Benny Hill goes to war

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.” A native of 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.”

If you’re to believe the author’s version of events, he never wanted to be a war correspondent. Apparently, 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 airstrike 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 a 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 has spent all of nine days in Iraq. Whether 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 for her, ahem, “talents,” Ayres’ experience is worth at least a trilogy. 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: the fact that the Marines he’s with don’t particularly want to debate the war’s politics. One declines 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 fluctuates between humor and horror. After he witnessed people jumping to their deaths from the World Trade Center on September 11, he received this charming assignment 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 where 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. 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. 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.