Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Review: "War Reporting for Cowards" by Chris Ayres

The image of the war correspondent is well-known. The intrepid reporter ventures fearlessly into combat, dodging bullets and bombs, in order to provide breathless eyewitness reports of front-line action. In the end, the journalist emerges from the dust and debris slightly scuffed, his hair tousled, but eager to do it all again.

Then there's Chris Ayres, a reporter for the London Times who didn't really want to go to war and once he was there couldn't wait to leave. Ayres' "War Reporting for Cowards" offers up a funny and fresh view of war reporting.

Ayers gives a down-to-earth accounting of being "embedded" with the U.S. Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. No mundane detail is spared
he describes the necessity of digging a hole in the absence of a bathroom, the claustrophobic gas masks, the mud and dirt, and the barely concealed hostility of the Marines with whom he was traveling. It's hard to see the glory in this war story.

"Waking up in a Humvee ... on the front lines of an invasion, is different," Ayers writes. "The first thing you notice is the contortion necessary to sleep inside the vehicle: the head dangles inches from the bare metal floor; the right leg is to be found somewhere behind the left ear. The spine feels as though it has been splintered like a cocktail stick. If the war doesn't kill you, sleeping in the Humvee might."

Most of the book actually takes place before the war.  Ayers was in New York when the 9/11 attacks occurred and describes how, while other reporters ran toward the catastrophe, he ran as fast he could to get away. Later he moves to Los Angeles to cover celebrities, but is called to embed as the 2003 war approached (he accepted only because he feared to do otherwise would kill his career).

Given a list of supplies the military says he will need, he takes a comical shopping trip to an upscale sporting goods store to buy what he needs (he had never camped before). "You don't look the type," says the youthful salesman. "Doesn't the London Times have, like, war correspondents? Don't they need you to cover the Oscars or something?"  

The book is not without its flaws. Ayers sometimes meanders into social and political commentary that falls flat or is just puzzling.  At one point, he writes, "We learn from an early age that New York is the Best City in the World, and that to be a New Yorker is something noble and proud." Huh?  Who learns that? Certainly no one I know.

Still, these lapses can be skipped over, and as long as Ayers is telling his personal story and offering up his self-deprecating humor, it's worth reading.

If you like this sort of book, you might consider "This is Your War," by the famous World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle. Or for something much more serious, try "The Forever War," by Dexter Filkins, about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


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