Life with Fisk

Mike Phipps reviews Love in a Time of War: My years with Robert Fisk, by Lara Marlowe, published by Head of Zeus.

When the award-winning journalist Robert Fisk died in 2020, tributes to his outstanding abilities poured in. Christian Broughton, the managing director of the Independent, called him “Fearless, uncompromising, determined and utterly committed to uncovering the truth and reality at all costs… the greatest journalist of his generation.”

Jeremy Corbyn described him as “a brilliant man with unparalleled knowledge of history, politics and people of Middle East.”

“Journalism has lost the bravest,” said John Pilger simply.

But another word that cropped up repeatedly in the obituaries was “controversial”. This was due to more than his unconventional methods. It was because of his rejection of the notion that a journalist could somehow adopt a neutral stance, especially in war. You have to be on the side of those who suffer, he argued.

 It was not surprising that as a result he was highly critical of US foreign policy, the war on Iraq, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and many other injustices which few other western journalists consistently challenge.

Labour Hub’s obituary at the time said: “Fisk believed it was the job of journalism ‘to challenge authority- all authority – especially so when governments and politicians take us to war.’  ‘War,’ he wrote in The Great War for Civilisation, ‘is primarily not about victory or defeat but about death and the infliction of death. It represents the total failure of the human spirit.’

“When he wrote these words, Robert Fisk had received more British and international journalism awards than any other foreign correspondent. But his lasting legacy will be his exposure of the rotten motives underpinning western military intervention – and for this, he may well be remembered as someone who contributed significantly to world peace.”

Lara Marlowe’s memoir Love in a Time of War brings Fisk to life with real vitality. She was married to him for twelve years from 1994 to 2006 but first met him as a young US reporter in her mid-twenties in Syria in 1983 where they quickly became lovers. It’s a relationship that endured through Lara’s marriage to another man a year later, as Fisk pursued her across the world with charm and ardour.

At this time, Fisk was living in Beirut at a time when westerners were in considerable danger from being taken hostage by militias. Having escaped one attempted kidnapping by accelerating away from an attempted carjack, racing down narrow streets and smashing into parked cars, Fisk took many precautions, especially going to and from the airport, a favourite place for kidnappers.

“He travels first-class and does not check bags, because on the return trip the kidnappers will have lookouts in the airport, studying passengers as they disembark and wait for luggage,” writes Marlowe. “The snitches telephone ahead to gunmen, who ambush new arrivals on the airport road. Robert is always first off the plane and first out of the airport, so the kidnappers don’t have time to organise.” Fisk later drives her on a guided tour of the most dangerous parts of Beirut where hostages have been seized, which she writes up for the Irish Times. Later she too will come within an inch of being kidnapped.

Marlowe reported alongside Fisk on the most crucial events in the Middle East at the time, such as the US’s 1988 shooting down of Iran Air flight 655 over the Persian Gulf.  She writes, “Nothing from my previous life has prepared me for the smell and sight of 170 bodies laid out in rows on the floor of a cold-storage room.” The crew of the US warship that perpetrated this atrocity were awarded combat action ribbons – for shooting down a civilian airliner.

March 1989 finds the couple living on the front line of the civil war in Beirut: “the shelling begins as usual after dark. It rises slowly but steadily over several hours. Around midnight we pull our mattresses out onto the landing, but the explosions come faster, louder, nearer. The building vibrates as if in an unending earthquake.”

August 1990: Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait. As US troops assemble on its borders, a fifteen-year-old Kuwaiti girl called Nayirah testifies before the US Congressional Human Rights Caucus, that she saw Iraqi soldiers enter a hospital and take new-born babies out of incubators and leave them on the floor to die. Her testimony, seen by tens of millions of Americans, helps to win public support for the war. Journalists later discover that Nayirah is a member of the Kuwaiti royal family and her testimony has been fabricated by a PR company.

Over 80,000 tonnes of bombs are dropped on Iraq, more than on Germany during World War II. One raid incinerates over 400 Iraqi civilians taking cover in an air raid shelter. The 100-hour ground war expels from Kuwait the Iraqi army, who “end their occupation with a frenzy of arson, looting, kidnapping and destruction”, bulldozing historic buildings and setting fire to hundreds of oil wells. “Every Kuwaiti we meet knows of someone who was raped, kidnapped or murdered.”

As the remnants of the Iraqi army retreats, US aircraft strafe and bomb them, killing over a thousand, Kuwaiti hostages included. In the aftermath of liberation, Iraqi ‘informants’ are murdered and hundreds of young Palestinian men are kidnapped. (Saddam Hussein had said he would withdraw Iraqi forces from Kuwait if Israel withdrew from the West Bank and Gaza.) Marlowe sees Kuwaiti soldiers beating a Palestinian child. She calls on US soldiers to intervene – they laugh.

During the war, the US President urged Iraqis to rise up against Saddam Hussein. When they do, they are brutally suppressed and receive no help from the west. Marlowe pieces together the refugees’ hair-raising stories:  “thousands of daily executions in Shia towns, of rebels being hanged from the gun barrels of tanks, of bound men lined up on the ground so tanks can roll over them.” Over 2 million Kurds flee Iraq to escape Saddam’s vengeance.

The long years of western sanctions against Iraq follow, supposedly to destabilise the regime, but in fact hurting only the Iraqi people, who become more dependent on the government for the little food and clothing they receive. The war creates a huge spike in cancer cases and patients die in droves for want of medicines.

During the 1990s, Marlowe was in Algeria, covering the horrendously violent civil war, in which up to 200,000 were killed. Western journalists were also targeted. Fisk documented this slaughter in his 1,300 page book, book, The Great War for Civilisation. On one occasion, he is out on an army patrol which is attacked with booby-trap bombs, fortunately emerging unscathed.

The barbarity of the police, who torture prisoners with electric drills and rape their loved ones before them, is matched by that of the terroristic Armed Islamic Group, who carry out summary executions using a portable guillotine mounted on the back of a pick-up truck which they drive from village to village. In September 1997, three hundred civilians are slaughtered in one night in a village in the suburbs of Algiers. A month later, when Marlowe is permitted to visit, the place is a ghost town, with nobody certain who carried out the massacre.

Alongside Fisk, Marlowe also covered the war in former Yugoslavia. “On the roads of north-west Bosnia in the late summer of 1992, we drive past hundreds of gutted houses, two-storey villas with smashed red tile roofs,” she writes. “The catastrophe occurred so suddenly that many families left laundry drying on clotheslines. The Serbs demand that Muslims fly white flags to signify that they have no weapons. It is in fact a way of knowing which houses to destroy.”

Marlowe meets some of the survivors of mass rape and torture. When the NATO bombardments start, there are more civilian casualties: “We stand in a field littered with carbonised corpses, amputated limbs, clothing and personal belongings. A man’s head sits upright in the grass.”

There is a strong suspicion that depleted uranium has been used, as in Iraq. NATO bombs also destroy the state broadcasting company building, killing at least ten people. “Once you kill people because you don’t like what they say,” Fisk writes, “you have changed the rules of war.”

But NATO’s attacks on civilians intensify – on passenger trains, houses, hospitals, even the Chinese embassy. In one incident, “NATO bombs the Niš to Pristina bus on a bridge at Lužane, killing forty-six Serbian and Albanian civilians. The pilot waits until an ambulance arrives and bombs a second time – something we often see the Israelis do in Lebanon.”

April 1996: Israel starts bombing Beirut. A US-made Hellfire missile rips through an ambulance, killing two women and four girls. Fisk takes a shard from the missile all the way to Duluth, Georgia, in the US, to confront executives from the Boeing Defense & Space Group with the deadly product of their business activities.

On April 18th 1996, “Robert and I spend the morning driving across the war zone with a convoy that is ferrying rations to UNIFIL posts.” (UNIFIL is the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.) Then a report comes in that Israel has bombed a UNIFIL post.  Marlowe writes: “When we arrive at the gates of the Fijian battalion headquarters a few minutes later, blood is flowing down the asphalt driveway. I try not to step in it, but there is blood everywhere. Pools and rivers of it. And human flesh.”

Her account of the carnage, in which over 100 people died, is truly chilling. Meanwhile, the Israeli government makes the nonsensical claim that Hezbollah fired missiles from within the Fijian battalion headquarters – in fact it was from several hundred metres distant, as later reports prove.

Fisk is involved in unearthing the truth about the attack and obtains and publicises a video of the bombardment. This helps force the UN to release its findings on the incident, which for diplomatic reasons it was trying to keep secret.  “Boutros-Ghali later tells us that Washington had him sacked as UN secretary general because he allowed the report to be published.”

Marlowe’s memoir is also about her battles with editors, determined to show western policy in the Middle East in the most favourable light. A photo of a child killed in the bombardment is captioned in Time magazine as “caught in the crossfire” – a pure invention. Elsewhere the magazine refers to the massacre as an “error” and a “tragedy”. Marlowe finds a new job on the Irish Times.

Marlowe and Fisk worked together for nearly twenty years, but life in the fast lane takes its toll. Infidelities, anger and depression throw their relationship into crisis – and then there’s another war to cover together when their marriage is effectively over. Marlowe and Fisk are in Baghdad when the US bombing starts – 320 cruise missiles in one night.

One week into the war, the US bomb two markets in two days in poor neighbourhoods of Baghdad, killing 723 civilians. Marlowe interviews the survivors. One asks: “Why are they doing this to us?”

She travels to Hilla, near the ancient city of Babylon, where 61 people have been killed and 200 wounded in three days of US cluster bomb attacks. Children are among the victims, yet the use of such munitions against civilians is strictly forbidden.

Days later, US aircraft attack the Al Jazeera building and a tank shells the Reuters bureau. A US general says his men were fired on from the building, but Marlowe points out that “more than 200 people are witness to the fact that not a single shot was fired from the hotel.”

The war over, the looting starts – including of priceless national treasures – unchecked by the occupation forces.  But on other fronts, there is increasing danger. From the start of the invasion that US forces are pretty careless in their targeting of civilians. “A large proportion of the tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed by US occupation forces are shot dead at checkpoints because they did not heed warning shots,” writes Marlowe. “The following year, I am nearly killed in the same way.”

This is a stunningly written book. It is not only a memoir about Fisk, and Marlowe’s often turbulent relationship with him. More importantly, it’s a book about the consequences of war, the civilians who suffer and the lies that are told to excuse the atrocities perpetrated by the world’s most powerful armies. It deserves a very wide readership.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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