War Stories by Jeremy Bowen

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War Stories by Jeremy Bowen

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: Not so much 'how the war was won' but 'how the war was reported'. This is a book to make you think about what the people who report wars risk to bring sound and pictures to our screens. The book is factual, insightful and well-written. It's recommended by Bookbag.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: November 2006
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd
ISBN: 0743230949

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All my life I've hated violence, not only because it frightens me, but because I cannot see the point of inflicting death or injury on another living being. I've always thought that the men and women who brought news of war to our televisions, radios and newspapers were very brave and certainly not like other people. Jeremy Bowen is definitely not like other people.

He's been a war junkie.

As I began to read the book I was convinced that I would hate it. At one point I really wondered if I would finish it. You might understand why when you read this sentence:

The next day, my first morning reporting war, I was fighting panic; not because I was worried about being killed but because I was worried that the Salvadorians had stopped killing each other.

It doesn't exactly make you warm to him, does it? I persevered though and I'm glad that I did. Whilst I won't go as far as to say that I think everyone should read the book, I think it holds some valuable lessons and is very thought-provoking.

Even as a young child Bowen knew that he wanted to be a foreign correspondent. When he joined the BBC in 1984 it became his passion. He wanted to be where the action was - and on television reporting it. He quickly became one of the BBC's recognisable faces as he reported from conflicts in El Salvador, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Rwanda, the Balkans and the Middle East. There are descriptions of some horrific scenes but it's done factually rather than sensationally. In many ways that makes what happened more shocking.

Until the final part of the book which deals with Bowen's time in the Middle East there's little attempt to examine the ideologies behind the wars. These are the stories of a loner who knew that having a good day meant that others would be having their worst or even their last day. His preoccupation was with being in the middle of the action and then being on television to report what was happening. I had no feeling that he wanted to understand what had brought people into that situation - in fact there were occasions when I thought that might have got in the way of his doing what he did. Occasionally there's a strange mixture of the callous and touching kindness.

It is, however, an excellent detailing of how wars are reported. I had never appreciated the vast amounts of equipment that are required, the skills which have to be used at short notice and in difficult conditions to report situations in a couple of minutes to those of us sitting in comfort at home. It made me think about why we put so much store by the pictures we see when they are simply one man's record of what he saw. Our views, our perceptions, are formed by this man, whom we don't know other than via a television screen. We're very dependant on his integrity - particularly when you realise that he's there because he's addicted to the drug of war rather than because he wants to investigate what is happening. After reading this book you really cannot help but look at television coverage of conflict in a new light.

I wondered whether or not I really wanted to have someone risk their life to bring pictures to the television and I came to the conclusion that I didn't. Too many deaths of journalists and their helpers are recounted for me to feel comfortable with the idea. Bowen takes an opposite view. He believes that people have a right to be able to see what is being done in their name. On occasions I have walked away from the television when I've felt that the coverage intruded too much on the lives of civilians, but Bowen justifies this on the grounds that war affects more non-combatants than soldiers. I'm sure that his figures are right, but I also wondered if it might be that civilians with original and unique stories are more likely to be available than the military.

Bowen's addiction to war loosened its grip whilst he was in Jerusalem. About to become a father for the first time, he saw his driver killed in a rocket attack. He realised that he wasn't immortal and thought that his child had the right to grow up with a father. It dawned on him that the question about whether or not a story was worth a life could mean his life. Jerusalem touched his heart too and he looks at the reasons behind the Middle East conflict. The book is well-worth reading for this part alone, even if the thought that the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah is almost certain to be replayed before too long.

Do read the book. It's well-written in clear language that anyone can understand and it will give you a great deal to think about.

I'll end with a minor quibble. I wanted to go back and reread a particular section but there was no easy way of finding it. Any book giving this much food for thought really should have an index.

My thanks to the publishers, Simon and Schuster, for providing this book.

For another book on the way that conflict is covered in the media you might like to read Frontline by David Loyn.

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Buy War Stories by Jeremy Bowen at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy War Stories by Jeremy Bowen at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy War Stories by Jeremy Bowen at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy War Stories by Jeremy Bowen at Amazon.com.


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Magda said:

I think that the Frontline crew would have a different opinion regarding "the vast amounts of equipment that are required", but never mind.

Regarding risking life, well, it's not really up to you (or me, or anybody) to want or not want anybody doing that. It would be bad if journalists were made or forced to risk their lives in search of the story, but I think it would be equaly horrible to live in a world in which people wouldn't be allowed to do it.

Tangentially, I always considered the law that makes suicide a crime very wrong.

Sue replied:

Firstly - I should have made it clearer that times have moved on with regard to equipment. What was moved on a strong donkey in Bowen's early days as a war reporter now seems to slip into a pocket.

I'm going to argue with you on the second point though, Magda. I've no wish to stop anyone risking their life if that is what they want to do, be it hang-gliding, extreme sports or war reporting. If people wish to do it then that is their right. What I do not want is them doing it for ME and I believe that I have every right to say that. I believe that I can manage perfectly well without sound and pictures from a war zone. That's a personal view but strongly held.

I think that the law which made an attempt to commit suicide a crime was repealed many years ago, was it not? I believe that it's still a crime to assist a suicide and I can see good reasons for that!

Magda replied:

Then I kind of agree with you. I certainly don't need or want people to risk their lives to provide ME with war or atrocity coverage either. But I feel a gratitude and awe towards those that do, does it make sense? And I think I don't think that if they die their deaths should be scorned as self inflicted through taking too much risks (though arguably sometimes they probably are).

Suicide: I should have said 'made'.

Sue replied:

I think we're broadly in agreement now, Magda!