How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone

How – and why – reporters and aid workers survive in some of the world's most dangerous places.

How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone: The Essential Survival Guide for Dangerous Places, by Rosie Garthwaite, Bloomsbury USA, 304 pp.

English TV journalist Rosie Garthwaite’s strangely giddy, yet gonzo survival guide, How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone, has washed up on the shores of the US from Qatar, where she works for Al Jazeera, a news service that broadcasts to a significant portion of the Arab world. Her 293-page book weighs in on everything related to a dangerous field deployment: ranging from how to build a wigwam in extreme weather to cheery warnings against trying to contract food poisoning when on assignment as “a good way of getting rid of that last bit of tummy.” (Really? Smart people do that?)

As a whole, this odd book cobbles together war memories and advice – the latter, often contradictory – from Garthwaite, her colleagues, and her friends who’ve
represented international news, aid, and peacekeeping organizations like the BBC, Medecins Sans Frontieres, and the UN, in locales like the Sudan, Bosnia, and Iraq. Their varying views on, say, the safety of trying to score contraceptives for affairs begun in the Middle East range from scared (“Asking advice from the wrong doctor could put you in front of a judge, facing the harsh local laws,” says Garthwaite) to sanguine (“If something does go wrong, the morning-after pill is readily available practically everywhere – even up a mountain,” chirps one former female colleague, from the Baghdad Bulletin. “You might get a few odd looks when you ask for it, but don’t let that put you off.”)

Such divergent senses of reality create a schizoid effect for Garthwaite’s readers. In terms of its tone, her book chortles, chugs, chuffs, and cries, at rapidly shifting intervals. Those looking for a consistent perspective on working in a war zone will never find it. This seems to be a metaphor for the nature of combat reporting. So, whom does a book like this serve? Aid workers and reporters preparing to enter the field, and wondering how to care for injured colleagues, and themselves, can glean from it valuable first-aid and sanitation tips. In a pinch, tampons can serve as wound compresses; sand can be used to clean cooking pots and utensils.

When it comes to psychedelic raves, however, Garthwaite warns that “drug-enhanced desert discos are not a good idea, though they always seem like one at the time. The drug Ecstasy can cause dehydration.”

If you suspect that there’s something a bit off – or at least hard to fathom – about those who want to live and work in such extremis, you’d be right. (As a friend of mine from the Associated Press once drily put it: “Foreign correspondents don’t tend to lead the most stable of lives.”)

Certainly, their attraction to danger can feel non-intuitive. Take Garthwaite’s former colleague, now an NGO worker in Myanmar, who saw “the govenment
suppression of the monk-led riots of 2007, and cyclone Nargis a year later, which killed an estimated 134,000 people and devastated the most fertile parts of the country. He has chosen to remain anonymous because he wants to be as honest as possible in explaining why,” she writes, “everyone should visit the beautiful country that has become his home and, to him at least, is ‘the safest country on earth.’ ”

“ '[Y]ou cannot help but be charmed by the long-suffering and repressed locals,’ she quotes him as saying, then adding: ‘Arriving here feels like stepping back in time.’”

For those who recall the slaughter of nearby Cambodia’s intelligentsia, however, his take may call up less charming images than echoes of the madman Pol Pot, who sought to return his nation to the year zero.

Fact is, lay readers of memoirs by war correspondents look to books like Garthwaite’s to answer the obvious question: What spurs seemingly sane civilians to
enter – and even return to – a war zone?

While Garthwaite doesn’t say, she offers clues. Once a combat correspondent returns home, she writes, “peace can be difficult to handle. You’ll be yearning for
that buzz, that sense of the unexpected that your war-zone life used to offer. Conversations will seem trivial. You will smile when you want to shout, ‘I’m bored!’ ”

Such a statement makes a conflict reporter sound like a danger junkie, jonesing for violence and more violence. While that’s hardly a noble motivation, it can spur great reporting.

Without skilled news coverage, we’d never know what soldiers and civilians experience on the ground. “’It’s still the biggest story of my generation,’ Garthwaite
quotes a friend as saying, in 2005, about the war in Iraq, “’and I’ve got to get out there.’”

Susan Comninos is a Monitor contributor.

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