First, I should make a declaration of interest. I was working for The Times during the period covered by the bulk of War Reporting for Cowards, and I know all of the people in the London office about whom Chris Ayres writes, although I never met him. And I think he gets their characters and mannerisms well; at least as well as you could reasonably expect anyone still working for them to do.
As the title suggests, there are echoes in this book of a long British tradition of comedy drawn from men behaving ineptly—JK Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat is perhaps the originator of the genre—the comedy, of course, coming from the fact that men are not expected to be incompetent in dealing with physical challenges. (We’ll really have got somewhere when a female correspondent can write a similar book, without provoking a “do women belong in war zones?” debate, and facing unemployment. That, I fear, is still some decades off.)
Yet Ayres gets a long way beyond the limitations of the genre of comedy, and indeed the common line of “war reporting”, into his real feelings of terror and pain during the nine days he spent “embedded” with the US marines during the invasion of Iraq. This is a real book from an observer at the very heart of the war; he’s not a subtle or outright cheerleader for the “sport”, as are so many who write on the subject.
Ayres was indeed as unlikely a war correspondent as could be imagined. His account begins with him as a student in the City University post-graduate journalism course, which, as he reports, gets a remarkable percentage of its graduates into the national media. But he chose the unfashionable business stream, and thence with unpaid work experience on the Times business desk. (Yes this is how many people get into journalism, and goes a long way towards explaining the narrow social pool from which British national journalists tend to be drawn.)
His account of this time does fall rather into the Boat trap; had he been as inept as he suggests, he would never have got a job—and he must surely have learnt what a “nib” was at journalism school. (Connections, unless they are very strong, will still only get you so far.)
Gradually, Ayres reports, however, he became a veteran of the business lunch, and through following e-business through the dot-com boom, an office star. It seems part of the persona that he claims this was an accident, but then it was an accident that he was in New York, on the very doorstep of 9/11, and shortly after at the middle of the anthrax attacks.
He then saw an opening when the current editor of The Times, Robert Thomson, took over, and bid for, and won, the job of Los Angeles correspondent, because, Ayres says, “He apparently had wanted someone on the West Coast who could write about the economics of celebrity fluff, as well as the celebrity fluff itself.”
The reality, I’d suggest, was a bit more complex. The fact is that “serious” national newspapers are increasingly being pushed—some would say by social trends, some would say by newspaper fashion, some would say by desperation for readers—to include more and more of what their traditional staff dismissively call “fluff”. And most staff have to be bludgeoned into writing this material; anyone who volunteers and shows the real desire that Ayers apparently has to cover it is likely to find it a great way to get ahead. This is particularly the case at The Times, where its history as “The Thunderer” is at war with its market position at the bottom of the old “broadsheet” chain, just above the traditionally tabloid Daily Mail. (This was the great unmentionable fact when I was working there.)
So how did he end up in Iraq as a war correspondent? From what I knew (which was not a lot) from the London end, Ayres’ account is accurate. The idea of “embedding” journalists with the troops was a new one, and newsrooms were, justifiably, highly suspicious of how effective it was likely to be. So experienced correspondents—the ones expected to provide the bulk of the coverage—were placed strategically around Iraq: in the Kurdish areas in the north, in Iran, in Baghdad itself. Putting reporters with the troops was seen as a high-risk option, likely to produce little more than military PR, so inexperienced, seemingly ill-equipped, reporters like Ayres were given that role.
As it turned out of course, the northern front never rolled, thanks to the Turks, and it quickly became clear that it was horribly dangerous—and several journalists paid with their lives—to attempt to report on your own. So it was left to the “embeds” to report the progress of the war—in the case of Ayres, as he presents himself, a hypochondriac, physically-inept, overweight man, with no military knowledge or background whatsoever.
Yet as I remember at the time, and is clear from the book, he made a great war correspondent. He described what he saw, what he felt, what he heard, from the perspective of a naive, unknowing viewer—exactly the same as the position of the reader on the 7.50 from Saffron Walden. So War Reporting begins:
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… 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 somewhere behind the left ear. The spine feels as though it has been splintered like a cocktail stick … Then comes the mental replay footage from the night before—the hollers of ‘Lightning! Lightning!’; the absurd 3 AM fumble for the gas mask, welly boots and rubber gloves; the casualty reports over the radio …
And even Ayres, perhaps the least likely marine in history, gets caught up with the feelings of the men with whom he is enduring all of these deprivations, and on whose protection his life depends. His account is their account too. When Ayres resists being taught how to fire an M-16, he tells what happens next:
Murphy… looked me in the eye and drawled, ‘So if there’s a shitstorm, and you can shoot an Iraqi and save my life, or NOT shoot an Iraqi and let me die, what you gonna do?” It was more of an instruction than a question. And I had to spend the rest of the war sharing a Humvee with Murphy… I wanted Buck and his men to beat the Iraqis as much as they did. After all, my own life was at stake. “I’d shoot the bastard,” I said quickly. Then I took the weapon from his hands.”
Here is a reporter who can write, can tell a story, can make you laugh and make you cry. (And speaking as a sub-editor, I can say that is far from a common case.) Reading War Reporting for Cowards will give you lots of laughs, and many squirms of uncomfortable self-recognition at your own condition as a 21st-century human being. You’ll also finish up knowing a lot about war, and newspapers, and how they fit together.
What the New York junior cousin thought of it is here.