Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Review: War Reporting For Cowards by Chris Ayres (2005)

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Chris Ayres is a coward. And comes from a ‘long line of cowards’. He is a British journalist for The Times, covering a cozy beat as Hollywood reporter in Los Angeles. But his world is thrown into sand when he’s sent to Iraq as war correspondent, embedded with the US Marines as they fight off Saddam Hussein’s forces.

“All life, ultimately, exists on the brink of death; war just makes it obvious”.

This is the set up, and while the cowardly thing might be a conceit, and an over-egged one at that, it does allow for amusing and sympathetic contrasts.

The most revealing and inspiring section of the book, for student journalists anyway, is the vivid and brisk tale of Ayres’ rise as a journalist. From City postgrad to ‘workie’ at The Times, his descriptions of fellow journos and the newsroom are top rate and heady with the scent of clattered keyboards and inky shirts.

Here he is on his nascent career: “The nib I completed for Barrow on that traumatic Thursday was followed by more nibs, then, in a profound development of my Times career, by some ‘lead’ nibs. Eventually I was trusted with a few proper news stories, which carried my name at the top of them…..By August, Barrow had agreed to pay me £30 for a weekly Friday shift”.

He ends up in New York covering Wall Street when two planes are flown into the two towers. His response, which is not exactly Hemingway-esque, is deftly handled and the overall effect is one of woozy surrealism. The feeling was one a lot of people felt just watching the events unfold on telly, let alone in the shadow and dust of the ensuing tragedy.

One of the most enjoyable aspects is the recurring rivalries Ayres has with other journos, especially one Oliver Poole. The Telegraph reporter is presented as an unflappable ideal, scoring constant scoops and a war natural.

Both of them end up on an embed scheme run by the US government and Ayres sets off for Iraq. After a listless interlude in Kuwait, we storm into the desert and across the border. We meet Captain Buck Rogers, who seems to quietly disdain the reporter’s presence, and Murphy, a small Irish marine with violent tendencies.

We are introduced to military language and acronyms which use and effect is astutely noted by the author, as the euphemisms progressively dull the senses to the mortality of warfare. Dialogue is realistic and the marines are portrayed as smarter and more sensitive than gung-ho preconceptions expect.

Ayres is best when capturing the grim glamour of war: “…as much as you hate the fear and the MREs and the mutilated corpses and incoming mortars and the freezing nights in the Humvee, you know you’ll be a more popular and interesting person when, or if, you return. Because war is all about death, and everyone wants to know what death is like”.

It’s not a long book and a brisk narrative. And you will like the sense of having learnt something about war reporting, the ultimate gig in this cowardly heroic job.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

October 9, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Posted in Features

Tagged with , , , , , ,

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  1. […] War Reporting for Cowards […]

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