What I've been reading
The entire premise of this book is right there in the title! Ayres, a London Times reporter, somehow gets sucked into the Iraq War and lives to tell about it. There's more to this book, of course, but the central premise remains - he's a coward reporting a war.
Ayres begins in Iraq but quickly shifts backward and tells us about his entry into journalism and how it led him to an embedded position with the United States Marine Corps. What makes the book so funny is that Ayres is extremely self-deprecating, but never to the extent that we think he's doing it to gain our sympathy. He really does seem as impotent and incompetent as he writes, and it adds a great deal of charm to his narrative. We follow him as he stumbles into a job with the Times, then ends up being one of the few reporters for that paper in New York on 11 September 2001. The Times' new foreign correspondent decided to take the Queen Elizabeth II in order to get to New York, so he was stuck on the ocean for a while, and Ayres became a default foreign correspondent on that horrible day. Ayres manages to keep a light tone but still treat the attack with gravitas, and he gives us an excellent account of what it was like on the ground that day. Then, he happens to be right at the flashpoint of the anthrax attacks of later that year, something that makes him rethink his position in New York. He heads to Los Angeles to become the Times' entertainment reporter, a position he still held when his boss called him one night and asked him if he'd like to be embedded with the troops. He says yes, much to his later despair. But at least we get a humorous book out of it.
The bulk of the book is actually preparing for the war, as Ayres takes a hilarious journey around sporting goods stores in LA to buy the junk the U. S. government insists he buys. Then he ends up in Kuwait with the other journalists, and he bemoans the fact that everyone seems so much calmer about heading into a war zone. When he does enter Iraq, he brings a nice, jaundiced eye to the proceedings - he's not for or against the war, at least not in this book, and he instead focuses on the actual Marines, but he is skeptical of anyone who is gung-ho about the whole thing. One of the strengths of the book is that he remains a coward - there's no last-second change of heart or act of bravery on his part. It's refreshing. When he gets a chance to get out of the war early, there's actually some tension about what he's going to do, not because he's brave, but because he respects the Marines and he also worries about what people will think of him. It makes this much more than a story about the war - it becomes a story about what makes people fight and whether it's worth it. Even as it remains humorous, Ayres makes some interesting points.
War Reporting for Cowards is a breezy read - I read it in one day (although I was sitting in a hospital room doing absolutely nothing, but the point is that it's never boring, so I didn't feel like putting it down) - but it's unlike other war books by reporters you might read, because of Ayres' complete unwillingness to make himself even remotely heroic. He even points out some other reporters who were embedded and their books, saying they probably give a better picture of the war because the writers were in more important positions and stayed longer than he did. But this is a fine book nevertheless. It tells a bigger story than just the Iraq war, it does it with fine humor, and it's deeper than you might expect. It certainly makes you respect the troops a lot!