Monday, March 14, 2016

"And Then All Hell Broke Loose"

This personal account of the conflicts in the Middle East over the last 20 years is written by Richard Engel, the NBC News foreign correspondent who has primarily focused on this part the world during that time frame.

The story of his news coverage exploits is unequivocally compelling reading whenever they take center stage in the book.  Engel also makes it his job to give the readers what could only be called, more or less, a history of Islam, and tie that to recent events.  It's an interesting effort, and depending on one's prior knowledge it is either a good reminder or great background information.  One aspect of this is a stretch of sorts.  At times, Engel seeks to tie the global intellectual ascendancy of Islam in the 11th century and the Ottoman empire peak in the 17th century to the alienation that the militants of today feel.  Familial thoughts passed down and subconscious inclinations may exist, but it is hard to see anything like that kind of perspective as a possibility in the minds of the pathological killers that claim ISIS as their brand.  They may act like medieval zealots, but they live in and are solely part of the present pathos, depressingly so.

Engel is one of the few foreign correspondents in any part of the media that has maintained one beat for so long.  Choosing the Middle East as his specialty over 20 years ago, he has had no shortage of opportunities.  Here, NBC nightly news is chosen almost solely for the opportunity to catch one of his reports.  It's certainly not to hear Lester Holt read the news and now be pumped up by the network as some sort of interesting or insightful character (he does however seem to be a good character) that is a cut above anyone else.

Given his experience, Engel takes the opportunity to often give his opinions on what has happened during during his tenure of coverage.  Those are mostly thoughtful, but there is nothing that falls into the realm of real unique insight.  It is as expected from a smart and informed observer.  A really odd thing about this book is that these opinions are repeated almost word for word in multiple chapters. It's as if each chapter was written as a standalone journalistic piece for publication elsewhere and the patched together articles did not receive an edit from someone with a single book perspective.  That and the fact that a conclusion for the book barely exists, as it simply ends with only few overarching comments and no speculative insights about what lies ahead means that the book ends with a whimper.

Was there a rush to get this book published, or just no idea what to say about the next step.  And if a rush, one could wonder what Engel or the editors think is on the horizon that would require the urgency to avoid a comprehensive edit or write a more multi-pronged and provocative conclusion.


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