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PBS ‘Frontline’ “Confronting Isis” Goes to the Front Lines of the War On Terror
October 10, 2016  | By Alex Strachan

The ISIS story has fallen off the media’s radar. And not just because, as raconteur Bill Maher keeps reminding viewers on HBO’s Real Time, today’s TV media are hard-wired to focus on just one story at a time. The truth is that too much has been happening — Hurricane Andrew, the wholesale destruction of southern Haiti, bombed-out hospitals and hundreds of dead children Aleppo, wars in South Sudan and Yemen, a failed state in Libya, Yemen, the potential dissolution of the European Union in the wake of Brexit, the unnatural force of nature that is Donald Trump, and so on. Russia is poised for a massive military incursion in the high Arctic, and not even a harrowing segment on 60 Minutes is enough to prompt interest by others in the media — except, perhaps, NPR, as a friend points out.

It’s hard to imagine, just a few short months ago, that ISIS would become yesterday’s news, but as the two-hour PBS Frontline documentary “Confronting ISIS” shows, it’s still very much a going concern, with no end in sight.

The two-hour program opens with correspondent Martin Smith (top) journeying toward the front line on the war on terror in northern Iraq, accompanied by Kurdish Peshmerga (left) forces — no reporting from a comfortable, air-conditioned office in Beirut for him.

Smith is laconic and soft-spoken, more given to listening than sounding off on his own views, even though he’s both the program’s narrator and writer. It’s the kind of objective, distanced yet personal reporting Frontline has earned a well-deserved reputation for. There’s none of the hysteria one expects of conflict filmmaking. As Smith himself says, on the voiceover narration, just five minutes into the program: “What I want to understand is why has the fight against ISIS is taking so long. Who are America’s allies here? This is the Middle East. There are no simple answers.”

“The Iraqi army is not capable of retaking it,” a Peshmerga fighter says, with thinly disguised irritation, of the ISIS-controlled city of Mosul ahead of them. “They can’t even take a small town without the help of the Americans.”

And that in a nutshell describes the impossible situation US military planners find themselves in: Once again, they’re on the side of a local government teetering on the edge of a failed state, whether by corruption, incompetence, lack of will, bad training, lack of equipment or a combination of all of them.

That’s the kind of pithy comment you won’t hear on the nightly news, and it’s just one reason why Frontline and films like “Confronting ISIS” are so important.

The wars of the future, as evidenced today’s campaign of terror by ISIS, will involve some form of insurgency coupled with a relentless online campaign for hearts and minds — a propaganda war in the age of Twitter and Facebook. We’re living in times when “the confusibles,” as Real Time’s Bill Maher calls them, are easily persuaded by jihadis looking to recruit the ill-informed, the disaffected and the muddle-headed.

As “Confronting ISIS” shows only too well, ISIS’s unconventional war against civilization and human decency won’t end in a conventional way. There will be no clear resolution here, no dignified surrender or peace treaty, no stately signing ceremony aboard an aircraft carrier or battleship. The inevitable US-backed military victory, at the cost of who knows how many more civilian lives, will be followed by more terrorist attacks similar to those this past summer in Nice, at Brussels and Istanbul airports and at the Bataclan theatre last November in Paris. ISIS is a state of mind as much as it is a would-be nation state.

The best Frontline documentaries are both clear-headed and meticulously researched. “Confronting ISIS” is worth seeing because, more than any other current-affairs program aimed at a general-interest, mainstream audience, it maps out in simple — but not simple-minded — terms what’s at stake, how we got here, where we go from here, and why it matters

A reality check: the truth is that many more viewers will watch Chicago Fire or NCIS: New Orleans than a two-hour eat-your-veggies program about Iraq and Syria on PBS, but that doesn’t mean you should dismiss “Confronting ISIS” out of hand.

Frontline is for the discerning viewer. As with most of PBS’s more high-minded, high-end programming, it fulfills its public mandate by providing programs that the commercial networks either can’t or won’t make themselves. CBS’s 60 Minutes does a commendable job of taking the massive audience tune-in for Sunday afternoon NFL games and exposing them to issues that matter, in skillfully crafted, deftly edited 12-minute segments. Only Frontline, though, is positioned to make a two-hour program about a faraway war in a faraway land, and show it in prime time.

More importantly, Frontline films like “Confronting ISIS” are not made for policy wonks, closet intellectuals or politicos but for regular, everyday viewers who are curious about the world and looking for an alternative to time-period rivals like NCIS: New Orleans or Agents of SHIELD. The discerning viewer doesn’t have to be a news junkie or college graduate. (Frontline’s detractors in the past have accused the Emmy Award-winning program of harboring a left-leaning bias, but there’s nothing particularly biased about “Confronting ISIS’s” clearheaded examination of insurgencies, religious extremism, American foreign policy and the realpolitik of American diplomacy.

It helps, of course, that Smith has been in northern Iraq before. He’s been working on this story for the better part of a decade. He’s not some well-coiffed, clean-cut network news anchor parachuted in for a 48-hour quickie, microwave trucks, network production team and a coterie of hair and make-up artists in tow.

His reporting is measured and well-informed; he’s as comfortable sitting in on Senate committee hearings inside the Beltway as he is hanging out, disheveled and unshaven, with Peshmerga fighters in Iraq. “Confronting ISIS” is compelling viewing for anyone curious about what’s going on right now, this very minute, and what it could conceivably mean for a murky future.

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