israel zweimal den Libanon und besetzte die West Bank. In Algerien folterten und ermordeten die Paramilitärs feindliche Islamisten genauso wie diese es mit ihren Gefangenen taten. Als Saddam Hussein Kuwait überfiel, schickten die USA ihre Armee an den Golf, um eine „neue Weltordnung“ zu etablieren. In Bosnien kämpften Serben für die „serbische Zivilisation“ und Muslime starben für ihren Traum von einer multikulturellen Gesellschaft. Als mir in den afghanischen Bergen Osama Bin Laden seine ersten direkten Drohungen gegen die USA in den Notizblock diktierte, sprach er dabei viel von „Gott“ und „dem Bösen.“
Eigentlich sollte ich genau am 11. September 2001 ich in die USA fliegen, doch bereits in Irland mußte mein Flugzeug umkehren, weshalb ich nur drei Monate später gemeinsam mit den Taliban vor den amerikanischen Bomben auf das längst in Trümmern liegende Afghanistan fliehen mußte. Ein Jahr später sprach George Bush von Gott und von Massenvernichtungswaffen. Danach mußte ich mich in Bagdad vor den amerikanischen Raketen verstecken..
All das werde und will ich nie vergessen, nicht den Anblick Blut und Schleim spuckender iranischer Soldaten, die Saddams Gas einatmen mußten, während Ronald Rumsfeld gerade mit ihm über die Wiedereröffnung der US Botschaft verhandelte, nicht das, was eine amerikanische Streubombe von einem irakischen Baby übriggelassen hat, nicht den frisch operierten Beinstumpf dessen Besitzer Saddams Killerschwadrone vom Operationstisch in den Tod getrieben hatten, nicht den von einer amerikanischen Bombe abgetrennten Kopf eines Kosovo-Albaners, noch die Leiche eines von den Serben ermordeten Kosovaren, oder den Ehering an der Hand eines toten irakischen Soldaten. Sie und viele, viele Andere sind die Kollateralschäden, die uns die Fernsehstationen nie zeigen. Wer würde sonst noch in den Krieg ziehen?
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Seit dem ich mit 12 Jahren Hitchcocks Film „Foreign Correpondent“ gesehen hatte, gab es für mich nur ein einziges Berufsziel: Auslandskorrespondent.
Nach wenig glamourösen Anfängen in London, Irland und Portugal bot man mir endlich den ach so sonnigen Mittleren Osten an. Ich wurde Augenzeuge, wie Soldaten dafür bestraft wurden, wenn sie sich von der Front entfernten und ich sah die den Kämpfen und Bomben schutzlos ausgelieferte Zivilbevölkerung. Im Gegensatz zu uns gut bezahlten Journalisten, gab es für diese armen Teufel keine Ausreisevisa .
Ursprünglich sollte mein neues Buch ein Augenzeugenbericht über die letzten 30 Jahre Nahostpolitik werden. Doch es wurde mehr, es wurde ein Appell zum Widerstand, ein Aufruf Nein zu sagen. Denn dann hätte es den 1. Weltkrieg nicht gegeben, die Sieger hätten sich nicht angemaßt, Arabern und Juden unhaltbare Versprechungen zu machen und 1918 die Grenzen von Nordirland, Jugoslawien und im Mittleren Osten festzulegen, die heute George W. Bush im Mittleren Osten erneut verschieben will.
Journalisten können gelegentlich die Tür einer Folterkammer öffnen oder eine Hinrichtung verhindern, aber es ist noch viel wichtiger, dass wir den Menschen zeigen, wie sie sich bei ihren demokratisch gewählten Vertretern Gehör verschaffen können. Deshalb ist es die Pflicht und Schuldigkeit eines jeden Journalisten, unparteiisch zu berichten und besonders in Zeiten des Krieges zu versuchen, die Mächtigen zu kontrollieren, damit niemand einmal sagen kann, er habe dies oder jenes nicht gewußt. Heute darf niemand mehr glauben, dass sich im Irak alles zum Besseren gewendet habe, während auf dem Highway Nr. 8, Mord und Menschenraub zur Tagesordnung gehören und 60 km lange, dröhnende Militärkovois mit über die Zähne bewaffneten Soldaten das amerikanische Imperium am Tigris sichern. In diesem Krieg ging es nicht nur um Öl, sondern auch um arrogante, neokonservative Großmacht Phantasien. Während sich kaum ein Reporter oder Vertreter des „neuen“ Irak auf die Strasse wagt, während Zehntausende von Irakern starben und noch sterben werden, während es täglich bis zu 7 Selbstmordattentate gibt und immer mehr Leichen in den Strassen und Mülldeponien Bagdads gefunden werden und man Menschen vor laufenden Kameras enthauptet, erklären Bush, Blair und Howard, wie gut es in diesem Krieg läuft. Amerikaner und Briten zählen nicht die irakischen Opfer. Aber im Juli 2005 wurden allein in Bagdad per Leichenschauhaus-Computer 1,100 Tote gezählt. Nimmt man für Bakuba, Kirkuk, Falludscha, Ramadi, Basra, Nadschaf und Nasiriya ähnliche Zahlen an, dann kommt man auf jährlich 36 000 tote Iraker. Hatte es nicht geheißen, dass die Rebellion beendet sein würde, sobald man Saddam Hussein gefasst habe? Man tötete seine schrecklichen Söhne und zerrte ihn selbst aus einem Dreckloch und dennoch nahmen die Aufstände, die bereits nach nur einem Monat nach Kriegsanfang begonnen hatten, kein Ende.
In Bagdad gab es täglich nur zwei Stunden Strom, die Schlangen vor den Tankstellen waren oft bis zu 3 km lang, aus Angst vor Entführungen und Vergewaltigungen hielt man die Kinder von den Schulen fern, die Polizeistationen wurden zu Festungen und Bagdad eine befestigte Stadt. Während amerikanische Militärs und irakische Minister in Saddams ehemaligen Palästen von Rumsfelds „neuem Irak“ träumen, treiben Diebe und Vergewaltiger ihr Unwesen in den Strassen, werden die unbewachten archäologischen Schätze geplündert. Von den 15.000 aus dem Archäologischen Museum in Bagdad verschwundenen Artefakten, sind lediglich 4000 wieder aufgetaucht. Die unwiederbringliche Vernichtung des Erbes der Menschheit ist die große Tragödie dieser sogenannten Befreiung.
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Während Amerika diesen Teil der Welt mit massiver Feuerkraft zu beherrschen sucht, hat die junge Generation des Iraks nichts mehr zu verlieren. Sollten sich die Suniten mit Osama Bin Ladens Al Qaida zusammen tun, dann sähen sich die USA und ihre Verbündeten einer zu allem entschlossenen Armee und einem Heer von Bombenattentätern gegenüber.
2003, 5 Wochen vor dem Überfall auf den Irak, hatte Osama Bin Laden, der im Gegensatz zu Sadddam Hussein den Krieg kommen sah, die verhasste Baathpartei zum gemeinsamen Widerstand aufgerufen. Wie alle Besatzer ignorierten die USA diesen Aufruf und folterten und töteten ihre Gefangenen - nicht nur in Abu Ghraib, auch in Bagram in Afghanistan. Und sie unterschieden sich dabei nur wenig von Saddams Terrorregime. So wurde Abu Ghraib, das Symbol von Saddams Terror, zum Symbol unserer Schande.
Als im Januar 2005 ganze Familien zu den Wahlurnen strömten, ignorierten sie mutig den Lärm der Bombenattentate. Die neu gewählte irakische Regierung mit ihrer schiitischen Mehrheit hatte jedoch einen gravierenden Schönheitsfehler: die Besatzer blieben im Land. Es liegt für mich auf der Hand, dass die Amerikaner abziehen müssen und abziehen werden, aber nicht abziehen können. Es ist dieses Dilemma, das den Wüstensand mit Blut tränkt. Die Amerikaner wollten dem Mittleren Osten die Demokratie bringen und der Irak sollte dabei nur der Anfang sein. Doch welcher arabischer Staat sollte eine solche Hölle werden wollen, zu der wir den Irak gemacht haben? Die Araber haben nichts gegen ein Mehr an Menschen- und Frauenrechten, aber vor allem sehnen sie sich nach Gerechtigkeit, nach einem friedlichen, ehrenhaften Ende der jahrzehntelangen Besatzung, des Betrugs, der Korruption und der Diktatur. Sie wollen unsere Gefängnisse genauso wenig wie Saddams Terrorherrschaft, sie wollen die Kontrolle über ihr eigenes Land und ihr eigenes Öl. Und sie wollen frei sein, frei von uns.
Vielleicht können wir im Westen unter die Geschichte des 1.und 2. Weltkrieges einen Schlußstrich ziehen und einen neuen Anfang machen. Für die Geschichte des Mittleren Ostens ist das nicht möglich, dazu ist sie zu sehr eine Geschichte von Ungerechtigkeiten. Denn Respekt vor der Geschichte bedeutet Respekt vor der Kultur und der Lebensweise anderer Völker.
Sind sie alle nur für die Geschichte gestorben? Der irakische Soldat, die abgeschlachteten Bewohner von Sabra und Schatila, die in der Wüste verwesten Iraner, die von Selbstmordbombern zerfetzten Israelis, die Palästinenser, Libanesen, Syrer und Afghanen , die Opfer irakischer, iranischer, libanesischer, afghanischer, israelischer und amerikanischer Folterkammern?
Die Balfour Deklaration , die für die Juden eine nationale Heimstätte in Palästina schaffen sollte, liegt schon 88 Jahre zurück und doch bedeutet sie für die palästinensischen Flüchtlinge in den Slums von Sabra und Schatila nicht Geschichte, sondern alltägliche Realität.
Wir müssen endlich lernen, dass unsere Vergangenheit für die heutigen Tragödien verantwortlich ist., genauso wie wir verantwortlich sind für das Leid der nächsten Generation. Deshalb gilt es, diesen Teufelskreis zu durchbrechen.. Deshalb beginnt mein Buch dort, wo alles begonnen hat: mit dem Einmarsch des Regiments meines Vaters in ein kleines Dorf an der Somme.
Radio Lora, 12. April 2006
War, Journalism & the Middle East
Sydney, Australia 16 October 2005
Robert Fisk is the Middle East correspondent for “The Independent.” He has called Beirut home for almost 30 years. From there he travels throughout the region. He is the author of “Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon.” He is winner of the Amnesty International UK Press Award. He’s received the British International Journalist of the Year Award seven times. His latest book is “The Great War for Civilisation.”
When I was a small boy, my father would take me each year around the battlefields of the First World War, a conflict which H.G. Wells called “The war to end all wars.” We would set off each summer in our Austin of England car (my father would have liked that name, I’m sure) and bump along the potholed roads of the Somme, Ypres, Verdun and of course Vemy Ridge. By the time I was 14, I could recite the names of all the offenses: Bapaume, Hill 60, High Wood, Passchendaele—I had seen all the graveyards and I had walked through all the overgrown trenches and had seen all the corroded German mortars My father, much older than my mother, was a soldier of the Great War, fighting in the trenches of France because of the shot fired in a city he’d never heard of—Sarajevo. And when he died 13 years ago at the age of 93, I inherited his campaign medals. One of them was a 1914-18 war depicts a winged victory and on the obverse side are engraved the words “The Great War for Civilisation.” So the title is chosen with some irony. To my father’s deep concern and my mother’s stoic acceptance, I’ve spent much of my life in wars. They too were fought for “civilisation.” In Afghanistan I watched the Russians fighting for their international duty—or that’s what it said on the gravestones—in a conflict against what they called “international terror” which might sound faintly familiar to you. Their Afghan opponents, of course, were fighting against “Communist aggression,” and for Allah. I reported from the front lines as the Iranians struggled through what they called “The Imposed War” which was the invasion by Saddam Hussein, who called it “The Whirlwind War.” I’ve seen the Israelis twice invading Lebanon and then occupying the West Bank, in order to so they claimed, to “purge the land of terrorism.” I was present as the Algerian paramilitary police went to war with Islamists for the same ostensible reason, torturing and executing their prisoners with as much abandon as their Islamist enemies. Then in 1990 Saddam invaded Kuwait and the Americans sent their armies to the Gulf to liberate the Emirate and impose a “New World Order.” Remember the “New World Order?” It’s a little bit in the past now. In the desert I wrote these words “new world order” in my notebook with a question mark in the margin. In Bosnia, I found Serbs fighting for what they called “Serb Civilization” while their Muslim enemies fought and died for a fading multicultural dream and to save their own lives. On a mountaintop in Afghanistan I sat opposite Osama Bin Laden in his tent, as he uttered his first direct threat against the US, pausing as I scribbled his words into my notebook by paraffin lamp, “God” and “evil” were what he talked to me about. That night I took my first photograph of Bin Laden. Those were the days before he started wearing embroidered robes and became a little vainer (laughter). I was flying over the Atlantic on September 11, 2001 and my plane turned around over Ireland when the Americans closed the airspace, and so less than 3 months later I was in Afghanistan fleeing with the Taliban down a highway west of Kandahar as America bombed the ruins of a country already destroyed by war. I was in the UN General Assembly exactly a year later when George Bush talked about God and weapons of mass destruction and prepared to invade Iraq. The first missiles of that invasion swept over my head in Baghdad. Thus was President Bush’s calamitous “War on Terror” given in advance its own supposedly moral foundation.
The direct physical results of all these conflicts will remain, and should remain, in my memory until I die. I don’t need to read through the mountain of my reporter’s notebooks to remember the Iranian soldiers on the troop train north to Teheran holding towels and sopping up Saddam’s gas in gobs of blood and mucous as they read the Koran. That was the day Donald Rumsfeld went to see Saddam and asked to reopen the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
I need none of my newspaper clippings to recall the father, after an American cluster bomb attack on Iraq in 2003, who held out to me what looked like half a crushed loaf of bread, but which turned out to be half a crushed baby. Or the mass grave outside Nasiriyah, where I came across the remains of a leg with a steel tube inside with a plastic medical disk attached to a stump of bone. Saddam’s murderers had taken him straight from the hospital where he had his hip replacement to his place of execution in the desert. I don’t have nightmares about these things, but I remember the head blasted off the body of a Kosovo Albanian refugee during an American air raid four years earlier, bearded and upright in a bright green field as if a medieval axeman had just cut him down. The corpse of a Kosovo farmer murdered by the Serbs, his grave opened by the UN so that he remerged from the darkness bloating in front of us. The Iraqi soldier found during the Iran-Iraqi war who lay curled up like a child in the gun pit next to me black with death, a single gold wedding ring glittering on the third finger of his left hand, bright with sunlight and love for a woman who did not know she was a widow.
Soldier and civilian, they died in their tens of thousands because death had been concocted for them, morality hitched like a halter around the war horse so that we could talk about “target-rich environments” and “collateral damage”- that most infantile of attempts to shake off the crime of killing-and report the victory parades, the tearing down of statues and the importance of peace. Governments like it that way. They want their people to see war as a drama of opposites, good and evil, “them or “us, victory or defeat. But war is primarily not about victory or defeat but about death and the infliction of death. It represents the total failure of the human spirit. I know an editor who has wearied of hearing this, but how many editors have had first-hand experiences of war?
One new phenomenon I’ve noticed recently—maybe you picked it up—when news cameramen can actually film what they want to in wars (which is rare) they can film the most appalling scenes. I remember the British ITN crew that were with me, filming a scene on the so-called “road of death” north of Basra in 1991, and dogs, it was lunchtime, were tearing the corpses of Iraqi soldiers to pieces and dragging them off to eat.
And they filmed it. I said, “Why are you filming that? You’ll never get it on television.” They said, “Ahh, just for the archives.” Now the strange thing is, in a feature film such as “Saving Private Ryan” or “Kingdom of Heaven” you can see these things at the cinema or on television. But when it’s real, good taste by editors in London or Canberra or Washington prevent you from seeing the reality of war. And in that way I think TV is lethal. For if you saw what I saw, you would never ever support a war.
Ironically it was a movie that propelled me into journalism, I was 12 years old when I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent.” Now hands up if you’ve seen that.
Not a bad movie, is it—a creaky old 1949 patriotic movie in which Joel McCrea played an American reporter called John Jones. His New York editor renames him Huntley Haverstock because that sounds a bit better, who is sent in 1939 to cover the approaching war in Europe. He witnesses an assassination, chases Nazi spies in Holland, and covers Germany’s top agent in London. He’s shot down in an airliner over the Atlantic, by a German pocket battleship, and still follows his scoop to New York (laughter). He also wins the most gorgeous woman in the movie, and I thought this is the kind of job that I could probably enjoy doing (more laughter). The film ends in the London Blitz with the radio announcer introducing Haverstock on the air.
“We have as our guest tonight one of the soldiers of the press,” he shouts amid the wail of air raid sirens, “One of those army of journalists who are writing history from beside the cannon’s mouth.”--drama as well as women. I never looked back. I read my father’s conservative Daily Telegraph from cover to cover, always the foreign reports, lying on the floor beside the fire, as my mother pleaded with me to drink my cocoa and go to bed.
At school I studied The Times each afternoon. I plowed through Khrushchev’s entire speech denouncing Stalin’s reign of terror.
I won the school Current Affairs prize, and never ever could anyone persuade me that I should not be a foreign correspondent. When my father suggested I should study law or medicine, tells you a bit about my dad, I walked from the room.
When he asked a family friend what I should do, the friend asked me to imagine I was in a courtroom. Would I want to be the lawyer or the reporter? I said I would be the reporter. The friend turned to my father and said, “Robert is going to be a journalist, Bill.” I wanted, you see, to be one of those “soldiers of the press.” I joined the Newcastle Evening Chronicle in the northeast of England. Then the Sunday Express diary column in London, where I chased vicars who had run off with starlets. It wasn’t quite foreign correspondent material, but after years I begged the London Times to hire me, and they sent me to Northern Ireland to cover the vicious little conflict that had broken out in that legacy of British colonialism. Five years later I did become one of the soldiers of journalism, a foreign correspondent. I was on a beach at Porto Covo in Portugal in April 1976 on holiday from Lisbon where I was covering the aftermath of the Portuguese revolution when the local postmistress shouted down the cliff that I had a letter to collect. It was from the paper’s foreign editor Louis Heren. “I have some good news for you,” he wrote. “Paul Martin, our correspondent in Beirut has requested to be moved from the Middle East. His wife has had more than enough, and I don’t blame her. They’d been married three months earlier and I don’t blame him. I’m offering him the number two job in Paris. Richard Wigg to Lisbon. And to you I offer the Middle East. Let me know if you want it. It will be a splendid opportunity for you with good stories, lots of travel, and sunshine.” (laughter) In Hitchcock’s thriller Haverstock’s editor calls him into his office before sending him to the European war, and asks him, “How would you like to cover the biggest story in the world today? What we need in Europe is a crime correspondent.” Heren’s letter was less dramatic, but it meant more or less the same to me. I was 29 and I was being offered the Middle East. I wondered how King Feisal felt when he was “offered” Iraq (laughter), or how his brother Abdullah reacted to Winston Churchill’s “offer” of TransJordan. Louis Heren is in the Churchillian mode himself: stubborn, eloquent, an enjoyer of fine wines, as well as himself a former Middle East correspondent.
If the stories were good in journalistic terms however, they would also prove to be horrific, the travel dizzying, the sunshine as cruel as a sword. And we journalists did not have the protection or the claims to perfection of kings. But now I could be one of the little army of historians writing history from beside the cannon’s mouth. How innocent, how naïve I was.
But innocence, if we can keep it, protects the journalist’s integrity. You have to fight to believe in it.
Unlike my father, I went to war as a witness rather than a combatant. Ever more infuriated by a standard to be true, but at least I was not one of the impassioned, angry, sometimes demented, men who made war. I worshipped the older reporters who covered the Second World War and its aftermath. Howard K. Smith who fled Nazi Germany on the last train from Berlin before Hitler declared war on the U.S. in 1941. And James Cameron, whose iconic 1946 report from the Bikini atom tests was perhaps the most literary and philosophical article ever published in a newspaper. Being a Middle East correspondent is a slightly obscene profession to follow in such circumstances. If the soldiers I watched decided to leave the battlefield, they would, many of them, be shot for desertion, or at least courtmartialed.
The civilians among whom I was to live and work were forced to stay on under bombardment, their families decimated by shell fire and air raids. As citizens of pariah countries, there would be no visas for them. But if I wanted to quit, if I grew sick of the horrors I saw, I could pack my bag and fly in business class, a glass of champagne in my hand, always supposing, unlike too many of my colleagues, that I hadn’t been killed. Which is why I cringe each time someone wants to psycho-babble about the trauma of covering wars. The need to obtain counseling for us well-paid scribes that we may be able to “come to terms” with what we’ve seen. No counseling for the poor and huddled masses that were left to Iraq’s gas, Iran’s rockets, the cruelty of Serbia’s militias, the brutal Israeli invasions of Lebanon, the computerized death suffered by Iraqis during America’s 2003 invasion of their country.
3 But I don’t like the definition of war correspondent. It’s history, not journalism that has condemned the Middle East to war. I think war correspondent smells a bit; reeks of false romanticism. It has too much of the whiff of Victorian reporters that would view battles from hilltops in the company of ladies, immune to suffering, only occasionally glancing towards the distant pop-pop of cannon fire. Yet war is paradoxically a very powerful, unique experience for a journalist—an opportunity to indulge in the only vicarious excitement still free of charge. If you’ve seen the movies, why not experience the real thing? I fear some of my colleagues have died this way, by heading to war on the assumption that it is still Hollywood, that the heroes don’t die, that you can’t get killed like the others, that they’ll all be Huntley Haverstocks with a scoop and the best girl. But you can get killed. In just one month during one year in Bosnia we lost 38 reporters.
When I first set out to write my new book, I intended it to be a reporter’s chronicle of the Middle East over almost 3 decades. But as I prowled through the shelves of papers in my library more than 350,000 documents and notebooks and files, some written under fire in my own hand, some punched onto telegram paper by tired Arab telecommunications operators, many pounded out on the clanking telex machines we used before the Internet was invented, I realized my book was going to be more than a chronology by witness reports. My father, the old soldier of 1918, read my account of the Lebanon war, but was not going to live to read this book. I’m sorry about that, because this book is partly about the need to refuse the narrative of history laid down to us by our masters—the need to challenge, and also the need to refuse to obey orders. I say that because my father at the end of the First World War was ordered to execute an Australian soldier by firing squad. The soldier in question—his name was Frank Hills and he came from Melbourne and he had made the big mistake of joining the British army after he was invalided at Gallipoli where he served with the Aussies. He killed a British military policeman in Paris; my father was ordered to execute him; he was like my father 19 years old. My dad was a very right-wing man. He liked magistrates, capital punishment. He said, No. Of course the poor Australian was executed by someone else. But my father said, No. And that’s partly what my book is about.
My father would tell me to always look into the past to understand the present. If only the world had not gone to war in 1914—if only we had not been so selfish in concluding the peace. We victors promised independence to the Arabs and support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and promises are meant to be kept. And so those promises—and the Jews naturally thought that their homeland would be all of Palestine-- were betrayed. And the millions of Arabs and the Jews in the Middle East are now condemned to live with the results. In the Middle East it sometimes feels as if no event in history has a finite end, a crossing point, a moment when we can say “Stop!
Enough! This is where we will break free.” I think I understand that time warp. My father was born in 1899 in the century before last. I was born in the first half of the last century. Here I am, I tell myself, in 1980, watching the Soviet army invade Afghanistan; in 1982 cowering in the Iranian front line opposite Saddam’s legions; in 2003 observing the first American soldiers in the 3rd Infantry Division cross the Jumhuriya bridge over the Tigris River, and yet the battle of the Somme opened just 30 years before I was born. Bill Fisk was in the trenches of France only 28 years before my birth, I would be born within 6 years of the Battle of Britain, just over a year after Hitler’s suicide. I saw the planes returning to Britain from Korea, and I remember my mother telling me in 1956 that I was lucky; that had I been older, I would have been a British conscript invading Suez.
If I feel this personally, it’s because I’ve witnessed events which over the years can only be defined as an arrogance of power. The Iranians used to call the U.S. the center of world arrogance, and I used to laugh at this. But I’ve begun to understand what it means. After the Allied victory in 1918 at the end of my father’s war, the victors divided up the lands of their former enemies. In the space of just 17 months, they created the borders of Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia and most of the Middle East. And I’ve spent my entire career, in Belfast, in Sarajevo and Beirut and Baghdad watching the people within those borders burn. America invaded Iraq not for Saddam Hussein’s mythical weapons of mass destruction which had long ago been destroyed, but to change the map of the Middle East much as my father’s generation had done more than 80 years earlier. But my book, it turned out, all my researches were very much about torture and executions. Perhaps our work as journalists does open the door of the occasional cell; perhaps we do sometimes save a soul from the hangman’s noose. But over the years there’s been a steadily growing deluge of letters, both to myself and to the editor of The Independent, and even phone calls to me in Beirut, in which readers more thoughtful and more despairing than ever before, plead to know how they can make their voice heard when democratic governments seem no longer inclined to represent those who elected them. (applause) How, these readers ask, can they prevent a cruel world from poisoning the lives of their children? “How can they help them?” a British woman living in Germany wrote to me after The Independent published a long article of mine about the rapes of the Muslim women in Gacko in Bosnia, women who had received no international medical aid, no psychological help, no kindness two years after their violation.
I suppose in the end we journalists try, or should try to be the first impartial witnesses to history. If we have any reason for our existence, the least must be our ability to report history as it happens, so that no one can say “We didn’t know; nobody told us.” Amira Hass, the brilliant Israeli journalist on Ha’aretz newspaper whose reports on the occupied Palestinian territories have outshone anything written by non-Israeli reporters, discussed this with me more than two years ago. I was insisting, being a Brit, that we have a vocation to write the first page of history. But she interrupted me: “No, Robert, you’re wrong.
Our job is to monitor the centres of power.” And I think that’s the best definition of my job, journalism, I’ve ever heard.
Especially so when governments and politicians take us to war when they have decided that they will kill and others will die.
But can we perform that task? I still don’t know the answer. My life as a journalist has been a great adventure and it still is—and an increasingly dangerous one, I might add. Yet looking through all the months of writing with all the accounts of pain, injustice and horror, the sins the fathers visited upon the children, it turned out that my book was also about genocide. I used to argue—hopelessly I’m sure—that every reporter should carry a history book in his back pocket. In 1992 I was in Sarajevo and once as Serb shells whiffled over my head, I stood upon the very paving stone where Gavrilo Princip stood as he fired the fatal shot that sent my father to the trenches of the First World War. And of course the shots were still being fired in Sarajevo when I was there in 1992. It was as if history were a gigantic echo chamber. That was the year in which my father died.
How did we go from that titanic war—the war of 1914-18 through the making of the Middle East through the Second World War, through the Arab-Israeli wars, through such a bolt of historical tragedy and reach Iraq? Highway 8 is the most dangerous road in Iraq. It is littered with smashed and burnedout American trucks and police cars blown up by rocketpropelled grenades. Those who tell you that things are getting better, that the West controls Iraq should take Highway 8.
Every government checkpoint was abandoned, insurgents swarmed through the villages to the east. This is kidnap country, and throat-cutting country. Highway 8 is a symbol of the collapse of all our dreams.
But as I was standing by the road one day, talking to an Iraqi family, I was searching for the location of a Red Cross car whose driver had just been murdered, the ground began to move under my feet, and a long, roaring beast of sound came up the road. And from farther south a cloud of gray smoke was powering up into the sky, a thousand exhausts turning the sun dark, the biggest military convoy I’ve ever seen in my life. The Americans were changing their brigades, the largest military movement since the Second World War, a 40-mile trail of armor and men moving up Highway 8 towards me. With the Iraqis, I sat in the muck at the side of the road: this I had to watch; this I had to absorb, I thought, if I was to understand our new war.
Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, Humvees, hundreds of trucks with thousands of lean young men in battle dress, wearing shades, pointing their rifles into the dangerous countryside. Porcupine quills, they reminded me of, along the sides of each lorry, hour after hour of them. Apache helicopters, 6 of them, swooping along the road, turning like giant rodents and switching back in the other direction. The soldiers didn’t bother to look up. They glanced at us, a few of them, at the Englishman and the Iraqis sitting in the dirt as these twentieth century crusaders drove up to their great concrete wall fortresses on the Tigris, deep into the wilderness of occupation. And I did I think begin to understand: two thousand years ago, a little bit more to the west in Lebanon, I would have been sitting by the roadside as the ground shook to the tramp of Rome’s legions.
Now we live in the American empire.
Yes, this war was about oil. After all, if asparagus or carrots had been the national export of Iraq I don’t think we would have been there. (laughter) Yes, it seems it was fueled by folly and arrogance and lies. But it was also I think about the desire, the visceral need, to project power on a massive scale, based on neoconservative fantasies, no doubt, but unstoppable and inexorable. Our army can go to Baghdad, so we will go to Baghdad. And we will pour over Sumeria and Babylon and all the places and across the land where civilization allegedly began. As I go through my words today and I look through the record of the last two and a half years, the Iraqi insurrection takes on an epic quality. In Baghdad now, many reporters practice what I call “hotel journalism,” hiding in their rooms, ordered by their own security men—armed of course—to avoid the swimming pool. Using Iraq’s deteriorating mobile phone system to talk to the Americans and British, marooned in their own fortress across the Tigris behind the concrete and machinegunning embrasures of what was Saddam’s presidential palace.
Patrick Cockburn of The Independent and myself and several other journalists do still move around Baghdad in private cars with Iraqi friends, even traveling the murderous airport road, but we do so quietly, quickly, often hiding behind an Arabic-language newspaper, peeking out the window, stopping only for a minute after the suicide bombing, to look at the carnage, the severed heads, one quick word with a witness and back in the car before the crowd comes over to you. Mouse journalism. Now the military rulers of “new” Iraq have to be helicoptered from their compound to the airport. They can’t use the airport road; we have to, though. And from that castle all they can see of the country they rule is through the downslits of their own defenses. We’re talking about the Iraqi government, and the civil servants, and the American diplomats, and the British diplomats A few weeks ago I traveled with a builder friend of mine to the Chateau St. Giles, a great crusader castle at Tripoli in northern Lebanon. And I said to him, “Tell me how they built it; tell me as a builder what you think about the crusader castles.” He said, basically, they are churches with defenses built on to them.” And then we went to the top. “Look, Robert—you can’t look over the top of the wall because they were so afraid of arrows.” And we knelt down and looked through the arrow slit, and I saw a bit of a mosque and a bit of a road with a woman walking on it. That was all the crusaders saw of the lands they occupied and held. And we are exactly the same now, in Baghdad.
But we’re also crusaders blind to reality. George W. Bush and Tony Blair and indeed your own prime minister John Howard, still claim that the war is going well. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed and are still being killed.
Wal-Mart suicide bombers blow themselves up at the rate of two or three a day. When the Hizbollah were fighting the Israelis in southern Lebanon we’d be shocked to see one suicide bombing a month. When the Palestinians were in conflict with the Israelis their suicide bomber executioners—because that’s what they are because they see the children they’re going to kill, it would be one a week and we were amazed. Now in Iraq if there are 7 suicide bombings a day, we find it normal. Don’t ask me how this happens, but some phenomenon is happening which we do not understand. Corpses are found by the dozen on the banks of the Tigris, or dumped on Baghdad garbage pits.
Foreigners are kidnapped and decapitated on tape. No WMD were ever discovered or any links of course between Saddam and September 11. Yet the war is going well. A second war against terror has now started, according to Mr. Blair, as he said this to astonished reporters; Iraq is on the road to democracy after national elections. Democracy is blossoming across the Middle East, or so we are supposed to believe.
Each morning in Baghdad I usually visit the mortuaries.
You want to know how many people died? Go and count the bodies. One day about 3 weeks ago, there were 9 corpses brought in--we’re talking about death by violence, not heart attacks or old age—9 corpses brought in by 9 o’clock. By 12 o’clock there were 26. When the Americans bring bodies to the mortuaries, the attendants are not permitted to carry out autopsies, and I still haven’t found out why. Outside the relatives of the dead shriek and weep and swoon with sorrow and curse the Americans, even if their loved ones were killed in family feuds or revenge attacks. The Americans and the British keep no lists of the Iraqi dead; we only mourn our own sacrifices—1,900 Americans. It will be 2000 soon. In the Baghdad mortuary one day last month I managed to discover a computer that showed me precisely the figures of violent deaths of the city of Baghdad alone in just July. And the figure was 1,100—the highest ever experienced in the medical surgery in Baghdad. Now extrapolate that across Baquba, Kirkuk, Falluja, Ramadi, Basra, Najaf, Nasiriya-you‘re talking of doubling or trebling that figure each month. Three thousand—that’s 36,000 a year. And people say that 100,000 since the beginning of the invasion is an exaggeration—I doubt it.
How did it start, the beginning of the end? In Falluja, only days after the occupation began, soldiers of the 82nd Airborne opened fire on a crowd of Iraqi Sunni demonstrators killing 17 of them. They said they’d come under fire. But reporters who reached the school in which the troops were billeted could find no bulletholes. The demonstrators wanted the school back.
The insurgency started within hours. The city would later be taken over by Iraq’s ferocious resistance along with Ramadi.
And whole provinces of Iraq would fall, and have fallen under the control of insurgents. So the Americans invaded Falluja again, for the third time and fought their way over the rubble of the ruined city. We have won. Victory.
After Paul Bremer arrived as America’s proconsul, he it was who was to appoint the former CIA agent Iyad Allawi as the first “interim” prime minister, he would call the insurgents—you may remember this—“dead-enders.” “diehards,” “Saddam’s remnants.” All it would need was the capture of Saddam himself and the rebellion would end. Ha ha ha. He was wrong. I remember working out what was going to happen once when a young angry Iraqi in Ramadi whose family had just been shot at an American checkpoint came up to me and said, “The resistance came to my house last night and asked me and my brother to join but I refused.” And the reason, he said, was “if we drive the Americans out, we’ll get Saddam back again. But if they eliminate Uday and Qusay, the two horrible sons of Saddam, “I will kill Americans myself.” You see the logic. And the Americans did kill the awful sons. And then inevitably, they found Saddam in a hole in the ground. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we got him!” Bremer crowed. “This is a great day in Iraq’s history.” Oh yes, indeed. December 13, 2003 was supposed to be the end of the insurrection, you see. After this, why would anyone bother to fight the occupiers of Iraq?
Unkempt, you remember. His tired eyes, betraying defeat, even the $750,000 in cash found in his hole in the ground demeaned Saddam. Soon he would be introduced in a secret court, in chains. He looked in that extraordinary first videotape, I thought, like one of those barbarian prisoners captured in ancient Rome.
And there was a kind of satisfaction, driving up to al-Dawr on the Tigris River in northern Iraq, to arrive at the orange orchard where he was discovered, and climb as I did into his very little hole in the ground. I lay down inside it. Seven months earlier, I’d sat on his red velvet presidential throne in the greatest of all his marble palaces. Did I sit on it? Of course I did. (laughter) Now here I was, lowering myself into the damp, dark and grey concrete interior of his final retreat. The midget bunker buried beside the Tigris—all 8 feet by 5, I guess, and near to an underground prison as any of his victims might imagine. Instead of chandeliers it was just a cheap plastic fan attached to an air vent. Ozymandias came to mind. This, after all, was where his hopes finally crumbled to dust. And it was cold.
To climb inside this most famous of all bolt-holes—and remember this was no Fuhrer bunker with SS guards and switchboards and secretaries taking down last words for posterity. To climb inside I had to sit on the wooden entrance level and swing my legs into a narrow aperture and find my footing on 4 stairs made of earth. You used your arms to lower yourself into this last remnant of Iraqi Ba’athist history. Then you were sitting on the floor. No light, no water, only the concrete walls and an earthen ceiling above you. Yet above this sullen underground cell, there was a kind of paradise of thick palm fronds and orange trees dripping gold with mandarins, thickets of tall reeds, the sound of birds buried in the tree tops.
There was even an old blue-painted boat tucked away behind a wall of fronds, the last chance of escape across the silver Tigris if the Americans closed in.
So what, I wondered, did Saddam discover here in the last days? Peace of mind after the years of madness and barbarity?
A place to reflect on his awesome sins, how he took his country from prosperity through foreign invasion and isolation and years of torture and suppression into a world of humiliation and occupation? The birds must have sung in the evening, the palm fronds above him must have clustered against each other in the night. But then there must have been the fear, the constant knowledge that betrayal was only an orchard away. It must have been cold in that hole. And no colder than when the hands of Washington the all-powerful reached out across oceans and continents and came to rest on an odd-looking pot plant and pulled it aside and hauled the caliph out of his hole in the ground. But there was one other conclusion which every Iraqi I spoke to agreed with: the bedraggled, pathetic man with the dirty hair, living in a hole in the ground with three guns and cash as his cave companions—this man was not leading the Iraqi insurgency against the Americans. If more and more Iraqis were saying before Saddam’s capture, like the man in Ramadi, that the one reason they would not join the resistance to occupation was the fear that if the Americans withdrew, Saddam would return to power, well that fear has now been taken away.
Saddam was gone, so the nightmare was over, was it? And the nightmare was about to begin, for both the Iraqis and for us. I remember an American search operation in Baghdad just after Saddam’s capture, all door- kicking and screaming: fuck this and fuck that. And just a few meters away I found a message newly spray-painted on a wall, not by hand but in a stencil in poor English perhaps but there were dozens of identical messages stenciled onto the walls for the occupiers: American soldiers - Run away to your home before you will be a body in a black bag, then be dropped in a river or a valley.
I go back and forth through my notes: May 2003, only a month after the Americans entered Baghdad. I first asked then in The Independent: Isn’t this time we called this a resistance war? I predicted the insurgency when the U.S. forces first entered Baghdad, but the speed with which the Americans found themselves fighting off a growing army of fighters was astonishing. In 5, 6 months a guerilla war might have started.
But a month? Listen to this: “Two Americans shot dead, another wounded by an unidentified gunman in Falluja.” “Two U.S. military policemen badly wounded by a rocket-propelled grenade at a north Baghdad police station.” “A grenade, thrown at American soldiers at Abu Ghraib. That was the toll of violence, just one day after the “liberation,” May 27, 2003. Not counting the Muslim woman who approached U.S. troops with a hand grenade in each hand, was shot down before she could throw one of them, and then as she tried to hurl her second grenade from the ground was finally killed by the Americans.
Even then, most people in Baghdad were receiving only 2 hours of electricity a day; the petrol queues, in a country whose oil fields had already been corralled by the U.S. military along with the lucrative cleanups and all the other American companies moving in on it, stretched for over two miles.
Children were being withdrawn from newly-opened schools after a mass of child kidnappings and rape. The police stations, now guarded by U.S. troops, had been turned into block houses, surrounded by armor and guards with heavy machine guns in lookout posts draped in camouflage netting and surrounded by concrete walls. Baghdad is now becoming a city of walls, 20 feet high, running for mile after mile on highways and shopping streets and the Tigris River.
We Westerners are on the run. Caged inside the marble halls of Saddam’s finest palace thousands of American officials and civil servants and Iraqi ministers are still trying to conjure up Rumsfeld’s dream of the New Iraq, but they’re cut off from their 5 million fellow Baghdadis. Iraq’s cities have now become hunting grounds for thieves and rapists. Its even older cities, the great archeological treasures of Sumeria, were left unguarded, so now an army of robbers has moved in to smash their way through buried treasures 3000 years old, to get to the older ones, turning the ancient sites into a land of craters. It looks sometimes, when I go to see these places, as if a B-52 has done a carpet bombing operation. After an international outcry following the theft of treasures from the Baghdad Museum, Washington sent a FBI/CIA team to investigate the robberies.
Now we’ve been told that we’ve got most of the artifacts back—it’s okay. But let me give you the real figures. In all, 15,000 objects were looted from the Baghdad Museum. Despite all the fanfare by the Western authorities, 11,000 are still missing, or were in June of this year. Including the famous 3,500-year-old “Mona Lisa” ivory depicting the head of an Assyrian woman. Of the 4,000 artifacts discovered, 1,000 were found in the U.S., 1,067 in Jordan, 600 in Italy, and the remainder in countries neighboring Iraq. But the postwar tearing apart of the Sumerian cities is on an infinitely greater scale. Historians may one day conclude that this mass destruction of mankind’s inheritance is among the most lasting tragedies of the Anglo-American “liberation” of Iraq.
Watching America’s awesome control over this part of the world-its massive firepower, its bases and personnel across Europe, the Balkans, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Bahrain, Doha, Oman, Yemen, Israel, of course, and now Iraq, you can see how the Iraqis thought it through. A generation of teenagers crucified in the 8- year war with Iran had grown up knowing nothing but suffering and death. What do their lives count now? And if the Sunnis among that generation should ever become allied with Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, what destruction might they sow among the Americans and any who choose to help them? A reborn Iraqi army of the shadows, forged in the greatest of all Middle East wars, and an army of suicide bombers: this would be an enemy to challenge any superpower.
Let me tell you a little story now. Five weeks before the Americans invasion of 2003, Osama Bin Laden made another of his boring audiotapes. And as usual, the Western reaction, the CIA reaction, the American government reaction, the journalists reaction: Is it him? When was it made? Is he still alive? Where is he? And as usual, they didn’t read or listen to what he said.
For this book I got a transcript of everything Bin Laden has said, and this is what he said 5 weeks before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I’m doing the translation from English into English (laughter) “It is beyond doubt that the crusader war [he’s talking about the war that’s coming] is first and foremost directed against the family of Islam, irrespective of whether the Socialist Party and Saddam survive or not. It is incumbent on Muslims in general, and specifically those in Iraq, seriously and in the manner of jihad, to roll up their sleeves against this tyrannical campaign. [He knew the war was coming—he was right. Saddam didn’t believe it at this stage.] Furthermore the Muslims are duty-bound to accumulate stocks of ammunitions and weapons. Despite our belief and our proclamation concerning the fact that Socialists are infidels, in present day circumstances there is a coincidence of interests between Muslims and Socialists [he means the Ba’ath party] in their battles against the crusaders. Socialists are unbelievers wherever they may be, be it in Baghdad or Aden.” But there’s a common interest.
What he was saying is that there will be an insurgency, and Al Qaeda and the Iraqi Ba’ath party can fight it together. That is how it all came about, and we missed it. Nobody spotted what Bin Laden said, and it was there for all of us to see if we wanted to. We chose not to. And the U.S. responded in the way of all occupation armies: its prison camps became places of shame.
Prisoners—11,300 by May of 2003 alone—were routinely beaten during interrogation. We had killings of prisoners in Bagram in Afghanistan. We like to think that we only began to discover this when the vile photographs of Abu Ghraib--and there were going to be few more shortly--were revealed to the world in 2004. But in my files, I discovered that my colleague Patrick Cockburn and I had been writing about torture and prison abuse in the late summer of 2003. ‘Sources’ may be a dubious word in journalism right now, but my sources for the beatings in Iraq were impeccable—but they were Iraqi, you see.
“Iraqi sources say” didn’t have any imprimatur. Now it was happening at U.S. military bases all over again. “Torture works,” an American Special Forces colonel boasted to a friend of mine two months ago. He was wrong; torture creates resistance; torture creates suicide bombers; torture ends up by destroying the torturers. I remember the village of Khan Dari where the first American to be blown up by a roadside bomb was killed in July 2003. When I got there his blood was still across the highway, and the crowd was gloating at his death. A man walked up to me who wanted to talk politics of a very violent kind. He had, he said, been a prisoner of the Americans and had been savagely beaten. “This is the way we deal with occupiers,” he said. “They came and said they were liberators, but when we realized they were occupiers, we had to fight. We are people of steel. The Americans and all the other occupiers will burn.” Then he said something as chilling as it was terrible.
“I have a one-year-old daughter,” he said, “and I would happily put a bomb in her clothes and send her to the Americans to kill them.” I didn’t ask him why he wouldn’t do it himself.
The Americans and British of course have benefited from all the true accounts of terror under Saddam. Would you rather he was still here in Iraq? Torturing and gassing his own people?
That’s what we would say to the Iraqis. Remember that line in Orwell’s Animal Farm: “You don’t want Mr. Smith back, do you?” Bahhhh, Bahhhhh. That’s what we want the Iraqis to do, you see. Don’t you think we did a good thing by getting rid of Saddam? Answer that question on ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). All of this because the original reasons for the invasion. Saddam’s possession of WMD. His links with the outrages of 9/11. Blair’s 45-minute warning turned out to be lies. But it was a dark comparison that Bush and Blair are making. If Saddam’s immorality and wickedness had to be the tuning fork against which our iniquities were judged, what does that say about us? If Saddam’s regime was to be the moral compass to define our actions, how bad, how iniquitous does that allow us to be? Saddam tortured and executed women in Abu Ghraib. We only sexually abused prisoners and killed a few of them, and murdered some suspects in Bagram and subjected them to some inhuman treatment in Guantanamo. We’re not as bad as Saddam. He was much worse. And thus it became inevitable that the symbol of Saddam’s shame, the prison at Abu Ghraib became the symbol of our shame too. What was interesting was the vastly different reactions in East and West to our abuses at Abu Ghraib. We civilized Westerners were shocked at the dog fighting and humiliation and torture our men and women inflicted on the inmates. Iraqis were outraged but were not shocked. Friends and relatives, some of whom had been locked up by the Americans had long ago told them of the revolting behavior of the American guards. They weren’t surprised by those iconic photographs that we saw. They already knew. They thought that’s how we always behaved.
In Baghdad this January last, I walked to the voting booths with whole Iraqi families—men with babies in their arms, children with their mothers—as the air pulsated to the sound of the day’s first suicide bomber. Boom, boom, you could hear it your bedroom in the morning. It was a moving experience.
Rarely do you see collective courage on this scale. An Iraqi government was formed of course, of sorts, dominated for the first time by the country’s Shi’ite Muslims, but flawed by the one phenomenon that underlined their legitimacy: the continued American occupation. In the polling stations, many of the families told us they were voting for power for the Shi’ites, of course, but also for the end of the occupation, and the occupation wasn’t going to end. The Americans must leave, I used to say to myself, and they will leave, but they can’t leave.
And that is the terrible equation that has turned sand into blood.
The Americans insisted they wanted democracy across the Middle East, and Iraq would be the start. But what Arab nation wanted to join the “hell disaster,” to quote Churchill on Palestine, that Iraq has now become? Yes, Arabs want some of that bright shining democracy which we like to brandish in front of them. They’d like a couple of packets of human rights, and 3 boxes of rights for women, too. But I think the Arabs wanted something else. They wanted justice, a setting to rights, a peaceful but an honorable, fair end to the decades of occupation and deceit and corruption and dictator creation. The Iraqis wanted an end to our prisons, as well as an end to Saddam’s regime. They wanted to control their own land and own their own oil. The Syrians wanted Golan back. The Palestinians wanted a state, even if it was built on less than 20% of mandate Palestine, not a 20-foot wall and occupation. The Iranians had freed themselves from the Shah, America’s policeman in the Gulf, to find themselves living in a graveyard of theocracy, their democratic elections betrayed by men who feed off the hatred of America that now lies like a blanket over the Middle East. The Afghans resisted the Soviet Union as we asked them to, and wanted us to help restore their country and they were betrayed by us again and finished in the hands of the Taliban until another great army came to bombard them and finish their land.
However much the newly installed rulers and the old surviving dictators whom we had helped to power over past decades praised the West, or thanked us for our financial loans or our political support, or thanked us for invading their countries, there were millions of Muslims who wanted something more—they wanted I think, freedom from us.
We might be able to escape history. We can draw neat lines:1918, end of the First World War. Okay. Versailles. 1919, problem. 1945, the end of the dictatorships of the world.
Finished with Japan, with Italy, with Nazi Germany. We can start again. We think we can recommend the same to the peoples of the Middle East, but we can’t. History, a history of injustice, cloaks them too deeply.
Albert Camus, the pied noir, who understood colonial oppression in Algeria all too vividly, wrote just after the Second World War, “It is true that we cannot ‘escape History,’ since we’re in it up to our necks. But one may propose to fight within History to preserve from History that part of man which is not its proper province. Modern nations are driven by powerful forces along the roads of power and domination. They hardly need our help and for the moment they laugh at attempts to hinder them. They will then continue, but I will ask only this simple question: what if these forces wind up in a dead end?
What if that logic of history on which so many now rely turns out to be a will-o-the-wisp?” T.S. Eliot, of all people, writing in the same year, 1946, addressed history with equal cynicism. “Justice itself tends to be corrupted by political passion, and that meddling in other people’s affairs which was formerly conducted by the most discreet intrigue, is now openly advocated, under the name of ‘intervention.’ Nations which once shrank from condemning the most terrible violation of human rights in Germany are now exalted to interfere in other countries’ government—and always in the name of peace and concord. Respect for the culture, the pattern of life of other people, is respect for history; and by history we set no great store.” So have these people all died for history then, the thousands of dead—let me be frank with myself, whom I have seen with my own eyes across the Middle East? The dead soldier with the bright wedding ring on his finger; the slaughtered masses of Sabra and Shatila, the Iranians putrifying in the desert, the Israelis blown to pieces by suicide bombers outside a pizzeria in Jerusalem; the corpses of Palestinians and Israelis and Lebanese and Syrians and Afghans, the unspeakable suffering of the Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian, Lebanese, Afghan, Israeli and yes, American torture chambers—was this for history? Was this for justice? Was this for us?
We know that the Balfour Declaration was made 88 years ago—the declaration that gave Britain support for a Jewish home in Palestine. But of course there will be nothing damaged of the Arab rights of those who live there. But for Palestinian refugees in the slums of their camps in Sabra and Shatila which is just a mile from my home in Beirut, Lord Balfour spoke yesterday, last night, only an hour ago. In the Middle East, the people live their past history again and again every day I think in the end we have to accept that our tragedy lies always in our past. That we have to live with our ancestors’ folly and suffer for it, just as they, in their turn, suffered and we in our turn are making the next generation suffer now. How to correct history, that’s the thing.
Well all I can say is as I’ve been writing my book I’ve heard each evening the footfall of my father on November 11, 1918, marching with soldiers of the King’s Liverpool Regiment into the small village of Louvencourt, on the Somme. That’s where it started. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.
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