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Byline from the front lines

War Reporting for Cowards Chris Ayres Atlantic Monthly Press: 280 pp., $23

October 02, 2005|Regina Marler | Regina Marler is the editor of "Queer Beats: How the Beats Turned America On to Sex."

THE cover of Chris Ayres' "War Reporting for Cowards" almost says it all. The author, in a blue flak jacket labeled "Press," stands beside a military convoy in the desert. His clenched, childlike fists, ginger eyebrows and fleshy lips compressed by the chin strap of his helmet all suggest that he should be tapping the lid of a soft-boiled egg in some central-heated kitchen in the north of England, BBC radio burbling in the background.

How this young British journalist, a hypochondriac with an irritable bowel (could it be cancer?), shaky right leg (Parkinson's?) and occasional dizzy spells (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease?) found himself embedded with American troops in Iraq -- and how he was able to flee nine days later with partial dignity -- is the subject of his blushingly honest memoir. Antiwar only in the sense that it presents an unvarnished (and nauseating) picture of combat, "War Reporting for Cowards" provides details of conflict journalism that a more daring or combat-seasoned writer might never have thought to record, or would have been ashamed to admit.

Ayres began his career as a financial reporter for the Times of London in 1997. He found business news comforting because "everything in finance could be expressed in easily quantifiable terms: A beheading in Pakistan became a three-point dip in the Karachi stock exchange; a coup d'etat in Colombia, a devaluation in coffee-bean futures." He stepped up to a technology column and then moved across the Atlantic to become the newspaper's Wall Street correspondent in the fall of 2000.

Expectations of glamour were cut short by his discovery that the Times' foreign bureau was in the mailroom of a Rockefeller Center office building. Similarly, his hopes of submitting snappy, front-page-worthy coverage of mergers and acquisitions were frozen by a colleague's greeting: "I expect you'll soon be getting used to lift and view." Ayres was baffled.

" 'Lift and view, Chris, is what we do here.... We lift from the New York Times.' She held up the copy on her desk. 'And we watch the news.' She pointed to CNN. 'We lift ... and view. If you can get the hang of that, you too can be a foreign correspondent.' "

When he saw the mysterious fire emerging near the top of one of the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, Ayres assumed that a small plane had accidentally flown into the building. He delayed going downtown, shy about having to interview real people. Later, after narrowly escaping tumbling debris from the first tower's collapse, he reported the events he'd witnessed to his London editor, who e-mailed back a bloodless request for "Thousand wds please on 'I saw people fall to death,' etc."

After the attacks came the anthrax panic. Longing for a reprieve from danger, Ayres asked for a transfer to Los Angeles, where he saw himself lounging poolside with celebrities. One morning in L.A., Ayres awoke to a phone call from his London editor, who asked if he wanted to go to war. Ayres had always regarded war reporters as "fearless and suntanned outdoors types who became Boy Scout leaders at school, studied Latin and Urdu at Oxford, and probably knew the correct way to eat a sheep's penis at the table of an African warlord." Now, in early-morning confusion -- in cowardice, actually, since he was afraid to call his editor back and cancel his jaunty "Yes!" -- he agreed to become one of them.

There is a thin yellow line between functional cowardice -- what we more leniently call self-preservation -- and the sort of bug-eyed, lip-gnawing panic that makes this book so darkly entertaining. But there is also a line between comedy and farce, which Ayres crosses freely. His farcical passages are funny, but they don't go much beyond amusement. No one cries at the clown car. It's the richer realm of comedy, with its undercurrents of anxiety and self-consciousness, that allows Ayres to question journalistic ethics or political spin, or tap into our collective dread of large insects and bad latrines.

Once his name was submitted to the Pentagon, the machinery ground on inexorably. His feeble protests were laughed away by the demons at the controls. Soon he was faxed an equipment list that included items such as "M291 Chemical Decon. Kit in M-40 Carrier" but called for only one pair of underwear.

"I was being sent to war, in one of the hottest countries on earth, for weeks if not months, and I was expected to take one pair of underwear with me.... By the time we reached Baghdad, I concluded, it would be a biological weapon in its own right."

He couldn't bear to tell his parents the truth about the embedding scheme -- he hardly believed it himself -- and assured them he'd live at a military base in Kuwait and make "day trips" into Iraq after the invasion.

In Kuwait, Ayres was assigned to a U.S. Marine artillery battalion and found himself barreling through the desert in the backseat of a Humvee, at the tender mercies of men who regarded him as an inconvenience at best. His helmet and flak jacket were the only blue things in the Iraqi desert. The Marines took to jabbing his chest hard on the "Press" label. "I'm pressing!" they'd say.

Ayres' reports from the front lines of the invading force appeared as lead stories in the Times, and on his return, he was nominated by his peers in the British press as foreign correspondent of the year. From his memoir, it is easy to see why. Beyond the laughs, he powerfully conveys the physical miseries of combat life, the terror of being under bombardment and the ethical impasse of wanting desperately to survive, even if it means the deaths of those on the other side of the battlefield. *

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