War reporters are a breed apart. Armed with guts and a notebook, they seek out the action, eagerly ignoring bullets and bombs for a story. Picture Ernie Pyle in World War II, slogging through the frontlines of Europe. Imagine the ruggedly handsome Robert Capa photographing the violence of French Indochina. These are the men we think of as, if not fearless, at least undaunted. Chris Ayres of The London Times wants it to be known that he is not one of those men. In fact, he unabashedly admits, he is one of those who find themselves running in the opposite direction of the action, in short, a coward.

War Reporting for Cowards follows the extremely reluctant British journalist from a cushy assignment covering balmy Hollywood to the muddy frontlines of Iraq. Leaving his air-conditioned apartment in L.A., Ayres travels across the world to sleep crammed in a Humvee with three U.S. Marines. Their job, aside from keeping their grudgingly accepted embed alive, is to race along the near edge of enemy lines, looking for base sites for long-range artillery. Front lines don't come much fronter. Ayres' book is exciting, revealing and very, very, funny. Ayres knows his own limitations and never tries to paint his adventure as anything other than it is: a harrowing yet empowering journey for a young man learning he has more about him than he thinks. Ayres makes no attempts to protest or proselytize, and the book is all the better for it. He simply tells his experiences, and tells them delightfully well.

And while the book is humorous, Ayres doesn't dodge reality. His experiences at Ground Zero on 9/11 are suitably horrifying and unashamedly gripping. Even the comic absurdity of Ayres's presence on the battlefield (a fleshy young man in a bright blue Kevlar vest a natural target, his military handlers gleefully point out) does not lessen the severe reality of the war. War, like life, is full of contradictions. Gung-ho marines can come to appreciate nervous journalists, and a self-professed coward can find within himself his own measure of courage.

 

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