An effort to remind ourselves that we are not alone in our lonely trails of thoughts.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Conscientious Objector

Robert Fisk was in Montreal, signing away his new book at the Concordia University. A long time Mid East correspondent who lives in Beirut, unlike most Mid East Experts these days who reports from their cozy Washington or London living rooms, quoting anonymous government officials, he narrates war with a strange Aristotelian penchant of viscerally deconstructing history. That all wars are a continuum of civilization building, imposed by our indomitable sense of duty, has a personal story of glory and betrayal, is what his narrative leaves one with. His story starts with that of his father for whom it began in the summer of 1914 at the Battle of the Somme which had left him bitter and a bit racist, (he regrettably interjects) till his last days. Conscientiously objecting to shoot an Australian conscript his father was one of the few known soldiers in that war to oppose a direct command, in other words, a modern day refusenik in the civilization-making war his generation was called in. His early romanticism with journalism however did not stem from his father’s dissention but from going to an Alfred Hitchcock production, Foreign Correspondent where the hero-journalist ‘is sent in 1939 to cover the approaching war in Europe. He witnesses an assassination, chases Nazi spies in Holland, uncovers Germany’s top agent in London, is shot down in an airliner by a German pocket battleship and survives to scoop the world. He also wins the most gorgeous woman in the movie,’ a good reason to be in the journalism business at the least. His call to serve the king, country and all the vainglories in between came at the age of 29 when his editor, Louis Heren of Newcastle Evening Chronicle ‘gave him the Middle East’ with splendid opportunities of ‘good stories, lots of travel and sunshine,’ he recalls as Churchill would have offered Iraq to King Faisal. The last thirty years had taken him from Northern Ireland to Lebanon, from formerly Yugoslavia to Iraq, within whose borders ‘people had been burned’ as a direct result of the maps that had been re-drawn by Sykes and Picot in 1917 in hotel suites in London and Paris. He transforms covering a story of the first American casualty in Iraq from a road side bomb in the outskirts of Baghdad in 2003 into a lesson from the forgotten pages of history. An Iraqi he suspected might have been more than an onlooker pointed him the place where his grandfather supposedly had shot the first British casualty in 1917, Corporal Townsend who happened to be from the regiment his father had served. Looking at the passing convoy of the greatest military strength with its most sophisticated weaponry any country could amass, he had a de ja vu - that the countless Roman, English or American legionaries that might have stomped their way into obscurity from there were in the name of a necessary war laid down on its faceless victims for their life, liberty and freedom. He would tell you somewhere in between that he has an original copy of the letter (which cost him $2000) of the first British General to march into Baghdad, Lt. Gen. Sir Stanley Maude, addressed to its people which promised them freedom from their Ottoman oppressors, much like their latter day liberators the Americans did almost 90 years later. That the people of Baghdad did not throw at their former liberators flowers and kisses is not hard to imagine but what he asks you is to guess what the then British government frequently used as a pretext to keep fighting the bloody insurgency; to avert a civil war! And now Canada is doing their little Peace Making, in Afghanistan, relieving the US army for the super league in Iraq. For those who understand, Vietnam had started with a little police action, most of the Coalition of the Willing have certainly figured that out, although belatedly; Canadians, surely could not be farther behind. ‘An iron wall has descended,’ not from Vladivostok to Berlin, as in the famous axiom of Churchill, but from the tip of Greenland to the Tora Bora mountains circling Europe, Africa and Middle East. The architects of this new empire did not plan on to be the New World Order when they liberated most of the Old World in 1945. Is it our shortness of collective memory or that future Imperialists do not simply care for the small prints before embarking on an expedition? He thinks it is because they can and something they must appear to continue doing – the tragic nemesis of a civilization that believes in its own immortality.

An interesting incident, he notes summarizes the power of the unknown on our subjective reality. At the eve of 9/11 when the plane he was travelling to the States made a 180 degree turn, he with a fellow passenger voluntarily started to profile brown-skinned passengers as potential suspects. They found 14 of them, could not agree on one. He realized later that how easily the ghosts of Osama or Bush for that matter had turned a rational Mr. Fisk into a bigot within the confines of a business class seat. He did not mince words in his scything attack at the compromised journalists, academics, intellectuals of our time; for sinking into a moral morass for failing to ask why, right after the symbols of American power became ‘a shadow of itself’, to paraphrase Osama, for giving free reign to prejudice in holding the innocents somehow responsible for the action of a few. He showed a video footage from the Bosnian War that he had taken after a Bosnian village which was offered protection by the Serbs was destroyed, along with the mosque. While shooting the evident destruction he is heard saying, ‘I wonder what the Muslim world will make out of this,’ accurately anticipating the rage that was felt in the streets of the Arab world. He laments at this sheer apathy and indifference to the lots of people who do not have the discernible westernness, that cuts across the collective western consciousness. The paranoia on the part of the media in sanitizing the war is no less a criminal in intent, in his view, as news are taken out of contexts; where settlements become neighbourhoods; occupied lands are often disputed territories and the wall that cuts through the daily humiliation of occupation is a much needed security barrier. The unsavoury part of the war is often censored so the unending wars for their unforeseen reasons always appear clean, precise and limited. He recalls an Iraqi girl whose father was carrying her lifeless body out of which two bones were jutting out where would have been her legs. A newspaper reported her as wounded with a picture showing just her torso. One broadcasting network refused to put the pictures of the dead strewn on the Iraq-Kuwait highway after the bombing raids in 2001 on air, which had been turned into a fair game for the desert dogs because it was deemed too grotesque for the viewers who would be getting up for their breakfast news. Sometimes the reasons for self-censorship are as silly as to show respect for the dead who did not complain while their right to live were taken away right under the sun. More closely here in Canada, he quotes the paper Globe and Mail clearly breaking away from journalistic ethics in implicating the 17 suspects arrested for an alleged crime of terrorism. Referring to an eyewitness account, the paper reported two of them as ‘brown skinned’ men, reinforcing the general stereotype of a terrorist in the west however, not feeling obliged to introduce the police inspector as white-skinned in keeping with their style. Another ominous trend he brings our attention to is referring these people as ‘home-grown’ terrorists, associating the imagery of a weed that needs to be plucked out, along with their citizenship, calling them ‘Canadian born’. Last year, the French interior minister used the word ‘rabble’ referring to the rioting youth in France mostly third or fourth generation ‘French speaking Arabs, as they are called these days, marginalized and blamed for most of France’s problems. Stripped of their citizenships, guilty before proven innocent, most favoured whipping horse for nationalists, the Muslims in the west today are what the Jews were in 1939. Yet he says he is attacked as Anti-Semitic, Anti-American and Anti-Western for asking why.

‘Infantilism’, he sums all this up in a word, a frame of mind that supports the war machinery where the soldier who suffocated an Iraqi general in a sleeping bag after sitting on his chest, according to his wife, had to do something that is not always easy. True, he chuckles, whoever said torture was an easy thing to do? The European Union which regularly gives lip service on human rights to the world and its lone superpower was recently sullied by Amnesty International to have turned a blind eye on the rendition of torture flights by some of its members. Our recollection of history can be naively subjective to our memory of what was in the history books in some far off corner of the world but for some like the old Palestinian Refugee, he had once met, from Shabra and Shatilla who had lost his sister in the massacre in 1982 and have been living in the muck and mud of his squalor ever since he had been dispossessed of his land in 1948, the memories are ‘as real as yesterday, even worse, this morning’. How you would account for the injustice these people have endured for so long and with remarkable restraint, he asks, in a place where justice is tantamount to freedom and the only time we offered them that was through Operation Eternal Justice?

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