Speaker by Various Artists

Some new-year reading

by Gordon Dryden

Gordon Dryden asks "if the silly season has ever been sillier?" And concludes that even National Radio has produced its most mundane summer season in memory.


Heading up to his 75th birthday in June, the former talkshow host is still a voracious voracious non-fiction reader. And, amidst the death of news-media offerings, he gives his favourite new books of 2006 - on topics likely to remain in the news:

Two on "the Google revolution: The Google Story, by David A Wise (McMillan) and The Search, by John Battelle (Nicholas Brealey. Wise's book is the simple introduction. But Battelle's is the definitive guide to how Internet search is about to transform all our lives, businesses and culture. There's an interview with Batelle on the CNN website.

On evolution v "intelligent design": The Ancestor's Tale, by Richard Dawkins (a Phoenix paperback), subtitled (correctly) "a pilgrimage to the dawn of life". Incredibly researched, brilliantly written.

On genetic research: the paperback versions of Matt Ridley's Genome (Fourth Estate) and Nurture Via Nature (Harper). Among other things, the last one overturns a hundred years of ludicrous 'educational psychology' theories and knits the best into one. See the Guardian review.

On the health-v-sickness debate: The Truth About the Drug Companies (How they deceive us and what to do about it), by Marcia Angell, MD (Scribe). See: The New York Review of Books. Not just the usual conspiracy theorist: the former editor in chief of The New England Medical Journal piles fact on to fact to provide a tremendous contribution to public-policy debate. And to add to the same debate, the update of Barbara Griggs' classic, Green Pharmacy (Healing Arts Press). It's subtitled 'The history and evolution of western herbal medicine'. But this new version is much, much more than that. The extra chapters provide excellent alternatives, from Germany in particular, to western synthetic-drug-based health programs.

But the non-fiction book of the year, to me: Robert Fisk's The Great War for Civilisation (Fourth Estate, London). It's long: 1366 pages. For casual history-readers, it's possibly too detailed. But it's the definitive history of the destruction of the Middle East - and its lessons for all of us. But it's much more than a mere history. This is incredibly powerful journalism from an international correspondent without peer - and a 30-year background of live reportage in the Middle East. Who else, in any era, has combined so much history, so much incisive on-the-spot coverage, and such moving writing? A 'must' for every journalist and school of journalism.

Some samples:

From a chapter on "The Plague" - the soaring rate of child-cancer in Iraq by the mid-1990s:

There was one final scourge to be visited upon the Iraqi people, however: a foul cocktail in which both our gunfire and our sanctions played an intimate, horrific role, one that would contaminate Iraqis for years to come, perhaps for generations. In historical terms, it may one day be identified as our most callous crime against the Middle East, against Arabs, against children. It manifested itself in abscesses, in massive tumours, in gangrene, bleeding and child mastectomies, and shrunken heads and deformities and thousands of tiny graves.

I first heard that Iraqis might be suffering from a strange new cancer 'epidemic' while visiting the Syrian capital of Damascus in the summer of 1997. An Iraqi opposition leader, a Shiite cleric who made his way to Iran after the failed Shiite uprising of 1991 and had then travelled to Syria, told me that Iraqi ex-soldiers seeking refuge in camps in southern Iran were being diagnosed with an unusual number of cancers; most had fought in the 1991 tank battles south-west of Basra, their armour struck repeatedly by American depleted-uranium shells. The cleric spoke of Iraqi children in the Iranian camps who had fallen ill.

When I arrived in Baghdad in early 1998, I was confronted almost at once by unexpected cases of cancer ... It took several days before I grasped what this meant: that something terrible might have happened towards the end of the 1991 Gulf War. Some Iraqis blamed the oil fires which had burned during and after the war, releasing curtains of smoke that hung over the country for weeks, producing a carcinogenic smog over Baghdad and other large cities. Others suspected that Saddam's bomb-blasted chemical weapons factories might be to blame. But increasingly we found that those most at risk came from areas where allied aircraft - and, in the far south, tanks - had used large quantities of depleted-uranium munitions. DU shells are made from the waste produced of the nuclear industry.

This was not an easy story to investigate . . . Cancer wards are shocking; child cancer wards more so, places that should not - if life and youth have meaning - exist on this earth. But child cancer wards for those who die from the diseases of war are an abomination. For what slowly became evident was that an unknown chemical plague was spreading across southern Mesopotamia, a nightmare trail of leukaemia and stomach cancer that was claiming the lives of thousands of Iraqi children as well as adults living near the war zones of the 1991 conflict.

Reporting from a hospital in Baghdad, during the opening American bombardment in 2003:

"It was a scene from the Crimean War, a hospital of screaming wounded and floors running with blood. I stepped in the stuff, it stuck to my shoes, to the clothes of all the doctors in the packed emergency room, it swamped the passageways and the blankets and sheets. The Iraqi civilians and soldiers brought to the Adnan Khairallah Martyr Hospital in the last hours of Saddam's regime - sometimes still clinging to severed limbs - are the dark side of victory and defeat, final proof, like the dead who are buried within hours, that was is indeed about the total failure of the human spirit.

As I wandered amid the beds and groaning men and women on them ... the same old questions recurred: Was this for September 11th? For human rights? For weapons of mass destruction?"

On the destruction of Iraq's national treasures:

Never, in all my dreams of destruction, could I have imagined the day I would enter the Iraqi National Archaeological Museum to find its treasures defiled. They lay across the floor in tens of thousands of pieces, the priceless antiquities of Iraq's history. The looters had gone from shelf to shelf, systematically pulling down the statues and pots and amphorae of the Assyrians and The Babylonians, the Sumerians, the Medes, the Persians and the Greeks, and hurling them on to the concrete floor. My feet crunches on the wreckage of 5,000-year-old marble plinths and stone statuary and pots that had endured every siege of Baghdad, every invasion of Iraq throughout history - only to be destroyed when America came to 'liberate' the. The Iraqis did it. They did it to their own history, physically destroyed the evidence of their own nation's thousands of years of civilisation.

And what did the new liberators do to stop this:

After days of arson and pillage, I compiled a short but revealing scorecard. US troops had sat back and allowed mobs to wreck and then burn the ministries of Planning Education, Irrigation, Trade, Industry, Foreign Affairs, Culture and Information. They did nothing to prevent looters from destroying priceless treasures of Iraq's history in Baghdad Archaeological Museum and in the museum in the northern city of Mosul, nor from looting three hospitals. However, the Americans put hundreds of troops inside two Iraqi ministries that remained untouched - and untouchable - with tanks and armoured personnel carriers and Humvee keeps surrounding both institutions. So which particular ministries proved to be so important for the Americans? Why, the Ministry of the interior, of course - with its vast wealth of intelligence information on Iraq - and the Ministry of Oil.

And back to a Baghdad hospital for a final quotation on what US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfield has called "as targeted an air campaign as ever existed":

Then there was Safa Karim, eleven years old and dying. An American bomb fragment stuck in her stomach and she is bleeding internally, writhing on the bed with a massive bandage on her stomach and a tube down her nose and - somehow most terrible of all - a series of four cheap and dirty scarves that tie each of her wrists and ankles to the bed. She moans and thrashes where she lies, fighting pain and imprisonment at the same time. A relative - her black-shrouded mother sits by the bed in silence - says that she is too ill to understand her fate. 'She has been given ten bottles of drugs and she had vomited them all up,' he says. Through the mask that the drip tube makes of her face, Safa moves her eyes towards her mother, then the doctor, then the journalist back to her mother.

The man opens the palms of his hands, the way Arabs do when they want to express impotence: 'What can we do?' they always say, but the man is silent and I'm glad. How, after all, could I ever tell him that Safa Karim must die for September 11th, for George W Bush's and Tony Blair's religious certainty, Paul Wolfowitz's dream of 'liberation', and for the 'democracy that we are blasting these people's lives to create?

Zmag has a recent interview with Robert Fisk on his new book.

When Fisk's book first appeared overseas, in October last year, the New Zealand Herald ran two, often conflicting, reviews

For detailed links to Fisk's background and works, try Wikipedia.

And finally, as background to the current alarm over Iran's nuclear program: Seymour M. Hersh's book, Chain of Command, now updated as a Penguin Paperback. A summary of Hersh's great reportage, in The New Yorker, on the American invasion of Iraq — but with interesting comparisons between the American Government's conflicting attitude towards Israeli, Pakistani, North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs. Hersh's chilling conclusion, at the end of the epilogue to the new edition: "There are many who believe George Bush is a liar, a President who knowingly land deliberately twists facts for political gain. But lying would indicate an understanding of what is desired, what is possible, and how best to get there. A more plausible explanation is that words have no meaning for this President beyond the immediate moment, and so he believes that his mere utterance of the phrases makes them real. It is a terrifying possibility."

Note: Gordon Dryden's newest book, the United Kingdom edition of The New Learning Revolution (a complete update of The Learning Revolution) has just been published in England. International, America, New Zealand, online and Chinese editions will be published early this year: www.thelearningweb.net