Book Review: Chris Ayres’ ‘War Reporting for Cowards’

Whether it is finding yourself out way too late in Shoreditch, realizing half way through your second year at Uni that you actually hate your degree, or simply stumbling into a crime scene in East London, I think it is safe to say we’ve all had moments where we were forced to ask ourselves: how did I get here?

For people like me who cry laughing at their own wipeouts, terrible dance auditions or awkward interactions, there is nothing more relatable (in voice, not situation) than Chris Ayre’s memoir based novel: War Reporting for Cowards, which describes his incredible accidental involvement in both 9/11 and the subsequent Iraq War. At the opening of the book, when readers are immediately introduced to him as an -elite London Times War Reporter- serving on the front lines with the US Marines, one would expect Chris to be the most daring reporter out there. I mean, who else would volunteer to report a war (that’s not even being fought by your country)?

The reality of ‘the how’ is revealed when readers are flashed back to the start of his journey. Ayres quickly makes it clear that he descends not from a line of warriors, but a “proud line of cowards”, one which is filled with scaredy cat fathers and a grandfather who wormed his way out of WWII. Following his descendant’s “cowardly track record,” Ayres makes it clear that he didn’t start with the intention or will to report dangerous situations, but rather one that specialized in ‘secure’ financial writing, beginning in 1997 at City University Post Grad School in Islington, London.  In Ayres’ style, he bluntly states that the fact that he was specializing in such a field was a joke, considering: “no one still in their 20s and broke goes into journalism to write about money – a subject in which they have zero practical experience.” Ayres continues to point out that “journalism students don’t get excited about GDP fluctuations or the price to earnings ratings of widget makers.” Nonetheless, irony aside, there under the guise of Robert Cole, he learned to follow the simple rules of Journalism to: “sit down. Make small talk. Order a starter. Make more small talk. Talk about more serious stuff over the main course.” Through these rules, and a series of success, Ayres goes from being a “ghost reporter in Rupert Murdoch’s machine” at The Times in London, to being sent to NYC as a Wall Street Reporter.

After 4 years dreaming of such a career and a stable relationship, one would expect all to be going well for Ayres. In reality though, he was miserable and couldn’t figure out why despite having the awareness that “his generation in fact, was a spoilt offspring of the seventies,” ultimately, “there was nothing or at least very little to be nervous about.” Therefore, it was incredibly troubling for Ayres to question: “why as a generation [were they] so drenched in Adrenalin. What would explain the 3.4 billion that Phizpher made in 04 by selling its anti anxiety drug Zoloft?”

After too frequent comical visits to his doctor every week to solve illnesses that were brought on by symptoms that were varied and non specific, he decided he needed a break back to England for a bit. With Ayres’ luck, he returns refreshed after holiday to the big Apple on September 10, 2001 – just in time – to see with his own eyes, the “biggest American news story since 7 December 1949.” To make matters worse, only a month later the shell shocked journalist then became faced with the Anthrax epidemic that infects his office at the Rockefeller Centre. Convinced that he bears bad omens for NYC, he takes the first opportunity he can to get out and moves to LA to report parties and trivial things for the Times. However, before he gets too comfortable, one day the half asleep Ayres receives a call from Times editor Martin Fletcher and accidentally agrees to go cover the impending Iraq War, on the front lines.

In the final third of the novel, readers are taken on Ayres’ personal journey through Kuwait and Iraq with the US Marine Divisions. Ultimately, through extraordinary accidental events, on Thursday March 20, 2003 – day one of the Iraq War – Ayres serves as the only British Correspondent on the front lines. Through this role, he “realizes the true genius of the embedding scheme” which “turned [him] into a marine.” For the first time, Ayres “was thinking like a fighter, not a reporter and yet he wasn’t a fighter” but rather “an idiot in a blue flak jacket” that the Marines didn’t even want. Only then does it become clear, that being “was the loneliest joke on earth.”

While Ayre hides from the gun shells for less than two weeks, he learns more about himself and war than a lifetime as a journalist could have afforded him. One of my favourite analysis’ from experiences is when he states:

“War Makes you feel better than your office bound colleagues, gossiping over the water cooler, or wiping Pret a Manger mayo from their mouths as they hunch in their veal fattening pens. War gives your life narrative structure. 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 the other life seem trivial. You’re a hero when you hate the dear and the Mres and the mutilated corpses and the incoming mortars and the freezing nights in the Humvee. You know you’ll be a more popular and interesting person, when and if you return. Because war is all about death, and everyone wants to know what death is like.”

 And while the memory of war left a lasting effect, ironically:

The war had probably improved [his] health, [his] bowel movements had slowed to one every other day, and the face mask of mud [he’d] worn since crossing the Iraq border had cleared up [his] stress acne. Hustlers morning coffee meanwhile, was more refreshing than any Starbucks cappuccino. [His] happiness was pure – childlike almost. It was the joy of being able to wiggle my toes, or jump up and down. It was the elation of simply being alive.

A week ago, I had never heard of Ayres or his story. While I don’t think an accidental ‘yes’ could forecast me reporting a war, it has become clear that his story is for more than just veterans or journalists. Ultimately, his humorous, relatable voice speaks to anyone being moved along by the intersection of will, ambition and pride. Ayres’ incredible first hand account of two events that have shaped our generation today, not only offers insight into the horrifying reality of them but also more broadly causes each reader to consider their true intentions in the big and little movements of life. Ayres is the first to admit that he didn’t end up reporting on the front lines because he was courageous, but rather because he was a coward. In the book he admits that:

Hemingway Neatly defines cowardice as “a lack of ability to suspend the functioning of the imagination.” But how are you supposed to turn off the imagination when you’re trapped in the dark, waiting to find out what it feels like to be dissected and burned by a round from a society built tank? “I’ll be honest: I didn’t feel like a coward for being scared of war. I felt like a coward for agreeing to go to war. I felt like a coward for letting my journalist ego get the better of me. I felt like a coward for being so selfish because there was more at stake here than my life.”

We as students, professionals and graduates, are constantly faced with choices, whether to take this or that class, what career path to go down etc. Some choices are trivial; some seem less so.  Today, I sat around at lunch with friends in med school who were anxiously conversing about what to specialize in, yesterday one my best friends confided that she hates economics, despite being way too deep into it, and I personally have no desire to study anything related English following my degree (in English Literature.) After reading this book, which Linda Shen who serves as the Asset Management Communication Manager at JP Morgan recommended, I’m realizing more than ever, that our careers and lives are going to end up in ways we could never imagine. Life, like war is full of contradictions. Through Ayres story, we are forced to see ourselves as the anxious coward who simultaneously has the ability of incredible courage.

In my hour long conversation with Linda, she touched on her time at Bloomberg during the financial collapse in 2007, the worst recession since the depression. As recent graduate, Shen was faced with reporting the failing regional banks (after originally being hired as a technology reporter). Essentially, in a similar way that no one cared about the day to day of LA when the Iraq war was starting, when all the banks began failing, Linda was quickly forced to move departments. Warm welcome to the field of banking? Not so much.

It was clear through a few minutes of conversation, that this was the hardest professional experience she has ever gone through. However, the warmly dynamic Linda insightfully emphasized theimportanceto know that in work and life, failure is inevitable, but having the courage to handle it is essential. No one who knew the severely anxious Chris Ayres would have believed he had the wherewithal to ever desire or be able to handle the Iraq war, from the front lines nonetheless. However, through Chris’ story and through hearing the personal account of Linda’s professional career, I am reminded to stop and smell the roses. On ‘hard’ days at JP Morgan, Linda says that she has to stop and think about being 23, and being tasked with reporting an incredibly sad time in history. Only then, is Linda incredibly grateful for her ‘stressful’ moments she experiences today.   

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