And Then All Hell Broke Loose by Richard Engel
In twenty years of foreign correspondence throughout Egypt, Iraq and Syria, journalist Richard Engel has no doubt covered a myriad of horrific incidents. Consider this episode from 2005 that occurred on Baghdad’s Imma Bridge, rising thirty feet above the Tigris River. One August morning, a traveling crowd of religious pilgrims are packed on the bridge so tightly they can only advance by inches. An anonymous voice shouts “Suicide bomber!” and panic erupts. A stampede begins: Hundreds are fatally trampled, hundreds more leap off the bridge to their deaths. Yet when Engel covers this story for the Nightly News, he is afforded only 75 seconds to present. This unfortunate equation is representative of the modern Middle East’s tragic chaos, and an alarming lack of attention paid to its inner workings and the plight of its people. Engel’s newest book And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East is a meticulous yet swift contextualization of the often-convoluted conflicts, enhanced by the unique personal experiences Engel chronicles.
Hell Broke Loose can be viewed as two books in one. Engel frames the narrative with a comprehensive overview of the region’s modern history. He laments the haphazard drawing of country boundaries after WW1, setting the stage for decades of sectarian conflict. After the USA inherits the task of “policing” the region after WW2, a reasonably steady status quo is maintained for much of the remaining century. Then comes 9/11. The subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq pull the lid off the long-suppressed buildup of racial and political animus. As the narrative reaches this more recent phase of events, Engel zooms the lens closer upon key countries. He outlines each region’s religious/political sects to provide essential background context for the civil unrest unleashed by America’s abrupt invasion. The hopes and fears of Shiia and Sunni Islam are hugely important in the progression of Middle Eastern geopolitics, but it’s an often underreported angle. Worse, intervening governments often don’t sufficiently consider these factors when crafting foreign policy—rendering this all the more important and engaging to read.
In addition to this third-person historical narrative, Engel integrates his own reporting experiences to add a personal, human aspect. As a seasoned veteran of the region, he writes throughout with unassuming authority. This is a reporter who met Saddam Hussein in person, inclined to take a step back in response to Saddam’s terrifying gaze. Engel has driven by the prisons of Egypt, hearing screams of agony echo from within. As the narrative progresses, it’s evident that warzone journalism is a calling that requires a unique type of human. The lifestyle involves skirting on the edge of danger at all times yet proceeding nonetheless, perpetually thriving on a constant flow of adrenaline.
Within this hybrid of large-scale contextualization and personal memoir, Hell Broke Loose exhibits a reasonably balanced voice. Readers who suspect an authorial agenda will be calmed to find substantial critiques of both the Bush and Obama administrations. Engel eviscerates the 2003 Iraq Invasion’s ever-morphing stated objectives: first to find weapons of mass destruction, then to interrupt Iraq’s alleged ties to international terrorists, and finally the humanitarian goal of preserving democracy and human rights in the region. With the stated goal ever shifting, it’s no surprise the results continue to prove a labyrinthine mess. In the Obama years, Washington muddles things further via inconsistency and intermittent inaction, supporting citizen uprisings with little regard for what follows after the dust of battle has settled. Throughout, Engel doesn’t indulge in petty political jabs, and avoids entrenching himself on a single side of the political aisle. His narrative’s highest priority is the well-being of the impoverished peoples of this region.
Engel assigned this book a fitting title—there isn’t a lot of feel-good hope to go around. This is the inevitable cost of an honest recounting of this region’s continuing struggles. Where he can, Engel does highlight the positive factors hidden behind the headlines. He emphasizes the goodness inherent in the many innocent civilians subject to perpetual unrest. He appreciates the admirable spirit of his driven colleagues, his devoted production teams, and the unique teamwork among them. All told, this book is a fitting monument to Engel’s two decades of nomadic journalism in the world’s most turbulent areas. It provides an intelligent overview of these complex regional conflicts, ideal for readers who come to the table with only a cursory understanding strewn together by headlines and punditry. Engel’s personal experiences help this book rise above the flatness of ordinary political nonfiction, contextualizing this titan clash of political and religious factions with his uniquely personal touch.