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.
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.”
What makes Engel’s tactile eyewitness accounts particularly valuable is that they are fuel-injected with his knowledge of the history and the politics of the region. His analysis is so acute that the reader wishes that the book had been more expansive. But Engel writes with great concision — honed, no doubt, by years of having to compress momentous stories into a few minutes on the evening news.
He places events he covered in context with the tangled history of the Middle East: its centuries-old clash with the West and the fallout that the arbitrary borders drawn by the European powers after World War I (without regard to ethnic or religious concerns) would have on the nation-states carved out of the former Ottoman Empire. Engel also provides a remarkably succinct account of how George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq — without a legitimate casus belli, it turns out — opened a Pandora’s box of tragedy and mayhem.
The toppling of Saddam, combined with a bungled occupation and ill-judged choices — like Paul Bremer III’s disastrous decision to dissolve the Iraqi Army, which would result in scores of angry armed men without jobs, and fuel the insurgency — unleashed ancient hatreds between Sunni and Shiites and led to cascading horrors, including the toxic rise of the Islamic State and a tsunami of violence that would spread across the region.
Saddam was the first of what Engel calls the Middle East’s “big men” to fall; President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak and Gadhafi would soon follow, as the Arab Spring swept like a wildfire from country to country. By invading and ineptly occupying Iraq, Engel writes, the Bush administration “broke the status quo that had existed since 1967” in the region. And Obama, “elected by a public opposed to more adventurism” there, “broke the status quo even further through inconsistent action” — encouraging uprisings in the name of democracy in Egypt, supporting the rebels with force in Libya, and wavering on Syria.
The regimes of the old strongmen, Engel observes, were corrupt, repressive and “rotten to the core,” like a “row of decaying houses” that looked “sturdy from the outside, but were full of termites and mold,” and “Washington’s actions and missteps pushed them off their foundations and exposed the rot within.”
In recounting these developments, Engel pauses now and then to speculate about an assortment of what-ifs. Whether the reader agrees with all his assessments, they are rooted in his deep understanding of the region and are never less than compelling. Though he rebukes the Obama administration for sending mixed signals to the region, he argues that military intervention in Syria — even when the rebels were “numerous, strong, motivated and moderate” — would have probably turned into another quagmire: “Overturning Assad, an Alawite Shia, and replacing him with the Sunni rebels would have been Iraq in reverse.” As for the future of the region, he predicts that “new dictators will offer themselves as an alternative to the horrors of ISIS” and the current chaos.
It is a grim vision of the future. These new dictators, Engel suggests, “will likely be worse than the old strongmen because they’ll be able to use new technologies to identify and hunt down their enemies,” and “they will have the ability to point to the ugliness of recent history as a justification for taking their citizens’ rights.”
And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East
By Richard Engel
Illustrated, 241 pages
Simon & Schuster
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