The radical terror army known as ISIS operates far less in the shadows than the underground rebels of Al-Qaeda. Yet for most Westerners, the image of the Islamic State remains that of an abstract and rather murky cult of hooligan warriors. “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS,” a powerful and important documentary directed by Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested, is a movie of multiple achievements, and one of them is that it lets you look right into the face of this hydra-headed paramilitary beast. We see footage of fighters from the Free Syrian Army, many of whose members were later assimilated into ISIS, entering Aleppo, a city ravaged by civil war, and they have a goon-squad fearsomeness that announces itself as beyond the law. At the risk of sounding like I’m trivializing real-world atrocity, it’s very much like that moment in “The Road Warrior” where the Lord Humungus and his brigade of biker sociopaths first roll in, the recklessness coming off them in waves.
The movie shows us disquieting footage of a public execution that culminates in a soldier bringing down his sword to slice off the head of a civilian (the film cuts away before the carnage). Later, we’re shown an image of what happens to the bodies — they are hung, upside down and headless, for three days, all to send a message to the people. The message is: This is the new law.
Yet even as you’re recoiling from the horror, Junger and Quested make a point of providing a historical context for it. They show us etchings, from centuries ago, of men being drawn and quartered by the British government, plus photographs of ritual executions in Communist China and of lynchings in America (which, of course, were an integral part of the Southern system of enforcement, and were even treated as public entertainment). Not to mention the lyrics of the French National Anthem (“Let an impure blood soak our fields!”), so redolent of the guillotine.
The point is that a force of destruction like ISIS doesn’t necessarily represent a new spirit in the world. In many ways, it represents the return of an old spirit. Ever since 9/11, we’ve heard the formulation that a movement like radical Islam emerges out of desperation, out of people who feel like they have few other options and no other hope — an impotence that is then transmuted into rage. (That doesn’t defend it; but it does help to explain it.) “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS” colors in how that dynamic emerges and operates.
The movie chronicles, with mortifying humanity, the terror behind the terror — in this case, the war declared by Bashar al-Assad, the dictator of Syria, on his own people. According to the movie, Assad, who presides over a government of looters and criminals, looked around in 2011, during the brief insurrection of the Arab Spring, and when he saw the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, he realized he could be next. He knew there was no compromising with the spirit of revolution; if he agreed to “reforms,” that would just weaken his hold. So his strategy became one of ultimate crackdown: sending soldiers into the streets to murder any citizen who defied his decrees.
We all know the death toll (400,000 Syrians killed), but “Hell on Earth” takes the full measure of the tragedy, and how it has transformed Syria into the chaotic center of a newly evolving global instability. We meet a man named Marwan, cloistered away in a dingy bunker with his wife and four children, where he tries, each day, to shield those children from fear. He is deeply articulate about his misery, his desire to live an ordinary life, and how it has been destroyed. “Hell on Earth” portrays the Syrian citizens, who live in a morass of civil war, with an emotional directness we can’t turn away from, to the point that it’s no longer possible to think of those citizens as “them.” They are us, or could be.
The movie chronicles how the Islamic State moved into this situation like a group of militant mobsters. They offered people $400 “Forgiveness Cards”: Buy one and your sins against Allah are forgiven, so you won’t be killed. (Then the card expires, and the price goes up.) With ISIS, it was always about profit, going back to when they arose out of the ashes of postwar Iraq — and, emboldened by the missteps of U.S. policy (the de-Baathification that further de-stabilized an already catastrophic situation), were able to seize control of many of the nation’s oil wells, and to loot and sell antiquities: anything to fuel the fortunes of their own power. In Syria, ISIS treated the country as a host body for its parasitical brew of greed, slaughter, and ideological “purity.”
“Hell on Earth” has a remarkable timeliness that could, and should, be taken advantage of by National Geographic, which produced it, and by any potential distribution partner. Junger and Quested took 39 trips to the region (though none to northern Syria) to make this movie, shooting close to 1,000 hours of footage, and apart from the moxie involved in such an endeavor, the diligence of their mission results in something essential. Junger, the fabled author and journalist (“The Perfect Storm”), has become a much better filmmaker since “Restrepo” (2010), able to weave issues and shattering action into a fluid whole.
He and Quested look back at the Obama administration’s response to the Syrian crisis, pinpointing how Obama committed a calamitous moral mistake in making his “red line” statement about the use of chemical weapons — pledging an America response if the line was crossed — only to renege on that promise. (Many Syrians had defected from the Army based on his words.)
Yet President Trump’s “Check out my new military toy!” decision to bomb a Syrian airfield in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons was the fake version of a bolder policy. The film shows us the aftermath of the earlier chemical-weapons attack, and it is indeed gruesome. Junger and Quested, however, summon the ethical courage to suggest that there’s something stunted about the notion that murdering masses of civilians with sarin gas is something the U.S. — led by Trump or Obama — should draw a line in the sand about, but murdering masses of civilians with barrel bombs is simply accepted as business as usual. Chemical weapons, of course, have a special cruelty that’s only heightened by their historical associations, yet “Hell on Earth” says that the whole red-line thing has become a convoluted excuse for America to look the other way.
You might expect a movie like this one to be depressing, yet “Hell on Earth” explains how the power of ISIS, even as it feeds on the fire of the Syrian crisis, is now in retreat, and may have peaked. Peter Bergen, the great reporter-analyst of terrorism, is interviewed in the film and compares ISIS to Napoleon, whom he says was the greatest general of his time yet sowed the seeds of his own defeat by making enemies of everyone. ISIS, Bergen claims, has done the same thing, exposing itself to so much global wrath that it’s now shrinking in power.
Yet the ideology it represents is clearly not going anywhere. Junger and Quested mix in clips of ISIS recruitment videos, which at this point look like they were made for MTV, along with their signature chilling videos of beheadings (once again, the filmmakers stop short of showing actual carnage), which create a specter of warning. According to “Hell on Earth,” the forces that have given rise to ISIS are a mirror image of the death and corruption sowed by leaders like Assad and Saddam Hussein — and, to a degree, by the West’s thorny history of enabling those leaders. That’s why the mass calamity of Syria resonates with such force. It’s a country where any vestige of civil life has been destroyed, and however directly (or indirectly) the rest of the world has colluded in breaking Syria, we now all own it.