In December 1996, Robert Fisk of the London newspaper The Independent traveled to the mountains north of Khartoum where he met Osama bin Laden. The opening sentences of the article he wrote about the meeting went as follows:
Osama Bin Laden sat in his gold fringed robe, guarded by loyal Arab mujahedin… . With his high cheekbones, narrow eyes and long brown robe, Mr Bin Laden looks every inch the mountain warrior of mujahedin legend. Chadored children danced in front of him, preachers acknowledged his wisdom.
In a second article he wrote about the same meeting, Fisk upgraded bin Laden's attire from gold-fringed brown robe to “white Saudi robes.” But whatever the detail, you get the same message. Here is a man whose face and garb reveal his nobility. Fisk's description bears a close similarity to another account by a British writer of his meeting with an Arab aristocrat. In The Seven Pillars of Wisdom T. E. Lawrence describes his first meeting with Prince Feisal in 1916.
Feisal looked very tall and pillar-like, very slender in his long white silk robes and his brown head-cloth bound with a brilliant scarlet and gold cord. His eyelids were dropped; and his black beard and colourless face were like a mask against the strange, still watchfulness of his body. His hands were crossed in front of him on his dagger.
In Fisk's description, bin Laden was attended by “bearded, taciturn figures” who never strayed more than a few yards from him. In Lawrence's account, Feisal was accompanied by a retinue of slaves who guarded his person and lit his path with lamps. Students of British imperial adventure novels will recognize the genre. The world the writers conjure up is pre-modern, where natural aristocrats, tall and slender, lord over male servants and slaves who are handsome, silent, and strong. The aristocrats are famous for their warrior skills. Their long robes are trimmed with gold and scarlet. They carry daggers in their belts. It is a world without women and it reeks of homoeroticism. In conjuring up this imagery, Fisk was doing the same as the many European writers who have been drawn to the Arab world over the past two centuries. In his book Muslim Society, the late Ernest Gellner analyzed the nature of the appeal of this pre-modern, feudal order. Gellner wrote:
The European discovery and exploration of Muslim tribal society occurred in the main after the French Revolution, and was often carried out by men—long before T. E. Lawrence—who were possessed by a nostalgia for a Europe as it was, prior to the diffusion of the egalitarian ideal… . They sought not the noble savage, but the savage noble.
This same hankering after the trappings of aristocracy, or anything that smacks of aristocracy, is behind much of the anti-American and anti-Jewish sentiment that now emanates from the European news media, especially in the writings of European leftists such as Fisk. The aristocratic disdain for American society goes back more than two hundred years. It originated in the presumption that none of Europe's cast-offs would ever amount to anything great. Even Alexis de Tocqueville's otherwise illuminating work Democracy in America stated that only a society based on privilege, never an egalitarian democracy, could produce a great culture. Indeed, all the settler societies of the New World were saddled with the same condescending presumption: no greatness without an aristocracy. It is heavily ironic that leftist authors like Robert Fisk, who imagine themselves the ideological heirs of the French Revolution, now speak more for the world view of the ancien régime. Similarly, despite the remarkable artistic accomplishments of the Jews throughout Western history, the fact that their own societies contained no aristocrats puts them in almost the same boat as the uncouth settlers of the New World. This also accounts for much of the current European cultural and political elite's prejudice against Israel and support for the Arabs. This prejudice is more than political ideology and more than envy of America's wealth and power, although that is obviously a big part of it. It is a deeply embedded cultural trait that affects the way its adherents actually perceive the world. When journalists like Fisk look at terrorists like bin Laden, they do not see people who disgrace themselves and their religion with cowardly acts of terrorism against civilian men, women, and children. Instead, they see freedom fighters. During the American invasion of Iraq in April 2003, at the same time as television viewers were watching the American army reach the outskirts of Baghdad and capture the airport, Fisk was in a bus with other journalists inside the city. On April 8 he filed a report worthy of the former Iraqi information minister himself. Fisk said:
The road to the front in central Iraq is a place of fast-moving vehicles, blazing Iraqi anti-aircraft guns, tanks and trucks hidden in palm groves, a train of armoured vehicles… . How, I kept asking myself, could the Americans batter their way through these defences? For mile after mile they go on, slit trenches, ditches, earthen underground bunkers, palm groves of heavy artillery and truck loads of combat troops in battle fatigues and steel helmets. Not since the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War have I seen the Iraqi Army deployed like this.
Paul McGeogh, a leftist journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald who was accompanying Fisk at the time, later told a radio interviewer:
Robert gets a bit windy from time to time. I was on the same bus as him and we saw some tanks, you wouldn't say we saw an army of tanks. We saw two or three tanks on that bus run. We saw multiple rocket launchers. We saw a convoy of two or three trucks of soldiers pausing to wash and eat by a creek. But we didn't see an army forming up for war.
Despite this incapacity for seeing what is directly in front of him, Fisk likes to portray himself as a humble reporter who simply tells it like it is. “My job is to report what I have seen,” he tells an interviewer in the newly published anthology, Tell Me Lies, a collection of left-wing analyses of the reporting of the Iraq war. Fisk compares his own fearless even-handedness to the failings of almost every other reporter in the Middle East, especially American journalists, whom he accuses of being afraid to challenge either American foreign policy or the relationship between the U.S. and Israel. To do so, he says, they would risk accusations of insensitivity, unpatriotism, and anti-Semitism. The result is a “cosy, incestuous, dangerous relationship between press and administration, between sources and access.” Still, Fisk's contacts with the Arab militants have allowed him to be sometimes perceptive. While on a transatlantic flight to the United States on the morning of September 11, 2001, he heard the news of the terrorist attacks on New York and immediately guessed correctly who was behind them. As his flight turned back from closed American air space, Fisk used the satellite phone on his seat to file a story identifying Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda as the culprits. In the very same paragraph, however, he held the United States itself primarily responsible:
This is not really the war of democracy versus terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming days. It is also about US missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and US helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996 and American shells crashing into a village called Qana and about a Lebanese militia—paid and uniformed by America's Israeli ally—hacking and raping and murdering their way through refugee camps.
Tell Me Lies contains thirty-two articles, almost all of which express similar sentiments: they condemn any aspect of news coverage of the war in Iraq that does not share their own political prejudices. The first five articles of the collection are written by John Pilger, the Australian-born, London-based journalist and filmmaker. Like Fisk, Pilger's immediate response to September 11 was to blame the United States itself. In his column in the London magazine New Statesman, Pilger said the real terrorists were not Muslim radicals but the Americans:
If the attacks on America have their source in the Islamic world, who can be surprised? … Far from being the terrorists of the world, the Islamic peoples have been its victims—that is, the victims of American fundamentalism, whose power, in all its forms—military, strategic and economic—is the greatest source of terrorism on earth.
What made these comments especially reprehensible was less what they said—similar sentiments were expressed by a number of Western intellectuals, such as Noam Chomsky and Susan Sontag, in the days that followed—and more their timing. The statement was published on September 13, which, given the deadlines operating on New Statesman, means Pilger must have written these words on September 11 itself, while the horror of the events was still unfolding on television. The fact that he offered no sympathy for the victims and refused to condemn their murderers on the very day itself displayed a complete lack of moral principle. It revealed the emptiness of all the appeals he has made over the years on behalf of the people of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Palestine, appeals purportedly made under the guise of universal humanitarianism. Pilger does not support Arab terrorists for the same elitist reasons as Fisk. In a recent radio interview, he explained his politics. He said he grew up in Sydney in a household that supported the Industrial Workers of the World, a group of pre-Bolshevik ultra-left syndicalists who themselves eventually resorted to terrorism. His political perspective still retains much of the sentiment and rhetoric of the old, socialist left. He claims America is an imperial power that represents “the iron fist of rampant capital” and is a force of “geopolitical fascism.” Pilger, however, is rather confused about the identity of today's fascists. He gives his political support in Iraq to the pro-Saddam insurgents and suicide bombers, or what he calls “the Iraqi resistance.” He says American armed forces are illegal occupiers and are the moral equivalent of the Nazis in France. He has described coalition troops as “legitimate targets.” That is, he supports the killing of American, British, and Australian soldiers in Iraq. He says “we have no choice,” meaning we of the political left have no choice, “but to support the resistance, for if the resistance fails, the ‘Bush gang’ will attack another country.” In other words, this journalist is an activist for the other side. Pilger is one of the more depressing manifestations of the adversary culture that grips much of our media today. Cheering for the enemy is a sure path to celebrity.
Pilger made his international name as one of the radicals who emerged in opposition to the war in Vietnam. He was a war correspondent for the London Daily Mirror in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. One of the arguments Pilger made at that time, and which he has since repeated throughout his career, concerned who was responsible for the Pol Pot regime which took over Cambodia in 1975. Between then and 1979, Pol Pot's campaign of genocide killed 1.67 million out of 7.89 million in Cambodia, or 21 percent of the entire population, proportionally the greatest mass killing ever inflicted by a government on its own population in modern times—probably in all history. Who was really to blame for this? The ultimate responsibility, Pilger has long claimed, rests with the United States. In the early 1970s, the American Air Force regularly bombed the Cambodian-Vietnamese border regions to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh trail down which arms and supplies were sent from communist North Vietnam to guerrillas in the south. Pilger claims this bombing campaign killed more than half a million peasants, thereby “igniting an Asian holocaust.” He says the Cambodian peasants suffered such terrible casualties from these American bombs they transferred allegiance to Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge army.
When three years of American bombing killed or wounded or dislocated hundreds of thousands of Khmer peasants and created many more as refugees, the Khmer Rouge, now operating from enclaves, swept into a power vacuum in the bloodied countryside.
For a journalist trying to make his name, this was a clever argument to adopt. The Cambodian peasants never published any documents about their views to prove the journalist might be mistaken. Given the conditions in Cambodia after Pol Pot took over, no one was likely to question his supporters to see if they really had been affected by the bombing or, indeed, whether any of the Khmer Rouge or their supporters were actually peasants from the border region. Thirty years later, however, we are in a position to assess the sum total of the evidence for the claim. Apart from Pilger's own claims, which were not based on any firsthand knowledge, only two sources from the period have emerged. One was Richard Dudman, a correspondent for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, who was imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge in 1969. As a prisoner, Dudman claimed he observed that the American bombing radicalized the Cambodian peasantry. It is hard to understand how Dudman could have reached this conclusion from his prison cell, especially since he did not speak Cambodian and had no means of knowing what the Cambodian peasants were thinking. The second source was David Chandler, who claimed in 1976 that American bombing drove the Cambodians out of their minds. It would have been similarly difficult for Chandler to know this. At the time he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan who had never even been to Cambodia. None of the Khmer Rouge leadership interviewed after the regime collapsed ever reported that American bombing drove either them or the peasants out of their minds. In other words, on the basis of no credible evidence whatsoever, Pilger continues to this day to blame the United States for the Pol Pot regime. The same methodology operates in the statistics Pilger routinely quotes in almost everything he writes. He claimed that in the first Gulf War, no less than 250,000 Iraqis were killed. He cited the Medical Educational Trust of London as his source. In 2003, the Australian journalist Tony Horwitz checked this out. He did a search of every English-language newspaper since 1990 but could find no mention of this trust or its alleged report—except in articles with the byline John Pilger. Studies by both Johns Hopkins University in the U.S. and the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London put the plausible death toll, of both soldiers and civilians, at between 10,000 and 20,000 dead. In the same vein, Pilger claimed the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001–2002 killed more Afghans than Americans who died in the twin towers. He put the civilian death toll at 5000. This was the highest figure claimed by anyone. In contrast, the Associated Press, Reuters, and Human Rights Watch New York, all of whom, unlike Pilger, had personnel in the country at the time, put civilian casualties at between 600 and 1000. In other words, Pilger today simply plucks figures like this out of the air, inventing any number that serves his political purposes. Between them, Pilger and Fisk represent the nadir of Western journalism in our time. They take us back to those apologists of the Soviet era in the 1930s, such as Walter Duranty, the Moscow correspondent of the New York Times, who lavished praise on Stalin and the USSR at a time when hundreds of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians were dying of starvation or perishing before the regime's firing squads. In his day, Duranty, who won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for his efforts, was as celebrated as Pilger and Fisk are now, but what stuck in the long run was the epithet another Moscow correspondent, Malcolm Muggeridge, later gave him: “the greatest liar of any journalist I have met in 50 years of journalism.” Duranty and his successors betrayed their profession.
It is important to appreciate the scale of this betrayal because the art of war reporting goes to the very core of Western culture. The origins of journalism lie in exactly the same place as the origins of history. The first genuine historian was Thucydides, the Athenian who wrote The History of the Peloponnesian War around 420 BC. Thucydides did a remarkable thing. He set out to distance himself from his own political system and to write a work that examined critically what happened to Greece in the Peloponnesian Wars. He told not only of his own side's virtues and victories but of its mistakes and disasters. Thucydides also distanced himself from his own culture and religion. Instead of the mythical tales that all previous human societies had used to affirm their place in the cosmos, he faced the fact that the Greek oracles could not foretell their future and that the Greek gods could not ensure their fortunes. Thucydides made a clean break with myths and legends and defined history as the pursuit of truth about the past. The ability to stand outside your own political system, your own culture, and your religion, to criticize your own society and to pursue the truth, is something we today take so much for granted that it is almost part of the air we breathe. Without it, our idea of freedom of expression would not exist. We should recognize, however, that this is a distinctly Western phenomenon, that is, it is part of the cultural heritage of those countries—in Europe, the Americas, and Australasia—that evolved out of Ancient Greece, Rome, and Christianity. This idea was never produced by either Confucian or Hindu culture. Under Islam it had a brief life in the fourteenth century but was never heard of again. Rather than take this idea for granted, we should regard it as a rare and precious legacy that it is our job to nurture and to pass on to future generations. That is the reason why the practices of journalists like Fisk and Pilger are more disturbing than they look. The responsibility of the journalist is the same as that of the historian: to try to stand outside his own political interests and his own cultural preferences and to tell his audience what actually happened. This can never be deduced from some overarching political cause or social theory. It takes original, empirical research. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War was not only a history of past events. It was also a running commentary on the course of the war as it unfolded. Thucydides was himself involved in the action and rose to the rank of general, having at one stage command of a squadron of Athenian ships. He says he began making notes about the war as soon as it started, because he recognized that both Athens and Sparta were then at the height of their power and that the outcome of the war would decide who would emerge as the dominant force among the Greeks. He described his method:
And with regard to my factual reporting of events of the war, I have made it a principle not to write down the first story that came my way, and not even to be guided by my own general impressions: either I was present myself at the events which I have described or else I have heard of them from eye-witnesses whose reports I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible. Not that even so the truth was easy to discover: different eye-witnesses give different accounts of the same events, speaking out of partiality for one side or the other or else from imperfect memories.
This is, by almost any definition of the concept, a description of the methodology of journalism. In 430 B.C., Athens was stricken by a plague that decimated the population and was a major factor in its eventual defeat. Thucydides’ description of the symptoms of those who suffered from the disease is good enough for modern medical specialists to diagnose it as either pneumonic or bubonic plague. His account is all firsthand observation and it plainly deserves the name of journalism. As well as being the first historian, Thucydides and his History of the Peloponnesian War should be acknowledged as the first work in the tradition that eventually produced the newspaper and magazine writing of the modern era. Since the rise of the daily newspaper in the last two centuries, the two principal subjects of journalism have been politics and warfare. There are now plenty of analyses of how journalists operate in both these spheres. In the journalism of warfare, the most influential study has been Philip Knightley's book The First Casualty, which is a history of war reporting from the Crimea to Vietnam. As well as dealing with the logistical and political problems involved in writing about warfare, Knightley identifies two distinct genres. One of these is the reporting of battles, strategies, and the course of warfare, that is, who is winning, who is losing, and why. In general, he argues, this kind of writing has emphasized the triumphs and the glories of war and is, at the same time, the most susceptible to manipulation by politicians, generals, and the public relations departments of the military. The other genre is what has been called the face of battle, or the direct experience of warfare by the individual soldier: what it feels like to be shot at, to try to kill others, to see your comrades die in action, to witness a battlefield full of the dead. In general, this kind of reportage is tragic. It evokes pity for the human condition and often generates distaste for war among both writer and reader. I once thought that Knightley's distinction between the two forms of reporting, and his assessment that the “course of warfare” genre was the less reliable, was true. The television coverage of the American invasion of Iraq in April 2003, however, demonstrated this was no longer tenable. The reporting of that war from the television crews embedded with the advancing United States forces counts as one of the great feats of journalism. The journalists didn't do it on their own, of course. They were assisted, indeed controlled, by the U.S. military. But there has never been a war coverage like it. Television viewers anywhere in the world, whatever side of the contest they supported, could see the field of battle from the position of the advancing troops. Moreover, given the number of journalists accredited to cover the war this way, television viewers could see the advance from a number of different perspectives. These broadcasts were not the property of one television network, but of several. A comparison between the coverage of the Iraq war with that of the earlier war in Afghanistan to oust the Taliban demonstrates the difference between this new form of journalism and the old version that Knightley was criticizing. In Afghanistan, war correspondents were reduced largely to rewriting press statements handed out by the military. Television coverage at ground level was minimal. No journalists inside the country could get hold of any independent strategic information, and no one outside could judge the course of the war. As a result, one minute there were left-wing journalists like Robert Fisk predicting the Americans would be defeated in Afghanistan. Or it would end up a quagmire. The next minute it was all over. America and its allies prevailed. The invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein was quite a different matter. The coverage of that remarkably swift victory answered a number of the perennial critics of television journalism who complain that nothing serious can be discussed because the medium reduces all comments to ten-second grabs. That is true, but it is not necessarily a fatal flaw. As the invasion of Iraq showed, great television journalism doesn't necessarily have to say much; it simply has to be there. In the 1960s, the war in Vietnam became known as the first television war. The current war against militant Islam deserves to be recognized as the first Internet war. There has been so much material available on the Internet since September 11—news, information, comment, opinion—that you could literally spend twenty-four hours a day without reading the same thing twice. For a second nomination as one of the great pieces of journalism to come out of this war, I would like to propose a series of essays originally published online, but which have since been collected in book form under the title An Autumn of War. The author, Victor Davis Hanson, is a classical scholar and a military historian who, on the conservative website National Review Online between September 11 and December 22, 2001, published no less than thirty-eight essays about the terrorist strikes on New York and Washington and the war in Afghanistan. In that brief time, the Taliban was defeated and a new government of reconciliation formed in Kabul. At a time when the shock of September 11 had disoriented everyone and it was very hard to think straight, Hanson's essays rose above ordinary commentary. He told those of us in the West who we were, why we were being attacked, and why we would eventually prevail. Hanson was not a journalistic bystander and made no pretense at being dispassionate. He supported the Bush administration's immediate use of military force in Afghanistan. Indeed, he was an advocate of such a response and gave personal advice to that effect to Vice President Cheney. On September 12, 2001 he wrote:
Osama Bin Laden has made a fatal miscalculation. Like everybody who scoffs at the perceived laxity of Western democracies, these murderers have woken an enormous power from its slumber, and retribution will shortly be both decisive and terrible… . In the months to come, American ground and air forces, with better weapons, better supplies, better discipline and more imaginative commanders—audited constantly by an elected Congress and President, criticized by a free press—will shatter the very foundations of Islamic fundamentalism… . The Taliban and other hosts of murderers at bases in Pakistan, Iraq and Syria may find reprieve from Western clergy and academics, but they shall not from the American military. America is not only the inheritor of the European military tradition, but in many ways also its most powerful incarnation… . These are intimidating assets when we turn, as we shall shortly, from the arts of production to those of destruction. The world, much less the blinkered fundamentalists, has not seen a United States unleashed for a long time and so has forgotten all this.
Many of the other thirty-seven articles continued in the same theme. Some were straight pieces but others were satires, such as his imaginary re-run of responses to the attack on Pearl Harbor, and America's retaliatory raid in April 1942, by current celebrity commentators such as Stanley Fish, Jesse Jackson, Oliver Stone, Susan Sontag, and Edward Said.
Fish: There can be no independent standard for determining which of the many rival interpretations of the raid is the true one. What we must not do is to fall back on some absurd notion of absolute and enduring values like truth, freedom and democracy …
Sontag: I cannot accept the moral equivalence of an attack on our soldiers at Pearl Harbor with a desperate lashing out against Tokyo. The blood of Japanese women and children is on our hands. Who is the real April fool?
Said: Among many Western colonialists there is a deep and abiding—may I say fear and hatred?—of what they have construed the Other into as the “Oriental.”
Jackson: Stop the guns and save our sons. Keep peace alive and don't let the planes dive. Don't be in fearo of the Zero or Emperor Hiro. Let our planes drop more for the poor, and make less of a mess.
Another was a witty interview with the retired Greek general Thucydides, which used passages from the History of the Peloponnesian War as answers to modern questions about the motives of the Islamic terrorists, the attitude America should adopt to them, and the prospects of defeating them in war. Beyond parody, however, was another article about questions Hanson received on American university campuses from anti-war professors and their students. Now, the obvious question to ask is how could anyone nominate as great journalism a work that is so partisan, that takes such a strong stand, and is so strongly committed to one outcome. Isn't it hypocritical to laud conservative political writing while at the same time condemning radical political writing? That might well be true were there not an overwhelming imbalance in the volume and the quality of the scholarship and evidence deployed by one side compared to that of the other.
The essays in An Autumn of War were partly responses to the news of the day but derived primarily from a project that Hanson has been working on most of his adult life. The project is to explain the military culture of Western society. Hanson has now written six books on the subject, which has involved him studying the military history of the West over the last 2,500 years. His most elaborate argument of the thesis was in his book Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power, published in early September 2001. The thesis of that book provided the empirical base for Hanson's online essays. This thesis derives from a vast amount of scholarly research and its evidence is fully disclosed and fully documented and thus checkable by any other scholar. In emulation of Thucydides’ great work, Hanson's history permeated his journalism. Hanson's thesis is that the principles of Western warfare were established during classical antiquity. Since the fifth century B.C., the West has had a culture of civic militarism in which people with a civic stake in their country have been prepared to fight for it. On the field of battle, this culture has produced an unmatched combination of group discipline and inventive decision-making. Western soldiers have been prepared to fight to the death in great decisive battles that have annihilated their opponents. Unlike the troops of tyrants and despots, individual soldiers in the West have known that their military service was governed by a legal regime that applied as equally to their superiors as to themselves. Coupled with a similarly long-standing tradition of the dissemination and proliferation of knowledge that culminated in the scientific and industrial revolutions, Western militarism has usually been supplied with better armaments and more innovative military technology than its opponents. Moreover, market-based economies have meant that the needs of Western armies for ordnance and supplies could be more rapidly and cheaply produced than by the command economies of any of its rivals. The West has also had a civilian culture that has always been ready to criticize military strategies and ambitions and even to replace military chiefs when it has thought fit. In some cases, most notoriously in Vietnam, these criticisms have resulted in hard-won military gains being abandoned, but over the long course of Western history they have produced military policies that have usually put the West on the winning side. Most importantly, this culture has meant the civilian population has been largely united behind the military effort. In short, Hanson argues that Western military dominance derives from its ancient traditions of democracy, law, liberty, free markets, and free expression. Everything has sprung from these cultural attributes. In the face of the sheer weight of scholarship that Hanson brought to his journalism, the most that his political opposites like Pilger and Fisk could offer was distortion and invention. Pilger has made the most outlandish claims about American responsibility for the disasters of South East Asia based on no plausible evidence whatsoever, and now routinely invents the statistics he quotes for the casualties of warfare. Fisk is an Arab romanticist whose ideology so distorts his view of Islamic terrorism and of Arab despotism that he cannot be trusted to give an honest account of what he sees in the street. From these examples of politically opinionated war reporting, it is not difficult to decide which is the real journalism. The choice is not between political left and political right but between sophistry and scholarship. One betrays the great tradition of Western journalism; the other fulfills it.
- Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq, edited by David Miller. Pluto Press, 256 pages, $19. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 10, on page 12
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