There’s a maple tree by our front door. It goes orange most years and this year, it’s more orange than it has been for years. I thought I’d collect a leaf a day in November and build a picture if I keep adding them, one leaf at time, to a pile on the glass of my desktop scanner.
There is no doubt in my mind that The Great War for Civilisation is the best book I’ve ever read. Pity The Nation isn’t far behind. And now, on the day of Robert Fisk’s funeral here in Dublin, I feel the loss of one of the greatest journalists of all time. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to meet him and to be able to tell him, truthfully, that The Great War for Civilisation had such an effect on me that it changed the way I thought and how I related to people from the region. That’s what great writers do, isn’t it? They educate us. And Fisk told the truth no matter how inconvenient, and he did it by telling stories of war from the perspectives of the victims. I learned from him that there is no need to take a side when the story is about the victims. That awareness improved my understanding of the victims of wars in Iraq and Algeria, people I often worked with.
I learned today that the Irish military require that their officers read both Pity The Nation and The Great War for Civilisation before they can be eligible for UN duties in the Middle East. I think that’s quite a recommendation.
I want to add that back in 2014, Fisk gave me a couple of books to read. One was issue 95 of The Spokesman, the journal of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. It had an article by E W Thomas of the Supreme Court of New Zealand – An Indictment of Tony Blair, and the failure of the political process. The 2007 edition was entitled War Crimes and I’m confident that the conclusions in that article made it harder to avoid an inquiry. The Chilcott Inquiry was finally announced in 2009 and Chilcott’s conclusions released in 2016 were not wholly different from E W Thomas a decade earlier.
I met so many victims in the meantime. I worked with a man who was kidnapped in Baghdad and never seen again. Another died in a bomb blast at a wedding in Amman. I heard the fear in Iraqi colleagues’ voices when their loved ones called to announce a trip to the shops; it was balanced by the relief when they called to report their safe return.
I also knew a former British soldier whose soldier son died in a road traffic accident in Baghdad. I spent time with a paramedic on a project in North Africa who had bouts of PTSD. I found him one day crying in a hotel lobby. He still had pictures of people that he’d tried to help after they were blown up by roadside IEDs. He showed me a few pictures of the remains of the vehicles they had occupied. It didn’t take much imagination to see what was no longer there in the image would persist in the memory of a young paramedic. All part, as Fisk said of ‘the equation that turns sand into blood.’
Victims. Hundreds of thousands of victims of a failure of the political process.
As Fisk said, ‘If you go to war, you realise it is not primarily about victory or defeat, it is about death and the infliction of death and suffering on as large a scale as you can make it. It is about the total failure of the human spirit.’