Reports From the Occupation | Book Review | Chicago Reader

Reports From the Occupation 

Three very different takes on America at war.

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War Reporting for Cowards

Chris Ayres

(Grove/Atlantic)

Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq

Steve Mumford

(Drawn & Quarterly)

Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground

Robert D. Kaplan

(Random House)

WAR REPORTING FOR COWARDS | Chris Ayres

Near the end of War Reporting for Cowards, a memoir of his ultrabrief stint as a reluctant embed during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Chris Ayres recounts an exchange with a young marine. After the soldier determines that Ayres, a reporter for the London Times, not only doesn't have to be in Iraq but isn't even getting combat pay, he sputters: "Then what the fuck are you doing here then?" This is the question Ayres spends most of the book trying to answer, and while he never quite does, he's wildly entertaining in the attempt.

Ayres is, by his own account, a sorry excuse for a war correspondent. A neat freak prone to acne, anxiety, and gastrointestinal distress, he's covering the entertainment industry from LA when his London editor asks him if he wants to go to war. Hopping back and forth in time, he explains the chain of events that lands him--and $5,000 worth of high-end camping gear--in the company of a bunch of guys devoted to turning Iraqis into "arms, legs, and pink mist." His reasons for assenting are predictably self-serving, and he details them in that caustic self-loathing tone particular to the British. So when he gets serious--as in an account of reporting from Tribeca on September 11, 2001, describing a father resolutely reading nursery rhymes to his toddler on a downtown curb as an apocalypse unfolds behind them--his directness is all the more moving.

Ayres is at his best once he gets to Iraq, hyperalert, borderline hysterical, and evisceratingly self-aware. He's said in interviews that more than anything he wanted to convey the day-to-day life of the troops on the ground--the shitty food, the smelly underpants, the hours of mind-numbing tedium relieved by terrifying bursts of violence. But Cowards is also an excellent primer on the peculiar pathology of journalism. It's Ayres's ego--his fear of being scooped--that gets him into this mess in the first place and, recognizing that, he goes on to lampoon the macho mythology of war correspondence, particularly with one running gag concerning the exploits of a dashing fellow embed who's always two steps closer to the front line and a day earlier to the punch.

Though he stays disappointingly apolitical throughout, and his epilogue--which notes that "victory is expected any day now"--reads as woefully dated, Ayres is under no illusions about his own role. Embedding reporters with the troops, he observes, was a masterstroke on the part of the U.S. military. Unarmed and high profile, reporters are uniquely vulnerable, as dependent as babies on the protection of the big guns that surround them (the specter of Daniel Pearl hangs over his shoulder throughout his eight long days in country). "Proper war correspondents write about both sides of a conflict," Ayres writes. "I might as well have been paid by the Marines." --Martha Bayne

BAGHDAD JOURNAL: AN ARTIST IN OCCUPIED IRAQ | Steve Mumford

"For me, the act of drawing slowed down the war, recording the spaces in between the bombs," New York artist Steve Mumford writes in the introduction to his new collection of drawings and watercolors produced during four visits to Iraq in 2003 and '04. It's true the moments he documents are not decisive; rather, they're pockets of quiet marked by an anxious stillness: soldiers sleeping, or solitary and contemplative; sparsely populated landscapes and street scenes imbued with nervous energy through scribbles of electrical and concertina wire. Mumford's patchy shadings of color and tone in many of the watercolors help convey the sense that the moment he's chosen is lost long before it ever fully materializes in his sketchbook. It also aptly suggests the provisional, messy existence led by both citizens and soldiers.

Because his drawings lack the brutal pathos of combat photojournalism, viewers are driven to the text for further insight. But what could easily be seen as a flaw is actually an attribute. Mumford's evocative descriptions and anecdotes serve to remind us that this is much more than occupied territory. "The hidden romance of Rashid Street is its back-alleyways, which zigzag drunkenly through the Old City," he writes. "Foul water trickles down the middle of the streets, so men quickly lift the bottoms of their desh-daashes as they pass from one side to another; cats scatter to avoid the inevitable kick from passersby."

Embedded with U.S. infantry, Mumford resists the urge to identify heroes and villains, reporting on soldiers' cruelties while at the same time showing them trying their damnedest to give Iraqis respect and responsibility. In his downtime he hangs out with a handful of Iraqi poets and artists; their conversations are a respite from the battlefields and add a crucial dimension to the narrative. One painter named Esam insists upon playing Mumford Yanni videos and an episode of Friends. Then Esam pulls out a Miro aquatint, stolen from the Saddam Arts Center and worth more than 20 grand. He bought it from a looter, he says, and plans to return it to the art museum when it gets rebuilt. Later, the friends practice their swimming at a fancy hotel pool and debate evolution over beers. Throughout this journal, Mumford is a clear-eyed observer of the company he keeps, dispassionate but never dull. --Susannah J. Felts

IMPERIAL GRUNTS: THE AMERICAN MILITARY ON THE GROUND | Robert D. Kaplan

Atlantic Monthly correspondent Robert D. Kaplan, author of Balkan Ghosts, has taken on an ambitious new project: to document up close the life of today's American soldier. He sees this as key to understanding the virtual empire created by our far-flung military involvements, noting that even before September 11, "America's reach was long; its involvement in the obscurest states protean." Kaplan believes this to be absolutely necessary to counter the chaos caused by the Soviet breakup and Islamist fanaticism; his unabashed support for the mission gained him unprecedented access, and it results in a witty and absorbing, if disturbing, book.

Kaplan travels to both obscure and well-known fronts in the sprawling, hazily defined war on extremism, immersing himself in military culture and an alphabet soup of acronyms. He hangs out at CENTCOM (Central Command, covering the Middle East) and bunks with Special Forces (SF), marine grunts, and others--all unfailingly portrayed here as gracious, modest Spartan heroes brimming with evangelical patriotism, although one also admits to patriotism's cousin, resentment: "My generation sucks. They're all soft. . . . We live in some bad-ass country, and they're not even proud of it."

Still, Kaplan's travels produce several absorbing narratives. In Yemen, for instance, he sees how terrorism becomes both cause and symptom of centrally weak tribalist states, as SF operatives form discreet alliances with local warlords in a country with arguably the most small arms per capita. In Colombia, SF sergeants train local "protege" units against the heartrending backdrop of civil war, with frequent atrocities on both sides. Kaplan has a keen eye for operational detail and historical context, and empathetically conveys the tribulations of soldiers, which often include witnessing the violent deaths of their comrades.

These skills serve him well in the book's final section, in Iraq, where the monastic benevolence of the grunts proves no match for the asymmetric violence of a region where "tribal reality" makes civil war inevitable. As Kaplan notes, disgruntled Iraqi civilians risk their lives merely by meeting with the marines. Kaplan himself has a close call with a 122-millimeter rocket during the 2004 attempt to "pacify" Fallujah. While the beleaguered marines had been frequently occupied with policing disputes, providing seed to farmers, landscaping soccer fields, and other assorted tasks of "nation building," the assault on Fallujah allowed them to engage in close-quarter battle (CQB, or "killing shitheads"), until political pressure ended the operation, attributed by Kaplan to "the fecklessness and incoherence of the Bush administration." Despite such occasional moments of spleen, Kaplan generally mirrors the grunts' stoic compliance with the grandiose schemes of their leaders, lending a muffled, apolitical tone to his otherwise worthwhile project. --Mike Newirth

Steve Mumford

When: Thu 9/29, 7:30 PM

Where: Barbara's Bookstore, 1218 S. Halsted

Info: 312-413-2665

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