A Coward Goes to War

Detail from 'War Reporting for Cowards'

hide captionDetail from 'War Reporting for Cowards'

As a self-described "neurotic, Gen-X hypochondriac," Chris Ayres would seem an unlikely war correspondent. But the reporter for the Times of London did go to war embedded with the Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Ayres tells the story in War Reporting for Cowards.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

When reporter Chris Ayres arrived in Los Angeles in early 2003, he looked forward to interviewing celebrities and sipping martinis poolside at hip hotels. Then he got a call from his editor at The Times of London. Would Chris, perchance, want to cover the looming invasion of Iraq? He didn't especially, but he figured embedded reporters would be tucked safely away at military bases. And when he found he'd been assigned to a Marine unit that called itself the Long Distance Death Dealers, he was too chicken to back out. Soon Chris Ayres was among the crowds of reporters at a hotel in Kuwait training for a possible chemical attack. He describes the scene in his new book, "War Reporting for Cowards."

Mr. CHRIS AYRES (Author, "War Reporting for Cowards"): (Reading) `A few minutes later, I was standing on the tennis court in hundred-degree heat, wearing a gas mask, chemical suit, hood, Wellington boots and gloves. I felt like some kind of cyborg from the 25th century, a "Reportinator," perhaps. Inside the mask, the only thing I could hear was my own breath--It came in shallow, panicked gulps--and the muffled shouting of the Army instructor. I tried to concentrate on not passing out.'

MONTAGNE: The reluctant war correspondent ended up on the front lines of the invasion, but the story begins far from the desert in Iraq, in Beverly Hills, with a shopping list issued by the Pentagon.

Mr. AYRES: To be embedded, you must bring the following items. I mean, half of it I just did not understand. I mean, it was things like MOPP suit, wands(ph), NBC caps for MOPP suit. So I embarked on this ridiculous shopping trip down Rodeo Drive. I'd also--I mean, I was a camping virgin. I mean, I was just not the kind of person who enjoyed the sort of outdoors life. I mean, I think a lot of journalists who've covered wars have possibly been in some kind of military organization before this. In England, you know, you might be in the Scouts or you might have some kind of outdoor experience, so you know all this stuff. I was just coming at it from a complete level of ignorance.

MONTAGNE: So there you are, outfitting yourself from a camping store...

Mr. AYRES: Uh-huh.

MONTAGNE: ...and there were a lot of problematic things you bought. But of all of them, it seems like this one thing stood out, this tent that you bought.

Mr. AYRES: Yeah, I bought a tent, and I'd never bought a tent before, never erected a tent before. I knew very little about tents. I particularly knew very little about tents in war zones. And so I got home. This thing, I opened it up and found out that it was actually bright yellow. And on the roof was a large red fluorescent cross for mountain rescue. So, I mean, if you got lost in the mountains or whatever, the helicopters flying over could easily spot you. And it didn't occur to me that when you're in a war zone, you don't want people to easily spot you from a distance.

MONTAGNE: Why don't you read a little excerpt from the book?

Mr. AYRES: OK. (Reading) `I took another look at the luminous battlefield liability in front of me. If I put it up anywhere near the Marines, I thought, I would get court-martialed or shot--if, that is, I didn't get hit by an incoming Scud first. I imagined the huge yellow blob appearing on an Iraqi radar screen and a Republican Guard intelligence officer pointing excitedly. But it was too late now. Xtreme 19, the camping shop, had closed an hour ago, and I had to fly to London the next day. "The tent is coming with me," I declared. "I'm not sleeping on the floor." I looked again at Alana, my girlfriend. "Darling," she said softly, "it's yellow, and it's got a bull's-eye on top." "I don't care," I replied. "I'm packing it."'

MONTAGNE: So tell us about the Marines. How much did they like having you there, and how much were you an alien to them?

Mr. AYRES: I was definitely an alien. It was like, you know, sort of a cat looking at a penguin. I mean, it's two completely different species sort of slightly baffled by each other. The Marines were very, very good to me and, you know, I like them a lot. I found them very funny, actually, I have to say, even though I was terrified. I think that I was a pain for them. I mean, I was overequipped. You know, I mean, I was carrying an electric toothbrush. I mean, I was just a huge liability. I was wearing this stupid flak jacket which was bright blue in color. You know, nothing is blue in the desert, you know, in a battlefield. And, you know, I had `Press' written on the front of it in fluorescent letters. The Marines would come up to me and, you know, press it, press me in the chest and say, `I'm pressing,' which, you know, was funny the first time but not after that. So I think that, you know, they suffered me. I mean, it must have been annoying to have me around, and I just asked really annoying questions all the time. And because I was so scared, I was often asking stupid things like, you know, `Are we safe? Are we safe?'

MONTAGNE: When you were actually headed towards Baghdad, you were in a fight, and the way you describe it, it's quite awful.

Mr. AYRES: Well, I think that, you know, for somebody like me who has no knowledge of the military--I didn't really know what artillery was, and I was with an artillery division. Artillery, I learned, fires these enormous shells from a great distance using mathematical formulas and meteorological data to make sure that they get it in the right place. They're hugely destructive. And when we were going in over the line of departure, which was the Kuwait-Iraqi border, the commanding officer came over the radio and he congratulated the Long Distance Death Dealers, my unit, on, you know, the great work they'd done during the first night of the war. And, you know, again, great work for a civilian isn't the kind of expression you would associate with killing a bunch of people, even though that's what their job was to do, you know, and they did do it extremely well. And, you know, he came on and he said, you know, `You did some great work last night, lads. You know, all we found over here was arms and legs.' And, you know, they basically--you know, as I said in the book, that it was like this sort of disassembly line. They were sort of getting these Iraqis and tearing them into body parts.

MONTAGNE: The invasion turned out to be extremely brief...

Mr. AYRES: Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: ...three weeks, approximately.

Mr. AYRES: About, yeah.

MONTAGNE: And your time there was even less than that.

Mr. AYRES: Yeah, I was nine days up until just outside of Baghdad, and then it took me about a week to get back to Kuwait. Because I got just outside of Baghdad, and I'd had enough, and for one reason or another--one of them was my satellite phone got confiscated. I happened to have--according to the rumor, I happened to have the same satellite phone that Saddam Hussein had. They were these very high-tech satellite phones, and they gave out a very distinctive radio signature when you switched them on. And the Americans decided that, you know, when Saddam switched his phone on, they wanted to trace the signal and drop a bomb on his head. And they didn't need me sitting there on the front lines with the Marines switching my phone on and them dropping a bomb on my head instead. So I'd got a couple of pieces in The Times and I was happy with that. And I just wanted to get out.

MONTAGNE: So with no phone and no way to file stories, Chris Ayres made the treacherous journey back to Kuwait and then back to Los Angeles, where he is still a correspondent for The Times of London. His new book is "War Reporting for Cowards."

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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