Published: September 09, 2011
Richard Engel, the chief foreign correspondent for NBC News, has spent the past decade going to some of the more dangerous war zones on the planet. He has filed from Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan — and more recently covered the uprisings in Egypt, where he was tear gassed, and Libya, where he was almost shot in Benghazi while covering the conflict.
It wasn't the first time Engel has had a close call.
While on an assignment in Afghanistan in 2010, Engel spent several weeks embedded with soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division. The troops were returning from a memorial service located off-base when the Taliban attacked their compound. Engel continued reporting as the battle raged just yards outside of the base's wall.
"If [the U.S. soliders had lost] the Taliban would have gotten inside the base and probably tried to kill everybody inside," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "They didn't. ... They got very close. They got right up to the outskirts — maybe 5 meters, 10 meters from the walls."
And the attack, said Engel, was not unusual.
"I've seen a lot of battles like this," he says. "They're attacked and they fire back and they fight ferociously for about 30 minutes or so and three soldiers are badly injured in this firefight. ... And I've seen battles like this on little outposts in other parts of Afghanistan and when you add them up, [you ask] 'Why? What are these amounting to?' And when I was talking to soldiers about this, they say, 'We're supposedly here to help the Afghan people but sometimes the Afghans don't want the Americans help.' ... So why are they fighting all these little fights in remote valleys that the soldiers have never heard of? I think some of the soldiers come back and the answer is: They don't know why."
Engel's report from the Afghan base is included in Day of Destruction — Decade of War, a new MSNBC documentary Engel co-hosts with MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow. The documentary examines America's response to the Sept. 11 attacks and how the cost of war has affected both soldiers and those back home.
On today's Fresh Air, Engel talks about covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and his ways of dealing with long-term stress. (He scuba dives.) He also discusses his reporting of the uprisings in Egypt and Libya, where he narrowly avoided an artillery fire attack while interviewing a rebel last March.
"There [was] quite a close explosion that landed in front of me and because it land[ed] in front of me, I didn't hear the whistle," he says. "And then the rebel I was interviewing pushed me aside as he was running for cover. ... And then [I heard] the other sound which was a very distinct whistle and I just wanted to get down low so I dropped onto my stomach."
Engel says he then looked for anything hard to stand behind, to shield himself from the blast. He ran to a concrete barrier and crouched behind it, while his cameraman kept filming.
"He didn't stop recording," he says. "He didn't even lose focus. He heard the whistle and turned to it and catches the smoke as it explodes."
Gadhafi's Home: 'Not Particularly Attractive, Bad Kitsch'
While reporting on the front lines, Engel repeatedly crisscrossed the country in a car with his cameraman. He also spent a considerable amount of time at Moammar Gadhafi's former compound, which has become a Libyan tourist attraction in recent weeks. Among the more unusual level of things he saw? A small museum dedicated to the 1986 American airstrike on his compound.
"He's kept bits of shrapnel and pieces of the aircraft itself," he says. "[Behind the museum] was one of Gadhafi's bedrooms. So I went into his bedroom and his bathroom with a big Jacuzzi tub. The bed was a large double-king-size mattress and over it was a very bad painting of a seascape with a stormy night. It looked like a bad motel room from the '70s. It reminded me of Saddam's palaces — not particularly attractive, bad kitsch, sort of a casino built on the cheap."
Saddam's palaces — and Saddam's children's palaces — were more sadistic, says Engel.
"We found torture devices that Saddam's son was using on his people," he says. "I remember there was something that looked like something you'd see in a medieval torture museum. It was a cage, made of metal, and it was in the form of a human body — and it opened up, and he would put people inside of it, and lower them in water, or lower them in water with battery acid. He spent time looking up torture devices. So Saddam's regime was truly sadistic. I didn't find anything like that in Libya."
Richard Engel has received a Peabody Award, the Edward R. Murrow Award, the Medill Medal for Courage and the David Bloom Award for his coverage overseas. He is the author of A Fist in the Hornet's Nest, which he discussed on Fresh Air in 2004, as well as War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq. [Copyright 2013 NPR]
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
During the Egyptian revolution, I was transfixed by some of Richard Engel's reporting. He was often positioned with his cameraman on a hotel balcony overlooking Tahrir Square, enabling him to show, describe and explain events as they unfolded. When things began to quiet down in Egypt, Engel was off to the uprising in Libya, where he traveled with rebels and came under fire while reporting on camera. He's displayed incredible courage.
Engel is NBC's chief foreign news correspondent. During the Shock and Awe bombing campaign that began the war in Iraq, he decided to stay in Baghdad and keep reporting. Engel is fluent in Arabic.
Engel and Rachel Maddow report on the aftermath of 9/11 in a new documentary called "Day of Destruction, Decade of War" that will be shown on MSNBC tonight, tomorrow and Sunday. Included in the documentary is a clip from one of Engel's reports from Afghanistan while embedded with the 82nd Airborne Division. He's interviewing Sergeant Louis Loftus, the point man on patrols, who would be the first to spot or step on an IED.
Shortly before this interview, his buddy was killed by an IED. Loftus tries to stay stoic.
(Soundbite of film, "Day of Destruction, Decade of War")
Sergeant LOUIS LOFTUS (82 Airborne Division): Right now, I'm kind of numb to it. Like to be honest, I just don't really feel much. I pray for his family. I pray for his soul that it, you know...
I try not to think about it because when you think about it, then I get like this, and it's not - you know, I don't - yeah, so yeah, you know, everyone deals with it their own way. I try to hide it. I try not to think about it because I've got to stay 100 percent. You know, I've got to keep a good example in front of the other soldiers.
GROSS: Sergeant Louis Loftus, speaking with Richard Engel, NBC chief foreign correspondent. Richard Engel, welcome to FRESH AIR. You've been doing such incredible work. It's really a pleasure to have you here.
Mr. RICHARD ENGEL (Chief Foreign Correspondent, NBC): Well, thank you very much.
GROSS: This report that we just heard got a lot of attention, and I - every time I saw it, including in the documentary that you did with Rachel Maddow, I can't help but wonder, whenever I see it, if Sergeant Loftus ever asked you to not use that clip because he didn't want to be seen breaking down because that wasn't his idea of setting a good example, he wanted to just maintain, you know, a more stoic posture?
Mr. ENGEL: It's funny that you asked that because when you're living on a little base, and impressions are everything, you know, what you - how you're perceived with the other soldiers, the chain of command within the particular company that you're with, staying strong, staying loyal, and I asked him. I said, you know - because, I mean, we were doing this interview on the base. There were other soldiers around. You know, whenever you set up a camera and start interviewing people, a small little crowd tends to form.
So other soldiers did see him get very emotional in this interview. And I asked him afterwards, I said, you know, this could be embarrassing for you if we put this on television. And he said no, you know, it's OK, I get it. We were talking about his friend who had just died, and he said: Look, I feel very emotional about this incident, and even soldiers can cry when they lose a friend. And so he decided that it was important because he was expressing a sincere emotion about a friend.
GROSS: After you recorded the interview with Sergeant Louis Loftus that we just heard an excerpt of, there was a memorial service for his buddy who died in the IED explosion, and as soon as everybody got back from the memorial to the base, the Taliban attacked. And you were reporting on camera during that battle.
And you say ammunition was running very low. The Taliban had gotten very close. How close did the Americans get to losing that particular battle? And what would have happened to you if they ran out of ammunition and if the Americans lost?
Mr. ENGEL: Well, I think if they had lost the battle, then the Taliban would have gotten inside the base and probably tried to kill everyone inside. They didn't. You have to understand the terrain a little bit.
These bases are very small. This particular base is called Combat Outpost Nolan, and it's really just a farmhouse. And it's an adobe farmhouse, so mud walls around a central - two central courtyards.
And there's some rooms in the middle of the - within the walled perimeter, and that's about it. And in this large farmhouse are about 100 soldiers, and they go out on patrol, and they patrol the farmlands that are in the area, and then they come back and they live on this base.
And that's it. They eat there. They live there. They sleep there. And the walls are fairly high. They're high enough that there's a second floor. And in the corner of these farmhouses are towers, and they've constructed towers like you'd imagine a fort might look, even an Old West fort with these towers in the corners.
And there are several of these outposts in the Arghandab Valley. And what happened is the Taliban attacked, and they got very close. I mean, they got right up to the edge, right - you know, maybe five meters, 10 meters from the walls.
GROSS: You ended this report by saying - I'll paraphrase here - the Americans won, but why? For nearly a decade, similar battles have been fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the impression I got from the end of that report was that you had seen a lot of battles like this that basically amounted to nothing in the long run.
Mr. ENGEL: Well, I think you can - I think that's the question I was trying to raise. I've seen a lot of battles like this. And just to get back to this image, the soldiers go out, they bury one of their own - actually they didn't bury him, but they held a memorial for him. Then they come back to this farmhouse.
They're attacked, and they fire back, and they fight ferociously for about 30 minutes or so. And three soldiers are badly injured in this firefight, you know, hit by bullets. One guy was shot in the face. I'm actually not sure if he was shot or hit by an RPG shrapnel, but he was injured in the face.
And I've seen battles like this on little outposts in other parts of Afghanistan, and when you add them up, these are: Why? What are they amounting to? And when I was talking to Loftus and other soldiers about this, they say, well, we're supposedly here to help the Afghan people, but sometimes the Afghans don't want the Americans' help, and the Afghans don't really want the Karzai government that the U.S. troops are backing.
So why are they fighting all of these little fights in remote valleys that the soldiers have never heard of before they went to Afghanistan? And I think some of the soldiers come back with - the answer to the question is they don't know why.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Engel, NBC's chief foreign correspondent.
You recently returned to the States from Libya, where you were covering the revolution there. And I just want to play an example of your reporting from Libya. This is an amazing clip. You were reporting on and traveling with Libyan rebels. And you were reporting on how basically unprepared they were for a civil war, how their arms didn't compare to what Gadhafi's forces had.
One rebel tells you that, you know, the rebels have light weapons, and Gadhafi's forces had tanks. And in fact one of the rebels has only, like, a toy gun. It's not even a real gun.
And in the middle of this report, as we'll hear, you come under fire. So let's hear this report. It starts with you talking about the toy gun.
(Soundbite of news report)
Mr. ENGEL: Another rebel showed me he isn't actually armed at all. It's a toy gun. This is amazing. He just handed me his gun. I didn't realize until he put it in my hands, it's actually just made of plastic. It's a toy.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
Unidentified Group: (Speaking foreign language)
Mr. ENGEL: Three explosions 50 yards away. So as we were doing the interviews, incoming rounds just landed in this area, and the rebels are now starting to flee.
Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)
Mr. ENGEL: Rebels cheer that they survived this assault by Gadhafi's army. There have been several artillery rounds that have landed right in this area. We're using this piece of concrete to take a little cover and to see if the artillery rounds stop long enough for us to get out of the area.
Shockingly, the rebel we interviewed leaves cover to retrieve his plastic gun but abandons it as we hear another explosion.
GROSS: OK, so that's Richard Engel reporting from Libya. And it's just kind of amazing to see you in the middle of that report dive for cover, just, like, hit the ground, yeah.
Mr. ENGEL: I'd never heard it on radio, but to hear that, the whistle of that incoming round is - it brought me right back to that day in the desert. And I think the reason that we're all still alive after that report is because we were in the middle of the desert. And when the artillery round came in, it impacted relatively soft sand, and that absorbed most of the shock, absorbed a lot of the shrapnel. Had it been on concrete, you know, I'm sure we would - you know, it would have gotten very messy. That was an amazing day.
I mean, this rebel that we were talking to wanted to look the part, and I guess he wanted to join the fight, but he couldn't afford a weapon. So he was out there, and he was just carrying a toy gun. He had a beret on, and he wanted to look the part of a rebel, hoping one day that he would be able to find a gun, pick one up, get given one, buy one, I'm not exactly sure. But he wanted to be in the fight even though he couldn't afford his own weapon.
GROSS: It's amazing that you have to buy your own weapon in a fight like that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ENGEL: Yeah, and they got very expensive at some stage, I mean, we're talking several thousand dollars for an automatic rifle, yeah.
GROSS: Oh, really? Wow.
Mr. ENGEL: And it - the prices have come down a little bit since so many of Gadhafi's weapons were seized, but in the early days, there were very...
GROSS: And looted, yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ENGEL: And - Gadhafi's compound, and I was just inside Gadhafi's compound, that report was from the early days of the revolt, when people - when the rebels were fighting on the eastern front. And they were fighting in the open desert, and they were really inexperienced. And these were engineers and doctors and, you know, farmers, anybody who was part of Libyan society decided to join in this revolution. And at first they didn't know what they were doing, and that was - you know, some of them were running around, as you saw, or as you heard, with plastic guns.
Later on, they got much better. The learning curve is tremendously high in war and I guess in everything else, and eventually they were able to unseat Gadhafi with considerable help from NATO.
But I've never seen Gadhafi's - I mean, I've never seen a compound so full of guns. When we went inside Gadhafi's compound in Tripoli, it was just packed to the gills with very expensive, mostly Italian, weapons: Berettas, pistols, Berretta assault rifles, cases and cases of this, of really nice, brand-new weapons. And then he stockpiled weapons all over the city.
GROSS: So I want to get back to that report. When you came under fire, and you had to hit the ground, what we can't see and what we can't hear is what went through your mind. So can you fill us in on that?
Mr. ENGEL: Well, I was interviewing this rebel, and we were talking, and I was doing a little piece to the camera describing this plastic gun, and the first thing I felt was - I heard an explosion that was close. It's not the one that's very distinct. There was a nearer - quite a close explosion that landed in front of me, and since it landed in front of me, I didn't hear the whistle. That whoosh you hear is actually the shell going over my head. So you hear, as it passes over, you hear the sound more distinctly.
But the first one I heard, I didn't hear the whistle so much as just the bang, and then the rebel I was interviewing kind of pushed me aside as he was running for cover. So what was going through my head, the first thing I heard was a noise. Then I felt this rebel sort of pushing me down as he was trying to run over me, effectively, to get to cover, and then the other sound, which was the very distinct whistle that - when you hear that, you know, you know, bad things are coming. And I just wanted to get down low. So I dropped onto my stomach, and there's not much you can do at that stage. You just hope that you - it doesn't fall on you, and...
GROSS: So that rebel wasn't protecting you, he was basically pushing you aside and running over you?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ENGEL: Oh, it was almost a footprint on my back. He was just trying to get past me to - there was a little - I think it was a well cover, which is an odd thing to see in the middle of the desert, but they do sometimes have underground aquifers out in the desert. And there was a large, concrete - I'm not sure if it was still active, but at one stage there had been a well there. So there was a big concrete box not far from where we were in the desert. So we were able to just run to that.
And it's not great cover because it's only exposed - it gives you cover from one side, but it was good enough.
GROSS: OK, well, you actually reported from that, with that little bit of cover, you added on to your report.
Mr. ENGEL: Yeah, I had a great cameraman. He didn't stop reporting, or he didn't stop recording. He didn't even lose focus. I mean, that's a serious cameraman. His name is John Kooistra. He heard the whistle and just turned to it, and actually catches the smoke as it explodes.
GROSS: Crazy, really, wow. So how do you know when it's safe to start reporting again or relatively safe, safe enough to pick your head up and speak?
Mr. ENGEL: Well, they - the artillery tends to come in bursts, and they'll -you know, in a barrage. Mortars are about the same because the way you work these weapons is they'll fire five or six rounds, and then they'll have a spotter with binoculars, and they'll see where the rounds landed, they'll see if they killed anyone, what the impact is, and then they'll adjust it. They call them walking them in.
So they'll drop one maybe that's too far, then they'll drop the second one. It's - perhaps it's a little short, and then they adjust it and fire it in the middle. So it's not computerized. It's - you're turning a crank to adjust the angle of the weapon.
So they'll usually fire five, six, seven, wait a few minutes, see how it worked, then fire another group of five, six, seven. So we waited for a few of these to go. There was a second later in the report there was - you hear there's a second round. And so we were standing by this well cover, and the rebel decides oh, I'm going to go get my gun.
I thought, well, it's probably a better idea to wait where we are because more are coming. Let's wait for the second barrage. The second barrage came, and then after that we decided let's not wait for the third. Let's go now while there might be - maybe a minute lull. And then we decided to get out.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Engel, NBC's chief foreign correspondent. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent.
Let's get back to your reporting from Libya. You were describing all the arms that you found in Gadhafi's compound. What are some of the other most surprising things that you saw in Gadhafi's compound?
Mr. ENGEL: In Gadhafi's compound? He has a little - or he had, it's now become a bit of a tourist attraction for Libyans to go and take their pictures - he had a small museum built around the airstrike, the American airstrike on his compound in 1986. And in that compound he has kept bits of shrapnel and pieces of - what looked like piece of the aircraft itself.
This was a museum right behind - if you remember that very famous statue of a fist holding a crushed American - I think it was an F-16 fighter, and right behind it was this museum, if it would be, to Gadhafi and his resilience in this attack.
And then upstairs was one of Gadhafi's private bedrooms. And so I went into his bedroom, and his bathroom is an en-suite bathroom with a big Jacuzzi tub. And the bed was a large bed, maybe double-king-size, you know, a huge mattress, and then over it was a very bad painting of a seascape with a stormy night.
It looked like a bad motel room from the '70s with a few chandeliers added. So - and it reminded me of Saddam's palaces: not particularly attractive, bad kitsch, sort of a casino built on the cheap is how I would think of it. Gadhafi lived surprisingly the same way.
GROSS: You know, it's amazing, like, the level of, like, narcissism and sadism that dictators seem to have.
Mr. ENGEL: I think - when we went through Saddam's - and particularly his children's - things and their belongings, there was even more sadism. I mean, that regime was more brutal. It was more sadistic. I mean, we found torture devices that Uday had been using on his people, Uday being Saddam's son who was also killed by the Americans.
And the - I remember there was a - it looked like something you'd see in a medieval torture museum or a medieval - it was a cage made of metal, and it was in the form of a human body. And it opened up, and he would put - Uday would put people inside of it and then lower them in water or lower them in water with battery acid added to the water. I think he spent time, apparently on the Internet and other places, looking up torture devices. So Saddam's regime was truly sadistic. I didn't find anything like that in Libya. But it might be there.
GROSS: Wow, that's just really, like, horrible.
Mr. ENGEL: Yeah, he was - this was a - Saddam's son Uday was a psychopath. I mean, he was truly sadistic. I met a guy who he tortured, and - because he owned the soccer team, and if the soccer team didn't perform well, he would beat and abuse the players hopefully to inspire them, he thought. He would have them kick barefoot a cement ball, and the players themselves told me this.
And I can't imagine this is going to make them perform any better. He would -he took one person who had - he was affiliated with the team, it was like an assistant coach, and he locked him in a room in the - in sort of like a basement room in the administrative building, and he gave him an ant.
And he said OK, I want you - you have to keep track of this ant until tomorrow morning, and I'm going to come back, and I want this ant. And I don't know if you could imagine what it would be like to keep track of an ant for 24 hours. It's difficult. If you take your eye off it for a second, they go missing. So he spent the entire night trying to keep track of this ant.
GROSS: How do you even dream something like that up?
Mr. ENGEL: This is a sick person. He's totally insane.
GROSS: Richard Engel will be back in the second half of the show. He's NBC News chief foreign correspondent. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent. He's been reporting for hotspots since the U.S. Shock and Awe bombing campaign that started the Iraq war. More recently, we've seen him escape attacks in Libya and Egypt as he covered the Arab uprisings. Engel and Rachel Maddow co-anchor a new documentary called "Day of Destruction, Decade of War," that will be shown tonight, tomorrow and Sunday on MSNBC.
Let's talk a little bit about Egypt. You did incredible reporting from Egypt.
Mr. ENGEL: Oh, thank you for saying that.
GROSS: Oh, yeah. I saw a lot of you in Egypt.
Mr. ENGEL: It's been a busy year.
GROSS: Yeah. During the period of demonstrations in Tahrir Square you had this incredible perch on a rooftop overlooking Tahrir Square.
Mr. ENGEL: Yeah.
GROSS: So my first question about this is how did you get that spot?
Mr. ENGEL: Oh this sounds a little bit...
GROSS: It was probably really valuable real estate.
Mr. ENGEL: And it was tricky because the hotel was trying to throw us out. And the hotel, there was a period in the revolt when the country became very anti-press, and it was by design. The Mubarak government in its weakened position decided that it was getting bad press and used state media to turn the people against us. And it happened overnight. There were all these broadcasts on state television and radio saying that all the journalists were spies, and I mean, I think Mubarak was trying to have us killed. He wanted us off the streets and he decided to insight the mobs and incite the masses against us with the instruments of power that he had, which was the state media.
And a lot of people, particularly his supporters, bought it and overnight all journalists became targets. So the hotel where we were staying in became a target, because most of the journalists were staying in a couple of hotels around Tahrir Square. So the hotel wanted us either out because it was getting attacked and the hotel was boarding up the windows and, you know, they thought they were going to be overrun in the second, and they certainly didn't want us broadcasting anymore.
So we had to play a little bit cat and mouse and separate our equipment and we rented extra hotel rooms so that we were changing around so if the management came the managers will, oh no, don't broadcast. Oh no, we're not broadcasting. We'd go to another room to broadcast and then they'd come there, so we had to play a little bit of cat and mouse with the hotel as well in order to get that shot. And spreading around the equipment, you know, breaking it up into its component parts so it doesn't really look like we're doing much. You know, you keep half the gear in one room and then half the gear in the other and then marry them together when you need to, that way in case the hotel did seize some of our things we would have it. So it was, you know, you have to get creative when you don't have a lot of options.
GROSS: In one of the reports that you did from Egypt you were in a spot that was tear-gassed. And the teargas affects your eyes and you can't, it looks like you're in pain and your eyes are tearing and you're having trouble breathing and you just kind of run off camera. Tell us what was happening.
Mr. ENGEL: Before the protesters got to Tahrir Square the protests were in many different locations and they were just in different squares. The people left mosques and they went to, I can't remember, it was seven or eight, maybe 10 different locations around Cairo. And Tahrir Square became the focal point only after the first few days of the demonstration. And the government didn't want people to arrive in Tahrir Square.
And an enormous security force was firing thick teargas. It looked like clouds had just been - we're sitting on the pavement and people were trying to brush through this, and there were running battles of stones and teargas, and the police were firing teargas canisters, which were made in the USA by the way, and the people were picking them up and throwing them back at the police. And some people were collapsing because of asphyxiation and it was a very chaotic day.
GROSS: So once you jumped off camera after you were tear-gassed, what happened next?
Mr. ENGEL: People started handing me onions. Onions were - they say onions will help against teargas. And this is - I've seen this all over the world that people will go to protests and to bring onions with them. I frankly don't think it really works. You know, you hold the onion under your nose. Maybe it helps a little bit but not enough. Also they were, had bottles of Coca-Cola and they were putting Coke on their hands and then splashing it on my face, on their faces and that actually helped a little bit. It took away some of the stinging. I had never seen that before.
So after that, you know, I ran off camera because I was really in the middle of a thick cloud. I got a little nauseous and people came over as they see me sort of not quite throwing up but almost throwing up, and came over and put onions in my face and then start splashing, pouring Coke over my head, which actually, it was a surprise. It wasn't what I really felt like having done to me after I'd just run out of some teargas but it helped a little bit.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Engel, NBC's chief foreign correspondent. Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Engel. He's NBC News chief foreign correspondent, and he's recently been reporting from Libya, from Egypt. He's reported a long time from Afghanistan and from Iraq. He and Rachel Maddow have a new documentary called "Day of Destruction, Decade of War," and this complete three-hour documentary will be shown tonight, tomorrow and Sunday on MSNBC.
You covered the war in Iraq, which the Bush administration said would bring democracy to Iraq and then help spread it through the Middle East. So now democracy is trying to spread through the Middle East, you know...
Mr. ENGEL: But it wasn't because of Iraq.
GROSS: Yes. So I wanted to know whether you think Iraq had anything to do with that.
Mr. ENGEL: No. If anything I think it slowed it down. I was in Egypt. I was in Libya. I was in Tunisia even and I didn't hear a single person saying in those crowds: we're going to do this. Look what they've done in Baghdad. If they can do it in Baghdad we can do it here too. Zero. Zilch. Instead what you saw was the governments of Gadhafi and of Mubarak saying: look at what happened in Baghdad. You people want democracy? Well, look at what happened in Iraq. They had a civil war. They had chaos. The Iraq was used to scare the people into not pursuing their democratic aspirations. So this cause-effect relationship that some people are talking about just wasn't there.
People were determined to go out onto the streets to demonstrate and to demand more rights because their governments were treating them badly because of corruption, because of inequality, not because they were inspired by what they saw in Baghdad. What people saw in Baghdad was the country descend into civil war.
So you've been covering, you've been in war zones for about a decade. And I don't want to be a scold here, I don't want to sound obnoxious, but you've been under such stress for 10 years or a little less than 10 years. And the last time you were on the show after your memoir was published, this was about 2004 maybe? You talked about...
Mr. ENGEL: You've got to have me on more often.
Mr. ENGEL: It's been a long time.
GROSS: You've talked about - we've tried.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: You've been busy in war zones. You talked about how adrenaline really, you know, kicks in and enables you to do a lot of work. But, you know, the long-term activation of the stress response system has some really negative side effects.
I'm actually on the Mayo Clinic website and it's talking about the long-term activation of the stress response system and it says this puts you at in increased risk of numerous health problems, including heart disease, sleep problems, digestive problems, depression, obesity - not your problem - memory impairment, worsening of skin condition such as eczema.
So like, do you...
Mr. ENGEL: Thanks a lot. So my prospects are bad.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I know. Exactly. It sounds like such an annoying thing to say to somebody. But truly, do you think about the long-term effects of what you are exposing yourself to? Not, this isn't even mentioning all the risks of being under gunfire and explosions and IED's and all that.
Mr. ENGEL: Yes. But oddly enough, I'm not a thrill, you know, junkie. It's not like I do this for the adrenaline. I don't drive fast cars.
GROSS: But it's there any way.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ENGEL: I don't jump out of planes. I don't, you know, it's not my thing.
GROSS: It's there anyway. Yeah.
Mr. ENGEL: But yeah, there is a concern. You know, there is a health concern, a mental concern. The bigger concern I guess would be something, you know, more imminent - death rather than eczema and bad skin.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ENGEL: I'll take those. If those are the bad sides OK, throw them in. But I don't know. I hope I don't really have too many of those signals. I mean I sleep, I don't sleep great but I sleep. I eat. I don't have major stomach problems.
I think I've developed ways of coping with it that you get better at it over time. You know, if you do it for 10 years you figure out ways in order to cope. You have to take breaks. That's very important. You have to be able to tune out from the world.
Oddly enough, I think the best thing in the world is scuba diving. And I've told this to a lot of my colleagues and I think I've converted many of them. Because in Iraq it was funny, you know, we all started scuba diving. I said, I found out, I discovered this hidden hobby and suddenly I convinced all the press corps that, you know, I became like a scuba diving, you know, practically instructor, I guess.
And what's great about it is you go underwater, you don't hear anything. You look at the fish, some of them look back, most of them don't look back. You hear the bubbles and nobody is calling you and your down there for an hour and you're totally, you're weightless and aside from the bubbles that you're making it's silent. And it's very important to do that kind of thing.
GROSS: The scuba diving really makes sense to me.
Mr. ENGEL: So, yeah. It's also fun and it's usually in a pleasant place.
Mr. ENGEL: And it's, you know, a Caribbean island or somewhere in the Red Sea and there's lots of - when you look into it there's always a scuba diving place pretty near to a war zone, so that helps too.
GROSS: Well, wherever you go I wish you good luck and good health.
Mr. ENGEL: Well, thank you. It's been a pleasure to talk to you.
GROSS: And I will look forward to your reports. I really appreciate the work that you've done and the risk that you've taken to do it. Thank you so much.
Mr. ENGEL: Well, thank you. Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Richard Engel is NBC's chief foreign news correspondent. The documentary he anchors with Rachel Maddow is called "Day of Destruction, Decade of War." It will be shown on MSNBC today, tomorrow and Sunday, September 11th. You'll find a link to the documentary on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.