A lot of people see journalism and media as pretty lackadaisical professions. In actual fact, they are correct. Apart from when you’re on deadline (which is, admittedly, every second hour in some cases), you get to bum around at home, drink coffee, and
browse YouTube conduct research for your next “Big Story”. You have a licence to call up anyone – celebrities, politicians, drug dealers – and a higher-than-average chance of being able to have an interesting conversation with them. You write for a living. All in all a pretty good deal.
Unless you’re being shot at.
And not knowing whether those shells contain anthrax.
Which is what happens to Chris Ayres when he gets called up to go to Iraq. Not as a combatant, but as an entertainment reporter who had the misfortune of being in downtown Manhattan on a balmy September day in 2001. In typical media-logic – where a smidgen of experience can qualify you as an “expert” – Ayres’ first-hand experience of the 9/11 attacks is what positions him as a prime candidate to be embedded with a US Marine battalion deployed to Gulf War the second. And despite his protests to his editor at London’s Times, Ayres is shipped off down the dusty road to Baghdad and beyond, with no guarantee he’ll emerge in one piece (or many pieces, for that matter).
War Reporting for Cowards, while uproariously and absurdly hilarious at times, also poses the very serious question of what constitutes good journalism and indeed good writing. Ayres makes sure to contextualise his own fear-riddled exploits within the conflict’s greater scale, but the focus never strays from what is ultimately a highly sympathetic premise: an ordinary individual being thrust into circumstances beyond his control. Like the Marines who poke his “Press”-emblazoned flak vest yelling “I’m pressing! I’m pressing!”, Ayres is quick to skewer his bourgeois effeteness (and the double-think of the journalistic profession) with each wry turn of phrase, yet in doing so he captures the mood and tension of the battlefield far more viscerally than any casualty reports or overwrought footage.
In a genre where burgeoning sentiment and the journalist-as-hero trope are far too common, this self-deprecating yet often poetic tone stands out as something different, something worth paying attention to. Ayres’ control of narrative and setting has a deftness far beyond the ordinary scale of news reportage – particularly in his almost-conversational passage on the surprising quiescence he experienced during the 9/11 attacks – and weaves in and around the black humour to fashion a highly personal, highly empathetic and often surprising depiction of an event we’ve become largely desensitised to. Read War Reporting for Cowards for its irreverence, its pointed insights into politics and journalism (and the politics of journalism), and the way Ayres sometimes seems to be speaking to you (in what I always hear as a sardonically plummy Oxford accent) straight off the page. Most of all, read it because it’s a damn fine story, all the more so because it’s (at least mostly) true.
And unless you’re being chased by armoured columns on a regular basis, you won’t be complaining about your job for quite some time.