Sunday, December 8, 2013

Book review: "Nothing but Danger"

I picked out this 1939 book from a batch of used ones because, after all, who can resist a title like "Nothing But Danger"?

This book is a collection of journalists' personal accounts of covering the Spanish Civil War. Since I didn't know much about that war, I thought this might be a good way to learn. Ha! That turned out to be wildly optimistic.

Far from being a primer on the Spanish Civil War, this books throws you into middle of the action and assumes you already know the characters and factions. I was frequently lost during the first half of this book, as I tried to sort out a war that seemed to have more than two sides. There were Carlists, Fascists, loyalists, Republicans, Communists, Governmentals, civil guards, "Reqetes" and more. Who was fighting whom?

I finally realized I need some help, so I read the Wikipedia entry on the Spanish Civil War. I probably should have done something like that sooner.

With the basics of the war underfoot you can appreciate the stories and there are some good ones here. I've always liked reading about war correspondents, and I found in these stories many similarities to reporters working nowadays in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Just like reporters covering those modern-day wars, journalists in the Spanish Civil War scrapped together stories from fragments of reports, rumor and occasional first-hand experience. They had to do this through a fog of misinformation and confusion, often working through translators.

Getting the story out was a big issue, due to balky telephone lines and government censors. One of the writers, Lawrence A. Fernsworth, discloses that he would sneak onto British warships when they docked in Spain, ride to a port in France, where he could send his story out, then sneak back onto the navy ship and return to Spain.

Other reporters would make harrowing drives across the border to send their stories and get food then race back to the war. Some reporters fed dummy copy to the censors, then filed their stories in other ways.

In a collection like this, the writing quality varies. Sometimes it's oddly distant and impersonal, with the writer reporting only events, not people. But on occasion it comes through with revealing insights of war. One reporter, Edmond Taylor, for instance, writes this:

"It was a shock to me to see a real battlefield: not a picturesque inferno landscape, but an incredible kind of tinny littler, waste and destruction done by the soldiers themselves, like a filthy house, except that people other than soldiers don't smear human excrement all over their floors. I could see that there might be moments of great dignity in war so long as a man was on his feet, but not once he was hit and down. "

The stories get better as the book goes on, and the best may be the last, "Escape from Disaster" by Keith Scott-Watson. This is the story of the grim last days of the war with starving, scared people rushing to the border in desperation. In one scene, Scott-Watson describes a crowd in search of bread.

"The starving crowd was pushing its way towards the high yellow building where they sensed there was food. A tall gray-haired fury of a woman, a dead child in her arms hanging limply like a doll, seized a young conscripts's bayonet. The mob followed her. The troops were swept aside. Screaming women and children went down under the feet of the crowd. More came running down the narrow side streets to fight their way towards the food store. Hunger is uglier than death."

In short, there are some good stories here, but I probably would only recommend this book if you have an interest in the Spanish Civil War or the lives of war correspondents.

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