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The Nine-Day War
By John Dicker

War Reporting for Cowards

By Chris Ayres

Atlantic Monthly Press, 288 pages, $24

At the preposterous age of 27, Chris Ayres found himself squashed into a Humvee crossing into Iraq from Kuwait. It was March 2003 and the young Brit was on the Shock and Awe beat for the London Times, embedded with a Marine artillery unit affectionately known as the Long Distance Death Dealers. Born and bred in northern England, Ayres yearned to be a journalist because “it seemed like the closest thing to being a rock star without having to be either good looking or talented.” He never wanted to be a war correspondent.

If you’re to believe the author’s version of events, he didn’t really understand what his editor was asking when he woke him one morning in Los Angeles and said, “How would you like to go to war?” Ayres was groggy, and reflexively inclined to answer yes to his editors before pondering the consequences. And so, a few months after hanging up he was eating MREs in the desert and greeting every air strike with a stoic cry of: “WHAT THE &*&K WAS THAT?”

In War Reporting for Cowards, Ayres crafts a reluctant war reporter persona into something of a shtick. In many ways, the bobbling British dork in the midst of stoic Marine Killbots is a refreshing reprieve from the self-important flak-jacket-clad, hotel-roof-inhabiting war correspondent. Ayres provides both the self-doubting inner turmoil of a Woody Allen with the madcap antics of Benny Hill. Before arriving “in country” he buys a blue Kevlar vest that reads “Press.” However, in the desert this makes him nothing but a moving target. His yellow tent with a black spot on its top is no better.

War Reporting for Cowards is an entertaining, but ultimately disingenuous book for a reason that becomes hard to ignore around page 200 when we learn that Ayres spends all of nine days in Iraq. Whether or not he’s a coward is another debate, but by getting his thin experience published he’s certainly not a deserter in the struggle for self-promotion.

Of course, this is no crime. If Pamela Anderson gets a sitcom, Ayres can write a trilogy if he so pleases. Of course, one quickly gets the sense that Ayres finds his own ambition somewhat vulgar as he both apologizes for it and obfuscates it at the same time. Perhaps this is a British class taboo we Americans don’t understand. Nevertheless, to make up for the lack of war in his reporting, Ayres treats us to a mini autobiography that starts with his journalistic education.

It took Ayres only a few years to move from rewriting press releases on the business desk to interviewing Internet tycoons. He was covering the New York business world, which he shamefully confesses was little more than cribbing from The New York Times, when Sept. 11 happened. However accidental, this was Ayres baptism as a war correspondent.

Ayres is a competent and funny writer. Like many journalists-turned-memoirists, his observations of others prove more interesting than his personal reflections. As a storyteller, he has a great instinct for ambivalence: like the fact that the Marines he’s with don’t particularly want to debate the war’s politics; one denies the opportunity to use Ayres’ satellite phone to call his wife because he fears the sound of gunfire would only upset her.

Closer to his own profession, Ayres’ rendering of his cynical editors in Wapping fluctuate between humor and horror. After he witnessed people jumping to their deaths from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, he received this charming as signment from an editor: “Thousand wds please on ‘I saw people fall to death, etc. . . .’ ”

While reluctant to weigh in on the debate surrounding the war, Ayres is forthright insofar as war journalism is concerned. Being embedded with the Marines, he writes, served the purpose of turning him into one, at least in so far as being sympathetic to the welfare of his unit was synonymous with not wanting to die. But part of being a war correspondent, he notes, is supposed to involve writing about both sides of the conflict.

But too often Ayres doesn’t have a whole lot to say, and the elaborate setups for coward-in-combat shtick grow repetitive. There’s one, or maybe it’s five, too many paragraphs detailing the author’s bowel movements. I’m all for quality scat humor, but Ayres’ poop card is overplayed.

Beyond “War is scary” and “Being a craven careerist can mean risking your life,” there’s not a lot to this book. Ayres could have written an amazing book on Iraq had he opted to stay a bit longer. It’s hard to fault him for opting for an early exit strategy, but not unlike a war sold on false pretenses, Ayres’ book promises something it never had the potential to deliver.

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