Thu, Mar 17, 2016 - Page 11 News List

Book review: The surreal horrors of war

Richard Engel spent 20 years as a war correspondent in the Middle East. This gripping book reveals how the region has changed over the past two decades

By Michiko Kakutani  /  NY Times News Service

And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East, by Richard Engel

When Richard Engel was 13, traveling abroad with his parents, he dreamed of becoming a reporter. He imagined working at the old International Herald Tribune and living in an apartment in Paris, overlooking the Champs-Elysees. He saw himself wearing white suits and brandishing a bone cigarette holder and “writing dispatches about intrigues and politics and spies and damsels and all the rest.”

He did grow up to become a reporter — he is the chief foreign correspondent for the US station NBC — but would spend much of his 20-year award-winning career not in glamorous Paris, but in war zones in the Middle East. As an enterprising freelance reporter, unable to get a visa to travel to Iraq but determined to cover the coming war, he got himself into the country by volunteering as a “human shield” for a peace organization in early 2003 and struck a deal with ABC News; he would become the last American television reporter left in Baghdad.

In 2005, his Baghdad hotel was badly rocked by a truck bomb across the street, and as the entire region exploded into war and revolution, he would have other close calls — including being kidnapped in Syria in 2012 — that he says would leave him with “fingerprints” of post-traumatic stress.

Engel’s harrowing adventures make for gripping reading in his new book, And Then All Hell Breaks Loose, and he deftly uses them as a portal to look at how the Middle East has changed since he arrived in the region as a young reporter back in 1996.

The result is a book that gives readers a brisk but wide-angled understanding of the calamities that have unfurled there over the last two decades — most notably, the still unspooling consequences of the United States invasion of Iraq and the sad trajectories of revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Syria, which began in hope and have snowballed into fiasco. Countless articles and books, of course, have chronicled these same events — with a narrower focus and more detail — but for readers looking for an astute, fast-paced overview, this book is a great explainer.

Publication Notes

And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East

By Richard Engel

Illustrated, 241 pages

Simon & Schuster

US: Hardcover


Engel, 42, gives us sharp, unnerving snapshots of events he witnessed and a visceral sense of the daily rhythms of life in Baghdad as the war turned increasingly chaotic: “Mortars at dawn, car bombs by 11am, drive-by shootings before tea and mortars again at dusk.”

Mortars and car bombs

Some of his observations have a comic edge: He describes hiring staff in Baghdad in the days before the bombing began (“an avaricious driver and a drunkard cop”) as assembling “the cast of characters for an updated version of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop.” But more often, there is a surreal horror to his descriptions: the sight of 11 bodies of small boys, perhaps ages 8 to 10, killed in Qana, Lebanon, during an Israeli air raid in 2006; the memory of “a stray dog carrying a severed human head between its teeth” in Iraq; a heartbreaking interview with a 14-year-old boy who had a hand and a foot chopped off by ISIS thugs because he had refused to cooperate.

Along the way, Engel also offers his personal impressions of leaders. He recalls that Saddam Hussein had “a terrifying gaze” (even in a courtroom, facing a death sentence), that Moammar Gadhafi seemed like “a washed-up, strung-out rock star,” and that President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt had become “an old fool,” surrounded by “generals in tight uniforms and civilian advisers in bad suits.”

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