This interview is part of the Institute's "Conversations with History" series, and uses Internet technology to share with the public Berkeley's distinction as a global forum for ideas.
Welcome to a Conversation with History. I'm Harry Kreisler of the Institute of International Studies. Our guest today is Robert Fisk who is the Middle East correspondent for The Independent newspaper of Great Britain. He has lived in the Middle East for almost three decades and holds more British and international journalism awards than any other foreign correspondent. He is the author of Pity the Nation: A History of the Lebanon War, and most recently The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East. Robert Fisk is visiting Berkeley to speak at a meeting of MECA. MECA is the Middle East Children's Alliance, and is committed to protecting and advocating for the rights of all people, especially children.
Mr Fisk, welcome to Berkeley.
Thank you very much.
Where were you born and raised?
At a town called Maidstone in Kent, southeast England, about thirty miles from London. My father was a local city accountant/treasurer. My mother was the daughter of local café owners. My dad came from the north of England, much older than my mother. He was a soldier in the First World War. My mum joined the RAF in the Second World War. My father was too old to fight. I was born in '46, just after the war was over.
Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?
Well, a lot. When I was ten my father and mother took me on my first trip abroad, which was to France. My father wanted to go back to the Somme and find the places where he'd fought and of course almost died, and to find the house which he spent his first night of peace in, on November 11, 1918. He did find the house and he didn't look in. He was too shy. I went back later with a film crew, many, many years later, and knocked on the front door, and the granddaughter of the old lady who looked after him is still living there. So, he introduced me to the history of the twentieth century, the terrible twentieth century.
I grew up as a little boy at home listening to the radio news which my father would listen to every morning, which was usually about news of British colonial withdrawal, wars in Cypress, Kenya, and Palestine. The constant trips back to France -- my father went back again and again to the western front, and he went to Dieppe, and he went to Verdun, the colossal, terrible French-German battle. By the time I went to school I knew that the Archduke Ferdinand's assassination had begun the First World War, I knew that the Second World War began in '39, that Germany invaded France in 1940; I had listened to the speeches of Churchill. So, my father's almost obsession with war, not in an unhealthy way but certainly in quite sometimes a disturbing way -- a huge picture of Churchill sitting in Downing Street, a photograph, hung gloomily over our fireplace year after year. Only after he died my mother asked if I thought it was cruel to take it down. I said, "No, take it down. Put up a watercolor of a river in Kent."
So I became very interested in history. My father was fascinated by books in history.
Why didn't you become a historian?
Well, what do you think this book is here?! I'm doing my best!
But at a certain point you decided to become a foreign correspondent.
No, I'll tell you what it was. I think that if you're a foreign correspondent you are a kind of historian. What made me become a journalist: at the age of twelve we had a black and white television at home and once a week it showed a movie. The rest of the time it was boring plays and concerts you wouldn't want to listen to. One afternoon on Sunday they showed Hitchcock's creaky old, slightly humorous, paranoid movie "Foreign Correspondent," in which Joel McCrea plays an American reporter, Huntley Haverstock, who is sent off from New York just before the beginning of the Second World War. He uncovers the top Nazi agent in London, he's chased by the Gestapo through Holland, witnesses a political assassination, is shot down by a German pocket battleship over the Atlantic, and lives to not only file a scoop to New York but wins the most gorgeous woman in the movie. And I thought at age twelve, "I wouldn't mind having this life!"
Of course it didn't actually turn out to be quite like that, but the fact of the matter is that this was the film that made be believe that to be a foreign correspondent would be a very adventurous and exciting life. I didn't realize it could be such a depressing or dangerous life. In movies, of course, the hero always lives. One of the tragic things about journalism is a lot of my colleagues have died because they arrived in wars with no experience except Hollywood, and thought the hero would live. Of course, that's not always the case. But that was the film that struck me.
My father wanted me to be a doctor, he wanted me to be a lawyer, one of the professions, and in despair one afternoon he invited one of those fake uncles we always have, the family friend who's called "Uncle Tom." There are a lot of fake uncles around. Uncle Tom arrived and said, "Robert, if you were in a law court and you saw the lawyer making his case before the judge, and you saw the reporter in his green eyeshade, which would you want to be?" I said, "The reporter, there's no doubt." I was about fourteen. And he turned to my father and said, "Your son is going to be a journalist."
What sort of education did you pursue before you hit the ground running?
Unfortunately it's not that simple. I went to English public school, which in England means private school, of course, which was brilliant at teaching Latin, extremely brutal -- I got beaten for reading a book on Czech history at a football match, Czech history being much more interesting than English football. I went to my first university and I did my BA in Latin and linguistics at University of Lancaster in the north of England. I had already started working (because I didn't think I was going to get a university place) on a local paper in Newcastle upon Tyne, which was a tough, drunken seaport, coal mining area in the northeast of England.
I then starting working, after my degree, on The Sunday Express in London, running the diary column where I was chasing lord mayors who'd run off with starlets. It wasn't bad; it was good training for covering the Middle East and asking nasty questions of politicians, American and British. I then joined The London Times before Murdoch took it over and destroyed its integrity, and I went to Northern Ireland for four or five years as a correspondent, my first conflict, a real one but nothing compared to the colossal bloodbaths I've covered and witnessed in Bosnia, Algeria, Middle East. There was a stoppage on the Times for a year, a trade union/management stoppage, during which time I started and completed a Ph.D. at Trinity College, University of Dublin. That Ph.D. was political science, but the subject was Irish neutrality in the Second World War, which enabled me to go through a lot of German and British World War II papers, which once again renewed my interest in that, and at the same time gave me a very critical historical background for the Middle East, because of course so much of Middle Eastern history that I'm watching results directly from my father's First World War/Treaty of Versailles, and the Second World War, the Jewish Holocaust, the creation of the State of Israel.
So in a way, this university education, plus my father's memories and upbringing, gave me a quite horrifying view of the twentieth century. I was born in the first half of the twentieth century. I'd have to add that my father was born in 1899, so I can say that my father was born in the century before last, and there are not many sixty-year-olds that can say that, by the way. But anyway, once this combination came together so that back in the Middle East (I'd already been in the Middle East before I did my Ph.D.), I suddenly found that I had this literary/historical interest that was locked into me. My Ph.D. became a best-selling book in Ireland on Irish history and it's still read in schools. In fact, I still lecture in Ireland on modern Irish history as Dr. Fisk, the academic, not Robert Fisk, the foreign correspondent. For that reason, I began to see more in my work than I'd ever seen before. I don't mean in what I was writing, but what I was witnessing and seeing.
As the years went by I switched to The Independent from The Times. The Independent had just begun, which was a bright, new, left-of-center paper and a paper which, very fortunately for me, has an editor and always had editors who believed that they should print what the journalists write, not what the owner wants. The owner wants the journalist to write what he wants too, which is a wonderful, sort of magical situation. Let us hope it always remains that way.
But that's basically what happened, that was my upbringing and entry into journalism, and unlike most correspondents I had the good fortune, or immense misfortune, depending on your point of view, to stay in the same area, doing the same job. In British newspapers we don't have this American tradition of sending a reporter there for three years and then just when he's begun to get the contacts and understand the language and history, move him somewhere else so he has to start all over again. I'm against this system. I think it allows you to know everything about nothing and nothing about everything. To smear journalists with the old line, "He's gone native," is rubbish. You don't go native in a war zone, it's far too dangerous. So, I've ended up and I'm still, for just over thirty years, based in Beirut.
Being a Journalist
I think it would be interesting for our audience, which is both the public and students, to ...
They're the same thing, aren't they?
You're making this very snobby academic thing about how the students are a little bit different than "ordinary" members of the public?
No. The interview is actually used for courses, but that in fact, both the undergraduates and the public need things explained in ways that academics often don't do.
We call them readers.
But readers, academics use jargon that ...
Unfortunately they do.
And so, the purpose here is to meet these dual needs.
Anthropologists use this sick language to exclude people from their "discourse," as they call it. I've written about them from Beirut.
I should say to our audience -- and I'd like to show the book. Chalmers Johnson once criticized me for not showing the book enough. I want to show your book again. Your book is beautifully written. You could be a novelist but you're actually on the ground. So, I think it's important for our audience to explore what's involved in doing what you do.
Well, it's full of footnotes and references and bibliography. It's fully academically referenced.
Yes. So, what are the skills required to do what you do, if somebody wants to imitate what you do?
[laughs] First of all, don't try to do what I do because it's a dangerous, lonely life, unless you really want to. And it can be a very depressing life, believe me. There was a former Sunday Times Middle East correspondent who tragically died in the 1973 war. He was killed on the front line on Golan. He once wrote with bitter irony and great humor that all you need to be as a foreign correspondent is have a few facts, a passible knowledge of English and rat-like cunning. And unfortunately (it's one of the reasons I laugh always at this) it has a good deal of truth to it.
What you have to do, and it's something that my editors have let me do, and if they didn't I wouldn't work for them, is you've got to feel passion. You've got to read. Read War and Peace. It's an extraordinary book about the reality of war. I remember in Sarajevo being with a Russian soldier who was in the UN force, under fire with him, shells are falling around us, and we were discussing Tolstoy's description of the Battle of Borodino and how it was exactly the same as what we were in now. You've got to read Anna Karenina, about lost love and betrayal. You've got to read novels about the First World War, you've got to read World War I poetry. Be fascinated and always carry history books in your back pocket. I read and read all day, sometimes eighteen hours a day. I work sometimes twenty-five-hour days, hard work being a foreign correspondent. But you've got to be able to write with passion and you've got to have the freedom to write angrily and to point out the bad guys. If I see a massacre I don't hesitate to say who's done it and why I think they did it.
Simon Kelner, who's my editor now at The Independent, describes our newspaper as a "views-paper," and he wants his correspondents out on the frontline saying what it's like and saying who the bad guys are. Usually it turns out they're all bad. Maybe the reporter is too, but certainly most of the -- I remember once, Ed Cody at the Washington Post who was then on the AP (still working in Peking for the Post now), was taking me around Lebanon for my first battle in the civil war in 1976. He said, "Bob, a lot of people will tell you the Israelis are right, or the Syrians are right, or Palestinians are right, or the Christians are right, or the Muslims are right in Lebanon." He said, "Believe me, they're all bastards." Of course you can take lots of issues with that, but what he was trying to say was there are no good guys in war. And he's right, they're aren't. Movies give you the idea that war is about victory and defeat, heroism and cowardice. It's not. War is primarily about the total failure of the human spirit. It's about death and the infliction of death. And if you don't realize that, you'll die in a war. You really will. Forget Hollywood.
One of the things that stands out in your work is that you go to places where few people dare to go, and you listen and you see, and then you write ...
That's the excitement of journalism and writing. That's the excitement of watching history as it happens. If you're going to spend your time at presidential press conferences, off-the-record briefings with embassies, ambassadors, defense attachés, write worthy analysis, calling up hopelessly boring people in what I call "tink-thanks" in Washington or New York or London, why be a journalist? You can live in County Mayo or Denver and do that. With a mobile phone and the internet (which I don't use actually, but that's a different matter), you don't need to go [abroad]. It seems to me that our only role at the moment is to be out there on the street, in the battlefield, with soldiers, with civilians, in hospitals particularly, and record the suffering of ordinary people and talk to them.
A colleague of mine, an Australian, came back from Southern Lebanon the other day very moved. She said people had just lost their daughter who died in a cluster bomb left over from the Israeli invasion, and she said they were people who spoke with such nobility. I see a lot of nobility in ordinary people. I'm not really interested -- I mean, I'm interested in why people go to war, why Bush went to war.
Before the Iraq war, because I travel to the States a lot to give lectures, I was at Harvard on September 12, when Bush gave his General Assembly lecture on the worthlessness of the United Nations. I didn't believe there was going to be an invasion of Iraq. I couldn't believe it. My editor didn't believe it but my foreign editor did.
I went down to the United Nations; I'm accredited to the UN, so I went and I sat very close to Bush. I'd never seen him in the flesh before. TV gives this flat, bland impression. And I saw Bush and there was a kind of -- I remember what the Iranians always referred to, and I never believed, understood it: the Iranians always talked about the arrogance of power. [mimicking Bush] "The people of the United States of America..." -- he always looks from side to side, two cues, of course. And I realized, "He's going to go to war, he's going to do it." I walked out of the General Assembly and called [my editor]. I said, "Leonard, I'm sorry, I was wrong. There's going to be a war." Then by pure chance I was back in the States lecturing on the east coast when Colin Powell made his famous February 5 statement in the Security Council. So, I went down to the UN again, in New York, back this time into the Security Council. And again, astonishing. There was Tenet sitting like Ernest Borgnine, behind Colin Powell ...
Or Peter Lorre? No, Ernest Borgnine ...
No, no, no, Ernest Borgnine. Gangster with a cigar. He does look at bit like Borgnine actually, Tenet. And from the corner -- you didn't see this on television -- in came little Jack Straw, our foreign secretary, in a massive power suit, and he looked around, caught sight of Colin Powell and ran with his little feet, got this big American hug, you know. It told you a lot about power and why Blair does what Bush wants. And then Colin Powell started producing this -- again, you have to be there on the scene. Watching on television was not good enough. The first thing that they showed was this big artist's impression. Colin Powell told us that the Iraqis were now using mobile chemical weapons laboratories -- [non-verbal sound] - difficult with a test tube on the train, right? And there was a picture of a train with a cross section and a scientist in a long white coat holding a test tube, of course, of course, right? And this was supposed to be the mobile weapons lab.
I looked at this and I thought, hang on a minute. Whoever drew this in the State Department or the Pentagon has never been on Iraqi state railways. They come off the track all the time. With sanctions the railway line is no good. You couldn't possibly have a -- even the basic system was wrong. And then they had some quotes from a Republican Guard allegedly talking to another on the phone intercept in which one said, "Whatever you do, don't let them see this!" And the reply was, "Consider it done, sir." Now nobody actually gave us the Arabic of this, which I would love to have read, but I just watched this and I said this is bullshit -- forgive me -- this stuff comes out of the rear end of a bull. This is rubbish.
I wrote the next day that the New York Times will take this in its usual sober way, and sure enough, it did, with Judith Miller beside it on weapons of mass destruction. Ahh, American journalism!
But you had to be there to have the confidence to say it's not right and analyze it. Being there, you know, a few meters from Powell, rather than just sitting in London and watching it on a satellite TV, sitting in Beirut and watching it on satellite TV. So, it's being there that is what is important. If I can't be there, I don't want to be a journalist anymore.
The Press and the Powerful
As you describe your work, and you're doing it so well, it strikes me that it's time to ask you about -- the American awful way of saying it is "mission statement." But let's say as a journalist and ...
I hate "mission statement" -- awful.
Okay. But what is your goal in what you do? I think it's about critiquing power on the one hand, which you've just done, but it's almost about, from what you just said, empathy with the people who are suffering the consequences.
I tell you, I go into a hospital or a ruined building in Lebanon and I see children with their hands chopped off, and I see things that would make you puke every morning. And then I sit in Beirut and I turn on my television and I see our own dear Lord Blair: "Well, we can only absolutely have a cease-fire when we're sure that that cease fire will hold," and I know he's lying. What he means is that Bush doesn't want a cease-fire yet because he wants the Israelis to have more time to beat the Hezbolah, therefore more children are going to be shrieking in hospitals. But they don't care about that.
Their experience of war is television. There isn't a single Western cabinet minister anywhere in the Western hemisphere or the Western world that's ever experienced war now. Amazing. When I grew up we had on the prime ministers Eden, Churchill, Atlee, that had been in the First and Second World Wars. When I first worked in Northern Ireland, the first secretary of state was William Whitelaw, who'd been in the crossing of the Rhine, invasion of Germany, '44, '45. Our leaders now just take it all off Hollywood. "Bring 'em on!," wasn't that what Bush said? Where did he get this? Where was this from, which movie, you know?
It's our leaders who are that way but it's also our soldiers, because they're playing computer games before they go to war.
Yeah, but once they're in the war I can tell you that they play the computer games with a different framework of mind. I talk to American troops in Iraq. I talk to French troops in southern Lebanon, I talk to [other] soldiers, as well. But again, yes, it's seeing this suffering on this scale. Sometimes the family is standing by the bed of a dying child and they round on me, you know, who am I and what do I care? I got beaten up by a gang of Afghans in a village just after 2001, 9/11, on the border. Their families were all being killed in B-52 strikes, and they attacked me with stones and banging rocks into my face. It was very bad. I was very close to being killed. And I wrote in the paper, "If my family had been killed by a B-52 and I was an Afghan I'd probably do the same to Robert Fisk." It doesn't forgive them or excuse them but I understand it, you know?
You see this terrible suffering, these monumental crimes against humanity. Let's speak frankly. That's what we are talking about. We've all committed them, not just al Qaeda. We all committed crimes against humanity. If you don't report it people won't know. I always say in a rather arrogant way, as I think I've come to realize, that we can tell you what's happening, don't ever say no one told you, don't say you didn't know. Add to that, and this is in the book, and I know you've interviewed Amira Hass, the very fine Israeli journalist's view on what our job is or should be -- should be, it isn't necessarily -- of foreign correspondents, and our job is to monitor the centers of power, to challenge authority all the time, all the time, all the time, especially when they go to war and they're going to kill people and lie about it.
The sad thing is that we largely don't do that. You only have to watch the press conferences. "Mr. President, Mr. President!" "Yes, Bob." "Yes, Judy." "Yes, John." You know? This osmotic parasitic relationship between journalism and power, particularly in the United States, but it applies in Europe and especially Britain, is very painful to watch because the questions are like, "Can you give us some more information, General, about how many of your men were involved?," rather than, "Can you explain why three children have been brought in dead and we've seen the videotape, and your men were there?" You know? Totally the hugging close to power. You watch American television, the State Department correspondent, the White House correspondent, the Pentagon -- they're basically spokesmen, or spokespersons as you like to call it, spokeswomen. They are no more journalists than the official spokesman for the State Department or the President or the White House. This glomming across of journalism into power -- I saw it very clearly in 1990 when American troops were gathering in Saudi Arabia for the first Gulf War, to liberate Kuwait from Saddam. The funny thing was, lots and lots of journalists were turning up, especially from America, Midwest guys who'd never been abroad before, in military costume. One guy turned up from actually Denver wearing shoes with camouflaged leaves on them.
Camouflaged leaves -- no, seriously. I mean, if you've seen the desert, even in a picture, you'll know that there aren't an awful lot of trees there!
But the funny thing was, I'd go out in the desert and I wasn't embedded at all, I'd just drive up to American troops or British troops and they'd talk to me because they were lonely and they were tired and they were wet and they had food poisoning all the time. I'd always bring piles of newspapers to give them and packets of cigarettes, and they'd talk and they were all writing, they were trying to write poetry. One guy in an Abrams tank had worked up a huge board game about flying between planets and knowing when they could refuel their spaceship. It was, of course, about being a tank crewman in a desert not knowing if they'd get a re-supply of fuel, as I quickly realized. And these were quite literary people. A British guy was trying to write poetry, it wasn't very good but he was trying. And it suddenly dawned on me that all the soldiers wanted to be journalists and all the journalists wanted to be soldiers. There's something there which was very dangerous, getting loose.
In looking at your career as it has evolved over the thirty years and covering all these wars, talk a little bit about how the work has changed you.
Yes. Did your writing become better? Was there one parti--
Yes. It became a lot better.
And was it the commitment to what you were doing, and you had so much to tell, and working long hours ... ?
No. It was because what I'm seeing was so terrible that it gave me an absolute determination to write more freely, to tell it how it is in the best tradition of American journalism as opposed to the worst traditions which we see now. You know, I was thinking the other day as I was flying here from Beirut, something that Seymour Hirsch told me. I like Hirsch. He's a mate of mine. We don't see much of each other, we talk on the phone occasionally. He said, "You know, there's no kudos in American newspapers these days, breaking a big story that's going to be controversial. They want safe journalism." And he said, "You know, I was a street reporter in Chicago." I started off as a street reporter in Newcastle upon Tyne, I understand exactly what he meant.
I think that's a problem. An awful lot of journalism in the east coast of America now is graduate school journalism, maybe degrees that don't count in journalism -- I mean, degree in English history or politics, yes, but not journalism. I was very struck by the fact that reporters are supposed to be obedient now. Look at the reporting of the West Bank, where American journalists keep referring to occupied territories as "disputed territory," where the wall is called a "fence," where a colony is called a "settlement" or a "neighborhood," or an "outpost", where [there is a] constant desemanticizing of war to make it safe journalism so you won't be called controversial. Heaven spare you if someone falsely accuses you of being anti-Semitic. This kind of journalism breeds internal laziness, and it's lethal, because if a public is presented with pictures of the Middle East in which there are "fences" and "disputes," a fence like the bottom of your garden, a dispute which you can solve over a glass of water, cup of tea, and a court case, then the use of violence becomes generically violent, it becomes mindless, and thus the Palestinians, for example, who may throw stones, or whatever, become a generically violent people. In fact, if there are walls and if there are people occupying your own land and keeping it -- I'm against all violence for all reasons whatsoever, but at least you can understand what it means.
We desemanticize and make war more lethal in the same way as television, for example, will not show you the worst scenes that we see. I remember once a crew coming back from Basra in the Iraqi/American war, not embedded -- they were on the Iraqi side of the line -- and they came back to Baghdad with terrible pictures. A kid had its hand blown off, a woman is shrieking with shrapnel sticking out of her stomach, and they sent these pictures across to London, to the Reuters bureau, and I remember this haughty voice coming back, "We can't show these pictures. Don't even bother to send anymore." You know: "We're going to have people puking at breakfast time. We -- we -- this is pornography!" You see? And then the worst quote of all. He said -- and I remember his words, I read about it from Baghdad during the war -- he said, "You know, we've got to show respect for the dead." And I thought, "You bloody well don't show any respect for them when they're alive, but when they're in bits we've got to respect their bodies." Heaven spare me.
I always say to people -- on the road, Basra in '91, I saw women, as well as soldiers and civilians, old men, torn apart by British bombs as well as American. And dogs were tearing them to pieces to eat, it was lunchtime in the desert. I tell you, if you saw what I saw you'd never support a war again. But you won't show that on television. And by not showing that on television we present the world with a bloodless sand pit. We pretend war is not that bad. It's "surgical," always "surgical strikes." Surgery's a place where you're cured in the hospital, not where you're murdered or killed or torn apart. Thus, we make it easier for our leaders -- our generals, our prime ministers, our presidents -- to sell us war, and for us to buy into war and go along with that. That makes us lethally culpable and potentially war criminals in a very moral sense of the word -- or immoral sense, I should say.
So, this lack of visibility about what war is really about is conducive to the changes in military strategy which say, "We can do it all by computer, we can go into a place like Iraq and bomb the place, and then leave immediately." So, there's a fit between what's happening in the culture and the kind of war American leaders, at least, want to wage.
The culture of journalism and war hasn't changed an awful lot. Reporters during World War II with Western armies were pretty much on the side. And why not? We all knew ("we" -- I wasn't alive yet) that Hitler's was an evil, wicked, terrible regime, but they were able to tell quite a lot about the blood and the splintered bones and the civilians. It got out just as, of course, the concentration camps, the extermination camps, when they were liberated, rightly got out. But pictures -- you see, film cameras were not the same then. Vietnam was undoubtedly a turning point. You did see a lot of blood and gore in Vietnam -- not as much as there was, but you saw quite a lot.
And it became a political problem?
Exactly. And rightly so. The problem now is that at the end of the day, television will not push any limits. We've got to have access, we've got to have pictures, we've got to have pictures. And at the end of the day, every time, every time, television journalists, crews, companies, have been confronted by the military saying, "You may not, you will not," they said, "We've got to, we'll get a high court writ, we'll go to court, freedom of the press," and [then] they cave in and they do what the military wants. The military know they're going to do what they want.
At the moment, it's almost impossible to travel anywhere in Iraq, and the American military's very happy with that. We can't investigate the bombing of villages, we can't go to Helmand Province in Afghanistan, because we'd be killed. My colleague, Patrick Coburn of The Independent wrote a very finely written piece the other day in The Independent. He said, "The worst thing about listening to Tony Blair say that things are getting better in Iraq is that if we went there where we could prove him wrong, we would have our throats cut, because it's getting worse." You see? But [Blair] can say because we don't go there, it's getting better. See?
The culture of not covering war correctly is going to ride along, but you always find a way around it if you want to, if you want to. I don't have a camera -- well, I carry a still picture camera. I still use real film, by the way, I'm not digitalized yet. (But then again, I don't use e-mail or the internet.) But I can wangle my way and talk my way, I know enough people in that region to get where I want to go.
Looking at your extraordinary career --
It isn't extraordinary, actually. It's a pretty depressing career.
It's extraordinary in comparison to the way many reporters cover these situations, if they cover them at all. But I'm curious, was there one event, one war, one incident, one village destroyed, where you did a second take and it brought you to a new level of understanding war?
Oh, yes, yes.
And what was that?
The massacre at Sabra-Shatila, from September 16 - 18, 1982, when Israel's Phalangist Christian Lebanese allies were sent into the camp and massacred up to 1,700 Palestinians. I got into the camp with American and Norwegian colleagues and the murderers were still in the camp, you could still hear the shooting. And we found piles of bodies. We had to climb over them on our hands and knees, corpses rotting in the sun.
We should explain to our audience that this was the Israelis allowing the Christian Lebanese ...
No, they sent the Christian Lebanese militias into the camp. They sent them in to destroy "Palestinian terrorists." There weren't any armed men in the camp, of course. And what was terrible about it, as the Israelis later disclosed in their official account, is that the Israelis watched this happen and did nothing. I was very struck by this because when I was in the camp I could see the Israelis watching and doing nothing. They saw and they did nothing.
I remember once I ran with my American colleague. We heard the murderers coming down the street, and we ran into the back of this house, this backyard of this house, and closed the door gently and waited, hoping they wouldn't find us because we thought they were just going to kill us too, we were witnesses. I looked down out of the left-hand side of my eye and I saw this young woman lying on her back with her head up towards the sun, the hands spread out, with a halo of clothes pegs around her head. She'd been putting up the washing. And from behind her back was running this ant's track of blood across the yard. She'd just been murdered. As we came through the backyard, the murderers were obviously leaving through the front door. And I remember watching this woman, thinking, "She'll get up. She'll get up and say, 'I've got a pain in my back.'" She was dead, of course. That night, I went back to the AP bureau. It was a Saturday and we didn't have a Sunday paper on the Times then. I didn't have to file until the next day, and I sat there in absolute distraction that this had happened. I'd never seen killing on this scale, this cruelly, watched by a "civilized" army.
I wrote that night with a freedom of anger and passion I'd never felt before, because there were victims on a massive scale. A very fine Israeli writer later compared it to the Ustashi killings in Bosnia in the Second World War, which the Germans watched. That wasn't saying the Israelis were Germans, which is rubbish, they're not, but that's what he compared it to.
I remember watching the AP bureau as phone calls came in from New York, "Well, can you really call this a massacre?" I remember saying to the editor of AP -- I was working from his bureau, I said, "When is it a massacre [rather than] a crime against humanity? And when do you [define it as] a massacre? Are you really getting involved in this? Haven't you seen the pictures?" And the picture editor of AP was saying, "I can't believe this. This is a war crime, and a war crime is like producing dirty pictures out of an envelope." You know?
I remember discussing afterwards this particularly with American television reporters. (They were using first videotape then, of course, footage. It was very difficult. They had to take the videotape to Damascus, have it satellite up to -- it wasn't just having a little machine in those days.) And we all agreed that we now had a freedom to speak about the Middle East wars, and to speak about Israel, which we never had before. Later, of course, a new generation of journalists came and many of them went back to reporting things the old way where you had to talk about "disputed" instead of "occupied" and "fences" instead of "walls," or whatever. But that's what changed me.
After that -- I remember distinctly people telling me -- my mother, who was still alive then (my father and mother are dead now), that "You really write quite differently now." Quite a lot of my colleagues did too. David Hearst of The Guardian -- I noticed the way his writing changed and became harsher, and became much more passionate and intense. I believe journalists should be [that way]. This business where we've got to give 50% of the story to one side and 50% to the other in order to be "impartial," absolute rubbish. We should be partial. We should say who the bad guys are. We should denounce the Syrians when they commit murder in Hamra, and the Iraqis when they gas people, and the Israelis when the massacre refugees on the roads of southern Lebanon. If we were covering the slave trade, would we give equal time to the slave ship captain? No, we'd talk to the slaves, wouldn't we? If we were present at the liberation of a Nazi extermination camp, do we give equal time to the spokesman of the SS? Forget it. We talk to the survivors and talk about the victims.
When I was in Jerusalem in August of 2001, that's when a Palestinian suicide bomber blew up a pizzeria full of women and children. I went and wrote about the children I saw dead in front of me, Israeli children, of course. I didn't give half my story to the Islamic jihad spokesman. The same at Sabra-Shatila. I didn't write about the IDF, I wrote about the victims. We should have a side, and it should be a moral side to us. We may get it wrong occasionally, but if we're not going to write like that, what the hell's the point of being there and taking the risk and sending a correspondent all over the world?
I'll give you my perfect example of what's wrong with journalism at the moment, the degree to be "safe" and quote someone else. Patrick Coburn, my colleague again, was in Baghdad and he was on the balcony of his room and there were bullets flying around outside. There are all the time now, it's a hell disaster. And he saw an American colleague crawling out on his balcony, putting up his sat-phone and talking on it. He thought, "My God, there must be an exclusive story to take that kind of risk." And the guy came back in the room and later that evening he said, "By the way, that was very courageous of you, to take that risk. What the hell were you filing?" He said, "Oh, no, I was ringing the Brookings Institute. I needed a quote about what was happening in Iraq."
That's what's wrong with American journalism. That's what's wrong with journalism, full stop. Actually I should say -- you know, we're talking about other journalists -- the French are very good at getting to the scene and reporting the reality. I know France doesn't have a very clean reputation in American politics at the moment but by goodness, they've got good journalists. You read a translation of Liberacion, Figero, Le Monde -- they've got it. I work at lot with French -- I normally work on my own, but if I work with other reporters, I tend to report with Italians or the French because my goodness, they get to the war front.
Militants and Moderates
Your book begins with your three interviews with Osama bin La--
I'm going to have to live with this guy, Osama bin Laden, for the rest of my life. I know that, yeah.
I guess there's a lot in them, but I would just like for you, looking back, to comment on those interviews because as I read them in the book I think they awakened you to what was coming, even though you didn't know it.
I don't think they awakened they as much as I think they do now. You can look back in the reflection of what you know later happened. For example, in the last interview I did with him, prior to 9/11 ...
These all would have been in the nineties, one in the Sudan, two in --
That's correct. He wanted to see me in Afghanistan after 9/11, and I tried to get to him. But the Taliban people who were taking me were frightened of the bombs in front of us. The Americans were bombing. The Taliban, who are supposed to go to heaven if they die as martyrs, didn't want to die. But I would say, "But we've got to get to bin Laden."
[laughs] I see.
I was the one who was showing what they were supposed to demonstrate. But anyway, we didn't make it.
Yes, it was '97. We were on the top of a mountain in one of his training camps, built originally, of course, by the CIA when they were fighting the Russians. He said, "Mr. Robert, from this mountain upon which you are sitting we destroyed the Soviet army and the Soviet Union, we destroyed the Russians," which was a hell of an exaggeration but had a certain truth to it. It was the destruction of the Soviet army in Afghanistan that led to the fall of the Soviet Union -- you know, "free" Russia, ever more quotes around the word "free" at the moment. And then he said, "And I pray to God that He permits us to turn America into a shadow of itself."
I remember the pictures of the Twin Towers falling, when Manhattan was a shadow of itself. When I got the notebooks to write this book, I found I had written in the margin of the notebook [of this meeting], opposite bin Laden, I'd written, "rhetoric?"
Well, yes, hollow laughter. Certainly I've gone back -- and I went again recently through my notes. I've kept everything. I've got 328,000 pictures, files, photographs, tapes, notes, books, clippings, photocopies, and I find that several times before 9/11 -- I wrote in The Independent on one occasion, quite brought a stop to a television program in CBC in Toronto, Canadian Broadcasting, by talking about "the explosion to come." I made a movie for cinema but also for Channel 4 and Discovery Channel in 1993 in which I walk into a burning mosque in Bosnia, and my words on the soundtrack were, "When I see things like this I remember the place where I worked the Middle East. When violence is committed there, we call it mindless terrorism. But when I see things like this I wonder what the Muslim world has in store for us. Maybe I should end each of my reports with the words, 'Watch out.'"
For this book I went back through all the clips -- we still have the celluloid film clips, and we went into that mosque on September 11, 1993 -- eight years too early but we got it right. The New York Times condemned the series, by the way, as being sensationalist. Ouch. So, yes, you didn't have to meet bin Laden; if you lived in the Middle East and you spent your time with ordinary people, not with embassy officials, you knew something was coming. You knew something was coming. And it's going to happen again. It's going to happen again.
I have a trick question for you, and that is since ...
We do the trick questions on you ...
The question is this: As I go through your book two figures stand out, Sharon and Osama bin Laden.
No, my father stands out -- my father's all the way through the book. I didn't realize it for years ...
No, no. Sorry, but I want to put ...
He's not quite as bad as those two.
These are two men who've shaped this history in the time that you're writing. How would you compare them? Because both have done really awful things.
I would say that Arafat is in there very strongly. Arafat comes over very, very badly in my book.
Yeah. So, what is it about ... ?
Arafat comes over as an extremely corrupt person, almost painted worse than Saddam Hussein, although Saddam comes over very badly as well.
I find all these people very sinister. And of course there's no point in avoiding the fact that when you meet a sinister person you want to get out your screwdriver and unplug the computer and find out what happens inside it. I think it comes down to a question of [whether you] can use words like "evil" and "wicked." I've met people in the Lebanese civil war, ordinary government, who get drugged up, who enjoy torture, who've raped and enjoyed it, and they're bad people. I don't know if they're reformable. Equally after the war I've seen them again and met their little children who've played with my pussycat on my balcony. You have to admit their humanity, even though they have none.
I find that the greatest sin of people, over and above their individual crimes, is their absolute self-conviction. Sharon had it -- has it -- well, if he's still with us. When I talked with bin Laden I tried constantly to debate with him. You can debate with the Hezbolah leadership, you can debate with Nasrallah, or any of these people. Actually you could debate with Saddam, oddly enough. Not with Arafat. Arafat had complete self-conviction. Bin Laden, you couldn't have a serious discussion with. He knew what was right and he knew he was right. I have to say sometimes, reading through all my notes and my meetings, there were some parallels with George W. Bush. Right and wrong, them or us, they hate us because of our values, our democracy, in sort of a mirror feint parallel, horrific way, it does reflect the kind of language of Osama bin Laden who is equally absolutely adamant, but in bin Laden's case he doesn't have a people who can dis-elect him, and there isn't a stop-off point after the second run.
In your book you talk about the sense of history which you got from your father. You say, "After the allied victory of 1918, at the end of my father's war, the victors divided up the lands of their former enemies. In the space of just seventeen months they created the borders of Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia, most of the Middle East, and I have spent my entire career, in Belfast and Sarajevo, in Beirut and Baghdad, watching the people within those borders burn." And so, my question is, do these people you've just described, the bin Ladens, [who] make muck in this world, where do you find...
They're our creatures. We created them.
Right. But then where do you find the good? Is it in the little people who you listen to, who you watch suffer?
It's in those people who lost their daughter, who showed so much nobility. It's in the family under fire in their home, under Israeli artillery fire, who run into the road and grab me and pull me into their sitting room so I can lie on the floor with them and avoid being killed. They didn't have to do that. And they're not my religion. Well, I don't know if I have a religion but I'm certainly not theirs.
I'm living among a people who've maintained their faith when we Westerners have not. The fact is, we've lost it. That's [the meaning of] the famous Arnold poem, "They'll seize long withdrawing raw," the Victorian poem about the loss of faith. We don't appreciate these things, we don't read history. They do. They remember it very clearly. I think the good is only in those little people.
I'm always aroused to anger by hearing journalists talking about the effect of war on them, you know, "Can they cope, how do they come to terms with it, do they need counseling?" I think it's just nonsense. The only people who matter are the people who can't leave the country. We can get a plane out, club class, and have a glass of champagne. These people have pariah passports, they have to live and die there with their families. Yes, these are good people. They don't deserve what's happening to them. I must admit when I finished writing this I was overwhelmed by the conviction of how -- I was amazed at the restraint that Muslims have shown towards us over the last ninety years, amazed that we haven't had more 9/11s. But we will have more again. I mean, I'm sure it'll happen in London again.
The days when we could go abroad and have foreign adventures, Korean War, Vietnamese War -- and no Vietcong ever came to Washington and blew up the State Department. No North Korean ever turned up in the London tubes. They're gone forever. The new strategy of war is that we are not going to be safe in San Diego, or Colorado, Gloucestershire, Northern France, Berkeley. We're not safe anymore and we have to accept that, if we're going to have these foreign adventures, if this is going to be our ideological future. Bush at one point said that the war on terror may last forever, eternal. I mean, what is this? Nightmares to frighten school children. We have to stand up against it. I keep saying to people, we keep being told 9/11 changed the world forever, and that allows us to have torture chambers and break up all the rules we set down for human rights after the Second World War. Well, Bush allows that to happen. I will not let nineteen Arab murderers change my world, nor should you. And nor should Bush have allowed them to.
I sense, when you look at the sweep of this history, that we, the West, the U.S., are often hoisted by our own petard --
Yes! -- in the sense that we set in motion -- I mean, we had Juan Cole on the program and I noticed that he made the point that you make in your book, that we helped create the Iranian nuclear program under the Shah, that the Israelis at one time supported Hamas when they thought they were --
An opponent to the PLO.
And so, is this just our fate as mankind, to ... ?
I'll join those who say it's too simplistic always to blame the West. I live among Muslims. My driver's a Muslim, my landlord's a Muslim, my grocer's a Muslim, I live in the Muslim world. I have to say I don't consciously think about it, and nor do they with me. These are my fellow human beings, these are people I risk my life with, they risk their lives with me, whatever. I don't think about religion. If their relatives die I go and -- of course they have a Muslim funeral and I'm there. But I don't think about it. Going to a mosque for me doesn't mean I'm moving across anywhere, moving towards [anything].
I think that the problem for us is that we are the most powerful people. These are the people who've kept their faith, the Muslims. These are the people who still permit and allow and wish religion to trickle and run like water through their blood veins and their lives. As we used to until perhaps the Renaissance in Europe and afterwards. We can be puritanical in religion, we can be -- you know, we can find God, etc. But as a civilization in the West we have lost our faith. The irony is that we who have lost our faith have the power to impose ourselves upon people who have not lost it, while people who've kept faith do not have the physical, military, or political power to defend themselves. That is the true nature of when people talk about the war of civilizations, which is a total cliché and not true. I'm not involved in a war of civilizations, I don't see a war of civilizations, though again, there are people who would like one.
It's really a question of understanding. Sometimes I think that the Western world and the Eastern world are very jealous of each other. We profess to think that the Muslim world wants to return to the Middle Ages, but I find lots of people, from the orientalists onwards, are fascinated by men who have four wives. Sometimes I think that a lot of Westerners would like to have four wives and they're very jealous they can't. At the same time, and this will sound quite cruel, but at the same time I meet a lot of Arabs who are very interested in the way we have our freedoms, whether they be social freedoms, sexual freedoms in the West. Sometimes I think they're quite jealous of us for having the freedom socially which they don't have. Sometimes I think, rather like the journalists who want to be soldiers and the soldiers who want to be journalists, the Muslims would like to be the West, and vice versa.
We do regret, I think, in some ways that we don't have a faith. I remember my father once asked me if I was frightened of dying and I said, "You bet." He said, "That's because you've lost your faith." And I said, "Dad, I never had any."
There are many ways we can critique U.S. policy, but I want to ask you about a particular thing which I often read in columns by your former colleague in Lebanon, Tom Friedman's columns.
Ah, Tom Friedman, yes. The frontier of permitted criticism of the present regime here, yeah.
Where are the moderates in the Islamic world?
Every Muslim I meet virtually is a moderate ...
Talk a little about that.
First of all, I should tell you Tom Friedman is an old friend of mine. I still have dinner with him at Dupont Circle in Washington from time to time. But he really is becoming messianic. He probably wants to be the Secretary of State, and at the moment I read him because I know it's so outrageous. I will laugh and laugh.
Where are the moderates? Look, we're all moderates if we want to be. You know, we divide people up into doves and hawks, more clichés, moderates and immoderates, or whatever, radicals and fanatics, fundamentalists, you name it, anticlées, the French say. You know, we're all human beings and we have to decide what we want to be. Driven into a corner like animals, the most soft, gentlest, liberal human being will turn into a tiger. You make me angry enough and I'll start screaming in fury at you. "Ah, you're not a moderate anymore, Bob." You see? You pound and pound and pound a whole people because of their religion, because of their ethnic origin, because they seem to oppose you, and they'll turn on you, yes. And then you'll say they hate us because they don't like our values and our democracy. Huh?
Where are the moderates in America? Well, half the people who didn't vote for George W Bush. I'm not even sure that's true. You know, there's a moderate in everybody but it depends how we frame our lives. I don't think we can chop people up into moderates and immoderates -- I notice we don't use that. You notice we don't talk about the Christians? We talk about Muslims and the West because there aren't many Christians left now, or maybe not any. Moderates are people who tend to be without power.
So, has all of this work, the heavy load of history in this particular place made you -- what view of human nature has it left you with? Has it made you a pessimist about the future?
Why? I mean -- well, not why but ...
I've had a very distorted view of the world. I remember during the civil war once in Lebanon -- the Lebanese aircraft still flew murderously and dangerously out of Beirut, 707s. I took a weekend to Switzerland to go and see a girlfriend of mine -- all of this would be twenty-five years ago now. I arrived in Switzerland, which is a country where you can be arrested for throwing a cigarette packet into a roadway. And after two weeks of this perfect world, the beautiful fine white wines, the perfect food, a lady on your arm to go down the street with, I remember going back to Beirut and hearing the sort of matchstick crackle of rifle fire and the smell of burning garbage in the streets outside and thinking this was the real world. You begin to feel that war is the natural condition of mankind, and that's very dangerous.
There are lot of editions of this [book] in different languages, and I did the French and Dutch edition almost simultaneously, more than a year ago. It was a beautiful autumn in Europe and I was in the boulevards of Paris and the streets of Holland and I saw lots of families with children who'd lived in comparative safety and security (I'm sure they have their own problems). And I went back to Beirut, which was going through another of its appalling political crises, and it had some bombardments in the south from the Israelis, and I remember sitting on my balcony, looking over the Mediterranean -- I've got a very nice home in Beirut -- and thinking, did I really want to spend these thirty-one or thirty years of life the way I did? Couldn't I have been happier? Couldn't I have enjoyed what other people had? My editor, the editor of my book in London, took me out to lunch when the book came out and said "Congratulations." I said, "Why, was it that good?" She said, "No, you survived." I looked back and I felt very depressed and I really began to wonder whether I had spent my life wrongly.
And then, of course, I went back to remember "Foreign Correspondent" and Joel McCrea being sent to Europe. He was a crime correspondent in New York and his editor has this immortal line, "What we need in Europe is a crime correspondent." I began to wonder whether perhaps I hadn't been a crime correspondent for the past thirty years, and I also went back and remembered Robert Fisk on a beach in Portugal in 1976 -- I was briefly the Lisbon correspondent after the revolution -- getting a phone call, actually a letter, from my foreign editor saying, "I'm offering you the Middle East." Because our present correspondent there had just gotten married and his bride didn't want to be a widow, didn't want to live in a war. And I realized if I was offered -- I'd have the same life again, if I had the chance to run it again.
One last question. If students were watching this program how would you advise them to prepare for their future in which they might be a war correspondent?
Don't. Don't be a war correspondent. I tell you, I don't have any -- I mean, I'll be very frank with you. If you want to be a reporter you must establish a relationship with an editor in which he will let you write -- he must trust you and you must make sure you make no mistakes, but with humor you must make sure that what you write is printed as you write it. Otherwise you will never recover from that. It's a bit like being frightened of something. If you lose your fear you will never have to worry about it again, but more important than that -- and I get a lot of letters like this from students. Some of them say to me, "Well, I can't make up my mind. I would like to be a journalist ... " -- of course, it'll likely be Middle East correspondents -- " ... or maybe I'd like to be a lawyer. " And I always say, "Look, if it's a choice between being a doctor or journalist, or a lawyer and a journalist, you've got to be a doctor or a lawyer. The only person who can be a journalist has a bug and journalism is the only thing in the whole world that they can do. If that's you, you will be a journalist."
On that note, Robert Fisk, thank you very much for being here. Let me show your book again. It'll take them a while to read it but it's definitely worth reading, The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East. Thank you for this work, your work, and thank you for being here today with us.
Thank you very much indeed.
And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.