Between the Lines with Chris Ayres

  • Share
  • Read Later
British journalist Chris Ayres, who covers the U.S. west coast for the Times of London, never aspired to be a war correspondent, to say the least. But a few twists of fate found him with a notepad on the front line in Iraq, where he almost died...of anxiety. He recalls his brief, brief stay in the war zone in his new, laugh-out-loud memoir, War Reporting for Cowards (Atlantic Monthly Press). "No, this is not an antiwar book," writes Ayres, 30. "This is an anti-sending-me-to-war book; an I-didn't-want-to-go book." We reached Ayres by phone, safely embedded in his Los Angeles office.

Galley Girl: How do you write under war conditions? It's hard enough to sit in an office and write.

Chris Ayres: I didn't. I completely failed, from the first day. As I'm sure you know, sometimes when you're a print journalist, you actually have to just dictate a story off the top of your head on the telephone, if you're at a breaking news event. I've done that a few times in my career, and never had that much of a problem with it. But I was struck dumb on the first night of the war. I was just absolutely terrified. Nothing prepares you for being suddenly on the front line of an invasion, with 200 cannons going off, and people returning fire, and being in the pitch black in the desert, knowing that you're just going forward across the line of departure, and into the complete unknown on the other side. Nothing prepares you for that level of anxiety. I think most of the embeds felt it. I, perhaps, because I didn't really want to be there, had it slightly worse.

GG Naturally, I was struck by what you wrote about journalists being 10 times more likely to be killed than the Coalition forces.

CA: It is crazy. But I think many of those deaths were from people who weren't protected by the military, who decided to do their own thing, which in my opinion was just insane. I just can't imagine it. One of the themes in the book is that journalists are just as much targets as anybody else now. After Danny Pearl's horrible experience in Pakistan, as a white journalist with a British or American passport, you can fully expect to be paraded on TV and possibly killed on video, and have it circulated around the Internet. Journalists are seen as legitimate targets by the enemy. Logically, you can see why. If you're an insurgent, you have no army, and you're trying to cause as much damage as possible, you're going to take anything. And a journalist is going to guarantee you immediate coverage. That played on the back of my mind all of the time.

GG Why did you leave the war after just nine days?

CA: For the entire time I was there, I was wondering how on earth I would get out. At that point, we were outside of Baghdad. I guess the next stage would have been the Battle of Baghdad. I just thought, I'd done my nine days. I'd gotten some big stories in the newspaper. I was terrified. I wasn't cut out for this. I never wanted to be a war correspondent. I hadn't expected to be on the front line. I thought I was going to be positioned somewhere on a military base, or whatever. I just couldn't justify it to myself, and also I was really worried about my family. I just knew that my parents and grandparents were sitting around there watching the TV, wanting to throw up all of the time. I just thought if I got killed, it didn't seem worth it to me.

GG What do you think on balance of embedding reporters? Do you believe in it? CA: Yes. I think the embedded scheme is excellent. I just think that as an embedded journalist, you have a responsibility to explicitly state your lack of objectivity, and your lack of information as well on the battlefield. If you explicitly acknowledge those two things, I think the embedded scheme can [yield] some great, unique journalism that would not be available otherwise.

GG What do you think the Marines thought of you?

CA: It's hard to say. I got on okay with the Marines, which hopefully comes across in the book. But it was like a cat and wild dogs staring at each other. It was completely different species. We were from such different worlds. I knew that the last thing they probably wanted was to have me sort of sitting there. I would like to think that I wasn't outwardly terrified, but I did ask a lot of annoying questions. Having me write about them must be just a really disconcerting experience. Having some guy you've never met before, from a different country, sitting there writing stuff that you might never get to read. I think the units that ended up with embeds from their hometown, it was a lot different. If you're the guy from the Boston Globe, and you're with the Boston infantry...they have a reason. They want you to write so that their folks can read about them in their hometown newspaper. With me, it was very different. I was from an alien world. So it was a very strange co-existence. But we kind of got on.

GG What did you think of them?

CA: I liked them a lot, actually. What amazed me about the Marines is that it was just like being in any other profession. I had a stereotypical view of anybody who joins the military. My opinion of people who joined the military was pretty much they must be sort of gung-ho, slightly crazed people who enjoy bar brawls and truck magazines. But in fact, it was a just a normal cross-section of society. You had the bookish Marines, you had the sporty marines, you had the geeky Marines. Every walk of life was represented. The only thing they had in common is that they were highly trained killers, and happened to be in the Iraqi desert.