Tuesday, May 12, 2009

War Reporting for Cowards

I picked up "War Reporting for Cowards" in the P50 bargain bin of National Bookstore a few weeks ago. Now, the quality of the titles in the bargain bin is spotty, but considering that they're all almost-new hardcovers, I found myself opening my wallet several times. Hey, P50 is P50.

Of course, with a title like "War Reporting for Cowards", it was a book I had to get. It's an account of the 2003 Iraq invasion as witnessed by the author, Chris Ayres, a reporter for the London Times embedded with the Marines.

Oh, wait. Not quite.

Ayres was embedded with the Marines for just a few days at the start of the invasion. He still has some riveting stories coming from that period. But all the same, such a short stint would make for a thin volume. What makes up for the rest of the book are his first-hand account of the September 11 attack, the anthrax letters, and lots of personal fluff.

Because of the fluff, the book can get tedious at times. Ayres is an engaging writer, self-deprecatingly funny, but the story bogs down when he gets into his personal relationships. Then again, perhaps it's an essential part of his journey from neurotic self-obsessed 90's yuppie to someone who's finally learned to embrace life. I'm just not sure if this is the kind of book I want to read on a regular basis.

Still, "War Reporting for Cowards" has some very moving passages. Some excerpts:

War makes you feel special. It makes you feel better than your office-bound colleagues, gossiping over the watercooler or wiping mayonnaise from their mouths as they hunch in their veal-fattening pens. War gives your life narrative structuire. The banal becomes the dramatic. When you're at war, you don't worry about American Express bills. War spares you the washing up. Life at the brink of death makes all other life seem trivial. You're a hero when you're on the front lines.

Oddly enough, a bit on prayer:

I wished there was something I could do other than just sit and wait. I almost wanted to take Hustler's place in the machine-gun turret. Instead, I concentrated on trying to silence a hysterical internal monologue. It reminded me what Wilfred Owen had once written in a letter from the front lines: "There is a point where prayer is indistinguishable from blasphemy. There is also a point where blasphemy is indistinguishable from prayer." I felt slightly ashamed of my prayers, even in their current blasphemous form. I'd stopped going to church as soon as my parents would let me, and it seemed corny, predictable, and convenient that I would convert while under gunfire. But prayer is rational. I'd prayed on September 11, while wathcing the office workers fall from the floors of the World Trade Center. Unless you knew for a fact that it wouldn't do any good, why wouldn't you?

Finally, on the soundtrack of war and the nature of war:

As we prepared to move north and reunite with the rest of our convoy, I heard one of the lance corporals from the FDC singing the "Oompa Loompa" song from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. "Oompa loompa, doompadee doo," he chanted. "I've got a perfect puzzle for you..." The movies, I thought, have got the soundtrack to war all wrong. War isn't rock 'n' roll. It's got nothing to do with Jimi Hendrix or Richard Wagner. War is nursery rhymes and early Madonna tracks. War is the music from your childhood. Because war, when it's not making you kill or be killed, turns you into an infant. For the past eight days I'd been living like a five-year-old -- a nonexistence of daytime naps, mushy food, and lavatory breaks. My adult life was back in Los Angeles with dirty dishes and credit card bills.

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