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War for Dummies?

December 7, 2011

My review of Rosie Garthwaite’s How To Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone is up at the brand-new online journal Warscapes.

A little snippet of my reaction to the book:

Even by the standards of the most rugged of rough guides to adventure travel Garthwaite has produced a curious item. Ostensibly a handbook for surviving everything from truck bombings and shoot outs to the boredom that inevitably accompanies extended stays in the world’s most dangerous places, How to Avoid Being Killed In A War Zone quickly reveals itself to be a hodgepodge of contradictory recommendations geared as much to keeping audiences giggling as it is to keeping them safe from danger.

For a manual dedicated to the most serious topic in professional journalism, the book adopts a jarringly breezy nonchalance to conflict. Garthwaite sets the casual tone early on when describing her own battlefield bona fides: “I have dipped my toe into a semi-war zone, spending around six months in Basra after the Iraq war in 2003.  I was twenty-two years old and straight out of Oxford University, earning a local rate of $10 a day as a Reuters stringer. How did I survive? I poached a translator off the British Army. He was the size of a tank, a body builder. When I refused to let him bring a gun inside the battle-broken house where we lived, he brought life-size posters of Arnold Schwarzenegger to scare off potential intruders. Armed with my blonde hair and a practiced smile, I tried to remember everything I had picked up during a year working as a British Army officer after leaving school.”

The book has been lauded by some critics for its laid-back attitude toward escaping death and the snippets of snark that Garthwaite employs to add levity to an otherwise grave topic. This praise is fair as far as it goes, but one can’t help but notice that it often serves to camouflage a distinct absence of useful information on certain issues. In a section covering the problem of where to sit in “a dodgy plane,” we learn that “like a lot of frequent flyers,” Garthwaite has experienced her “share of what felt like close calls. The Aeroflot wing clipping the water as it landed at Odessa after a five-second freefall earlier in the flight was probably the worst. But some confidence was restored by the hot South African pilots flying the Amman-Baghdad route. To avoid mortar attacks when landing, they have to let the plane spiral down to the ground. It takes about three minutes from top to bottom, or one appropriately anthemic Coldplay song on my iPod. You shift slightly forward in your seat and, compared to a normal landing, it feels like a nosedive. But these pilots manage it every time, and then they turn around and flash you a smile just to make sure you will recognize your hero if you see him later in the bar.” But when we return to the question of where best to sit in an airplane you don’t trust, the advice is pretty thin: sit in the back if you want to avoid being toppled by luggage during a nose-dive, or, if you’ve got a flying license, situate yourself in the front so that you can seize control if the pilot passes out drunk.

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