The Book of the Week is “And Then All Hell Broke Loose, Two Decades in the Middle East” by Richard Engel, published in 2016.
The author began his career in journalism in 1996. He chose to go to Cairo because he wanted to cover conflicts, and of course, the Middle East would always fit the bill. Also, to that end, he learned to speak fluent Arabic, and started making contacts in the region. All of his writings for a weekly newspaper were required to be approved by a government censor. The publication did its printing in Athens, Greece, to avoid really draconian restrictions.
The author was freelancing for ABC News when he arrived in Iraq in early March 2003. His coworkers were scared away by the start of hostilities. He– a Darwin award candidate– stayed on, with his employer-provided satellite phone, hazmat suit and ten thousand dollars in cash (for bribes, transportation, accommodations, etc.). He witnessed and reported on the age-old conflicts between Sunnis and Shias, and the more modern one involving the Americans and other Westerners, purportedly against the leader of Iraq.
In November 2005, the author’s extended stay at one Baghdad hotel was over, as the hotel was significantly damaged by a truck filled with explosives. At the time of the attack, the author was on vacation scuba diving in Thailand. Half a year later, he moved to Beirut. He then covered the Israeli-Hezbollah dispute.
The author showed how the Bush administration’s unnecessary aggression resulted in more violence and made the United States more of a target for terrorist attacks. The author also illustrated how the Obama administration offered support for certain political movements of people striving for freedom, and not for others similarly situated. Those occurred in Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, and Libya. In one egregious case, the administration broke its promise to deliver military aid. Such inconsistency created yet more instability.
In October 2011, the death-wish-plagued author went to Syria, whose government oppression was aided by Turkey. Ordinary Syrians were spreading the word about protesting, through social media. After paying people-smugglers to get across the Turkish border to chase after their story, he and a few others were grateful for the hospitality of strangers. They bummed free rides, accommodations and food.
By summer 2014, ISIS (a Sunni group) had surpassed Al-Qaeda as the region’s dominant jihadist group, penetrating Syria and Iraq. It had taken over Iraq’s military (not hard to do by that time), and physically roughed up its soldiers (who were Shias).
In the second half of the 1990’s, the author felt safe wherever he entered the region. Ten years later, “Journalists became worthless [with widespread use of the Internet on smartphones], at least as megaphones. But we became valuable as commodities to be stolen, bought and sold, traded for prisoners, or ransomed for millions.” In other words, no one needs the author as a journalist anymore because the world can learn what’s going on locally or globally through social media. The Middle East has become a dangerous place because hostage-taking (especially among journalists) has become trendy again. The bad guys can show graphic images of their deeds on YouTube videos.
Read the book to learn of the atrocities, lesser violence and litany of armed conflicts the author read about (in the form of history), witnessed, experienced for himself, and/or covered in his decades-long career up until the book’s writing.