Richard Engel’s Endless War

"If you're in a situation where you want to get mind off something horrible, you have to put your mind some place else — maybe it's building a car or a house or taking apart an engine." –NBC News war correspondent Richard Engel Credit: Bredun Edwards

In his new book And Then All Hell Broke Loose, Richard Engel — NBC's dauntless Chief Foreign Correspondent — details the four stages every war correspondent goes though during a deployment. "In the first stage, you're Superman, invincible," writes Engel. "In the second, you're aware that things are dangerous and you need to be careful. In the third, you conclude that math and probability are working against you. In the fourth, you know you're going to die because you've played the game too long."

Engel cycles through all four of those stages in his autobiography, as he moves to Cairo fresh off graduating from Stanford in the mid-'90s, then from one bloody conflict to the next — Egypt to Beirut to Iraq to Lebanon to Afghanistan and finally to Syria, where he was kidnapped in 2012 and held for a week before escaping. It's a compelling autobiography, and the narrative is anchored by keen historical digressions that give Engel's harrowing anecdotes much broader insight. We connected with Engel via phone during a recent trip to New York.   


Tell me about the name of the book. Why And Then All Hell Broke Loose?  
When I first arrived in the Middle East it had been in a status quo since 1967. The region was ruled by a group of strongmen. I like to think of them as row houses, they look great, but inside they're all rotten, full of termites and mold and mildew. What we did with the Bush administration is slam our shoulder into those row houses, breaking the status quo. For the next eight years of the Obama administration, we had a lot of very inconsistent action — supporting the opposition in Egypt but not supporting them in Bahrain. Supporting the resistance in Libya but not in Syria. Not taking a strong position on Yemen. The combined effect of eight years of military action, followed by seven years of inconsistent action, unleashed all of that mold and chaos that was inside. The U.S. didn't create the Sunni/Shia conflict or the Arab/Persian conflict or the Turkish/Kurdish conflict. Those conflicts are a thousand years older than the United States. But we did contribute to unleashing the problems recently. That's why the book is called And Then All Hell Broke Loose. All of these primordial conflicts have broken to the surface, and now they're represented by ISIS. ISIS is the id of the Middle East, the dark demon that was trapped deep inside.

ISIS, as a nation state, has the GDP of Belize. How long do you think they can survive?
ISIS is going to lose. They don't have a winning strategy. There have been groups like ISIS in the past in the Middle East that have been absorbed by the Islamic world. But ISIS is not gone yet, and they are going to do a lot of damage between now and when they ultimately do go away.

What's the solution?
There is going to be an enormous temptation for the entire world to say: "New strongmen. They can keep all of the refugees inside. They can defeat ISIS. Great." But history has taught us that we need to be weary of dictators who have promised easy solutions — Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini. They all came out of the dark period after World War I.

ALSO: Anthony Lloyd's Harrowing Tale of Being Kidnapped in Syria

What about the rationale floating around that we should disregard the old borders and let the Middle East sort itself out?
That's a fool's solution. It sounds great, but man . . .  Who is going to draw the new borders? Do the Kurds get a state? Does Armenia get its old territory back? Do the Sunnis get a state? Who runs it?

In the book you say there are four stages of a war correspondent's psyche. What stage are you at now?
I'm in a great stage of life, and it makes you recognize the important things. It makes me not want to risk it all and end up on the ground with my head in a bag next to my body. I didn't want that before, but I want it even less now.

Are you going back out there?
Of course. I've been back to Syria since I was nabbed. I was in Iran last week. Iran is not dangerous like Syria, of course. I have a big Africa trip planned. It's what I decided I'm doing with my life. I'm not coming back to New York to look for an anchor chair. That's not my calling.

You are a person who spends a great deal of time caught up in incredibly stressful situations. How do you take care of yourself?
I exercise very regularly. I like to exercise every day, even if I'm in a hotel. I'll run up the stairs, punch a punching bag, run on a treadmill, do push-ups. Sleep is another key. I don't have any particular diet. I have to eat what's available — in the Middle East, you eat what you can find.

When you come home, do you have a hard time adjusting?
Maybe when I was younger. The first two or three times you get a taste of danger and real fear, you come back feeling disconnected. That happened to me during the Iraq war. I had some symptoms of PTSD. One of the feelings is "I can't really connect to people, all these office dwellers who don't really know what's going on." A lot of young soldiers have that feeling when they come back from combat. I had that a little bit, but I got over it.

You were kidnapped in Syria. Can you describe the sort of fear you felt?
Not only did I think I was going to die, there were times when I thought, "OK, I'm going to die right now." I'm standing up and hearing bullets being chambered into rifles, and I thought, "OK, I'm going to die now." That happened several times. That's a different sort of fear. Your adrenaline gets maxed out. Fear is a chemical. It's like somebody is injecting battery acid into your bloodstream. It's going to happen right now, and you're bracing yourself, and it doesn't happen. Then it happens again but the volume gets turned down. It's horrible.

Mentally, how do survive that sort of fear?
One of the things I did was think about cooking. It's very procedural. If you're in a situation where you want to get your mind off something horrible, you have to put your mind some place else — maybe it's building a car or a house or taking apart an engine. It has to be something that takes a lot of time and requires concentration. I don't know how to fix a car or build a house, but I love to cook. I thought about a meal while I was in captivity that I wanted to make: ravioli with truffles, some reconstituted mushrooms, and a touch of tomato. I thought about this recipe in great detail — chopping the onion, peeling and then crushing the garlic, mincing the garlic, pouring the olive oil in, hearing the sizzle. I had a specific spoon, and thought about using that spoon to stir it, waiting until it was the right color, adding in the mushrooms… procedural. Setting the table. Going back to the pot after you've put out the places, because you need to stir it, then you need to put the bowls out. I would go through this meal one step at a time. The meal takes about an hour to make. I tried to stretch it out in my mind as long as I could.

What did you learn from those moments?
I got out. I made that dinner and proposed to my girlfriend. We just had a baby.