Pity the Nation Review: Robert Fisk paints a harrowing portrait of the horrors of war


The travails of Lebanon during its civil war (1975-1990) and its evolution into a conflict defined by torture, kidnap, brutality, mass-slaughter, suicide bombings and extremism have scarred the country. The terrible violence carries memories of tragedy, devastation, and loss for the Lebanese, the wider Arab world and Israelis alike. Robert Fisk's classic Pity the Nation takes its reader on an absorbing journey into the conflict in Lebanon and the wider Middle East. 

Fisk is not wrong in suggesting that far greater conflicts and atrocities have occurred across the 20th century. The Lebanese Civil War is estimated to have claimed 150,000 lives, statistics which pale in comparison to the mass-graves of Bosnia, the bombardment and starvation of Iraq during the First Gulf War, Vietnam, the Cambodian holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, and the systematic mass-murder by the Nazis of Jews, Poles, and Soviet POWs and civilians during the Second World War. 

However the author does not hesitate in taking the reader into the depths by confronting the harsh realities of warfare and violence. Violence remains the same whoever wages it. War is contradictory, chaotic and cruel, its emotions wide-ranging and it taps into human nature where good and evil are distorted and overlapping. Pity the Nation speaks to the heart about the inherent complexities of war, even the boredom and calmness which sometimes accompanies intense violence. Fisk wades through the aftermath of destruction and confronts startling personal and collective horror as U.N commander Romeo Dallaire wandered the hills of Rwanda and streets of Kigali during the horrifying Rwandan genocide.

The painstaking detail is necessary. The captivating and well-crafted narrative pulls the reader into Lebanon with vivid descriptions of its stunning landscape (be it blistering winds on snow covered peaks, scorching sunshine, Lebanese cedars, or the magnificence of Beirut) and Fisk gives us an array of historical characters and unheard of individuals to become invested in. The detail of the book humanises each character and individual you come across and with that it amplifies every victim, perpetrator and witness to Lebanon's darkest times and the toll it took on survivors.

The beauty of the country is matched by Lebanon's descent into madness. In intimate and grotesque detail, the price exacted on participants, be they civilian, soldier, politician, journalist or militiaman, is bloody and damning. When this is combined with a gripping story spanning three decades with historical context, the narrative makes for a rewarding and enriching blend of history, drama, and war reportage. This read is not for the faint-hearted. Its detail of the violence and aftermath of it, whether it be the description of Lebanese civilians indiscriminately incinerated by Israeli aircraft and artillery, blindfolded prisoners being executed at point blank range and thrown into gorges by militia groups, women and children decapitated and dismembered by suicide bombs, or the mass-murder of Palestinian civilians in Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, is shocking. 

However amidst such carnage, Lebanon remains a twisted beauty as war is waged in paradise The civil war's victims are reclaimed by the forces of nature itself, wiping away all traces in the process. Nature in itself, became just as destructive as it was capricious. Even the sickening clouds of flies consuming hundreds of corpses in Sabra and Shatila exemplify the fragility of human existence in Pity the Nation. The dead of Lebanon eventually become so great in number that the landscape began to swallow them up and its cities including Beirut which fell into disrepute after decades of intermittent slaughter. 

Pity the Nation exposes the extent to which Western audiences were (and continue to be) desensitised to the realities and consequences of war in the Middle East and the ease with which the wider public, politicians, journalists and soldiers alike are seduced by term "terrorist" and stereotypical descriptions of "ethnic" and "sectarian" violence. All these words, as Fisk reminds the reader, must be used with utmost care in policymaking. In Lebanon, the term "terrorist" was tossed around by Israeli politicians and soldiers alike with a mixture of irresponsibility and lethal intent. The methodical slaughter of hundreds of Palestinian civilians (including infants, children, pregnant women, and the elderly) conducted by the Phalangist militia and watched by Israeli soldiers represented the climax in a series of horrors committed by the Israelis and their allies during the civil war and the irresponsibility with which the dehumanising term "terrorist" is applied to enemies and civilian populations.  

Pity the Nation taps into the nature of Middle Eastern warfare. Whether contemporary or historical, its conflicts are turning into unwinnable wars shaped by guerrilla warfare and increasingly shaped by the creation of media narratives and images created to sway the public into supporting military campaigns. Disinformation lay at the heart of military policy in Lebanon, be the actors Arab, Israeli or Western and this remains the case in contemporary conflicts.

Fisk's insightful blend of war reporting and analysis of Lebanon's violence unmasks these narratives and the historical record is as unnerving for contemporary events as they were all those years ago for Lebanon. The Lebanon of the 1970s through to the 1990s is a microcosm of many of the Middle Eastern conflicts afflicting the 21st century. Lebanon's violence, like the Syria and Iraq of today, (while a product of internal political, religious and ethno-nationalist fault-lines) was exacerbated and worsened by the interference of foreign powers and organisations including Israel, France, United States, the Soviet Union, Italy, Syria, Iran, Iraq, the United Nations and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. It was a battlefield for different opponents and their proxies on the ground. Those who ultimately paid the price were tens of thousands of Lebanese men, women and children as the country was torn to pieces by geo-politics over the course of fifteen years of war. Now today Syrians, Iraqis and Yemeni civilians bear the brunt of violence and the staggering costs of proxy warfare. 

Were lessons from Lebanon learnt? The evidence suggest not, Lebanon's war in many aspects was a warm up for the horrors to come. In the 21st century, the irresponsible use of the term "terrorist" has gone global following the atrocities of 9/11 while Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen have become embroiled in civil wars which dwarf those of Lebanon. Stretching from Pakistan to Tunisia, numerous states have been critically destabilised and a multiplicity of anti-regime actors have been branded "terrorists" absent local and regional contexts and historical considerations. International powers have promoted and supported regime change through invasion, covert war, occupation, channelling weapons and resources into volatile anti-regime insurgents and propping up regimes despised by the wider population which has helped catalyse the collapse of order. Large areas of the Middle East and North Africa lie in ruins or consumed by violence and beneath the rubble of Western policies lie the corpses of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians while millions more have been dislocated from their homes. Western foreign policy in the Middle East across the region since the Arab revolutions and initiation of the "Global War on Terror" has largely been an unmitigated failure of humanity and policy. 

From the vicious militia wars of the 1970s, the dramatic invasion and occupation of Lebanon by the Israeli military through to the massacre at Qana in 1996 during Operation Grapes of Wrath, reading Pity the Nation requires patience and requires several sittings to complete. It is not just a history of Lebanon, but of the modern Middle East. It is a gritty yet immersive tale of the nature of war and a must read for anyone who wishes to understand the dynamics of the modern Middle East.

Matthew Williams