Thursday, January 7

War Reporting for Cowards - Chris Ayers

Subtitled Between Iraq and a Hard Place, this tells the story of LondonTimes financial-turned-entertainment reporter Ayres' embedment with the US Army's 2nd Battalion 11th Marines artillery squadron.
I really like Ayres' voice, from his contemplation of Marine codes for contact with the enemy:
'Contact', in the language of the Marines, where all emotion is surgically removed to avoid collateral damage to troop morale, means being attacked by the enemy. When fire is returned it becomes 'engagement'. A nuclear exchange, presumably, is a white wedding.
Ayres was not a born war correspondent, and he's admirably honest about his complete disinclination to cover the war in Iraq. In fact, I was struck more by his candour than anything else in this well-written and absorbing book. This is nowhere more striking than in his account of September 11 - an Englishman in New York, Ayres sets the scene with his arrival in America some months earlier, and is open about his utter failure to grasp the impact of the event initially - unhappily caffeine free, and hypochondriacally worrying about his gall bladder after reading the New York Times lead story on arsenic poisoning,
I stepped into the lift at precisely 8:50 a.m.
"Down?" I asked.
"Did you hear anything about the trade center?" came the unexpected reply...
At first the words 'trade center' didn't mean anything to me. It was early, after all, and I hadn't had my morning espresso...
I wondered if this was a news story. If so, I was ill-equipped to cover it: I kept all my pens and spiral-bound notebooks at work...
There were probably much bigger stories to be worrying about, I thought. What with the arsenic in the water supply, this would probably make only a few hundred words: a photo story, perhaps.
The account that follows is vivid and traumatised, and brought back the full horror I felt watching events unfold in the middle of the night in Melbourne. In New York but not of it, Ayres speaks with shock, removed from the situation by shock and otherness - when he notices the proliferation of American flags he realises that he's "in a foreign country at war. The US had never really felt foreign to me: it did now."
His reporting of the first days on the invasion of Iraq is as vivid, honest and raw, which is not to say that it's in any way unpolished or unsophisticated. I found War Reporting for Cowards by chance while looking for follow-up works after reading The Faith Club. I'm glad I did, though I don't recommend reading it in public if you're liable to get chocked up revisiting the events of September 11. - Alex

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