With the gonzo style of Hunter S. Thompson and the biting wit of P. J. O'Rourke, an unlikely reporter recounts how he got the opportunity of a lifetime--and ends up between Iraq and a hard place.
Chris Ayres is a small-town boy, a hypochondriac, and a neat freak with an anxiety disorder. Not exactly the picture of a war correspondent. He's a twenty-seven-year-old reporter for The Times of London living in Los Angeles, and the only thing he cares to be embedded in is celeb-studded after-parties. But somehow, he has a habit of ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time, whether it's a few blocks from the World Trade Center on September 11 or one cubicle over from an anthrax attack at The New York Post. When his boss asks him if he would like to go to Iraq, he doesn't have the guts to say no.
War Reporting for Cowards is the Iraq War--with all of its horrors and absurdities--through the eyes of a "war virgin" who was there, in the heat of battle, and wishing he were anywhere but. After signing a $1 million life-insurance policy, studying a tutorial on repairing severed limbs, and spending $20,000 in camping gear (only to find out that his bright yellow tent makes him a sitting duck), Ayres is embedded with the Long-Distance Death Dealers, a battalion of gung ho Marines who, when they aren't playing Monopoly using Baghdad and France as Park Place and Boardwalk, are a "disassembly line, churning out Iraqi body parts." They switch between shunning him and threatening to shoot him in the head when he files an unfavorable story. As time goes on, though, he begins to understand them (and his inexplicably enthusiastic fellow war reporters) more and more: Each night of terrifying combat brings, in the morning, something more visceral than he has ever experienced--the thrill of having won a fight for survival.
In the tradition of M*A*S*H, Catch-22, and other classics in which irreverence springs from life in extremis, War Reporting for Cowards tells the on-the-ground story of Iraq in a way that is extraordinarily honest, heartfelt, and bitterly hilarious. It is sure to become a classic of war reportage.
Ayres asserts from his opening sentences that he is a coward. But this sometimes amusing, often harrowing but poorly organized account of war life makes it clear he is anything but a wimp: he is stuffed inside the confines of a Humvee, digs foxholes in the desert and watches Iraqis blown apart or incinerated (and fears the same will happen to him; he clutches a can of diazepam to commit suicide if he is struck by nerve gas). He reported from Iraq for the London Times from 2002 to 2003 and asserts that he takes no point of view on the war, yet the tone of his story is highly uncritical of the war, and his epilogue (alas, now hopelessly out of date) puts the U.S. firmly in control of the battlefield and describes the insurgency as on the wane. The book's strengths lie in Ayres's details of the gritty, hot, lonely daily grind; its weakest aspect is the too-long tangent of his rise as a young reporter. Ayres's gratitude at surviving his tour is palpable, as he writes, "Now that I know what war is like, I've stopped worrying about death.... I made it home. I'm still alive."
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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June 06, 2006
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Excerpt from War Reporting For Cowards by Chris Ayres
How To Deal With A Dead Media Representative
The day, like most of my days in Iraq, had got off to a bad start. I awoke that morning, as usual, shivering violently and aching from another night in the Humvee. Waking up, of course, shouldn't be a difficult or traumatic process. For the first twenty-seven years of my life, I had done it every day without even thinking. Open eyes. Yawn. Scratch balls. Look up at ceiling. Climb out of bed. Waking up in a Humvee, however, on the front lines of an invasion, is different. 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. Look what happened to David Bloom, the newsman from NBC: dead at thirty-nine from "deep vein thrombosis"--aka Economy Class Syndrome--after spending one too many nights folded inside his "Bloom-mobile."
Then comes the mental replay of the night before--the hollers of "Lightning! Lightning!"; the absurd 3:00 a.m. fumble for the gas mask, Wellington boots, and rubber gloves; the casualty reports over the radio. And then you remember the almost hallucinatory dreams: corny, sepia-tinted images of parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. With that comes a gutful of guilt--at what you're doing to the little boy they spent years nurturing. And, of course, what you're doing to them, as they try to hold down undigested food every time they switch on the television. Oh yes, the battlefield dreams are best forgotten. Quickly.
From the outside, the gap-toothed Humvee looked as though it belonged on Sunset Strip: an oversized pleasure wagon with a camouflage paint gimmick and room in the back for a hot tub and PlayStation. Inside, however, the vehicle was jammed with radio equipment, ration packs, and a large circular footplate for the machine gunner, an earnest and aging first sergeant called Frank Hustler, who could have been a P.E. teacher in a different life. His desert boots danced to the rhythm of his paranoia somewhere next to my right hip. The gun on the roof was a .50-caliber--the kind they used in B-17 bombers during World War II. A single shot to the abdomen would rip you in half like a Christmas cracker.
In front of me sat the young Irish-American driver, "Fightin Dan" Murphy, and the half-Trinidadian captain of our unit, Rick Rogers, known to everyone but his mother as "Buck." Directly behind my head were two filthy olive drab Iraqi Republican Guard uniforms and a sloppily maintained Kalashnikov, all confiscated during a violent, terrifying house raid outside al-Nasiriyah. The Humvee's narrow seats, stuffed with cheap foam and covered with ripped, muddy canvas, were an after�thought. After two weeks, my buttocks felt badly bruised.
At one point I could have sworn they had started to bleed.
"Holy shit, look at the size of this scorpion!"
This was Murphy, a few nights earlier. He had just discovered the downside to sleeping on the desert floor: It glistened and squirmed with an encyclopedia's worth of creepy-crawlies. The Marine, who was barely old enough to buy alcohol and spoke with a profane Irish drawl, stared with incredulity at the creature that had just disturbed what passed for sleep in an Iraqi kill zone.
He jabbed at the grumpy arachnid with his rifle.
"Cap'n, did you see that? That motherfucker could have crawled into my sleeping bag. It coulda crawled up my ass!"
Buck was lying on the Humvee's hood, staring at the gleaming constellation above. The distant thuds of bombs being dropped on Republican Guard positions echoed through the infinity of mud and sand.