"How To Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone" by Rosie Garthwaite is reviewed by Michael Busch


One of the least remarked upon aspects to the story of modern conflict has been war's transformative influence on the trajectory of contemporary journalism. For millennia, battle has served as a muse for the great masters of art, literature, and philosophy. But until recently, it has exerted little influence over the business of gathering facts, recording opinion, and making sense of the perplexing reality of collective violence. 

Vietnam's impact was particularly pronounced in this respect. For the first time, reporters shed the tradition of treating violent contest as a noble struggle between good and evil, instead offering popular audiences shockingly vivid portraits of the horrors of war. The first American-led invasion of Iraq also marked a point of departure, playing host to the advent of 24-hour cable news network coverage while in the Global South—where intrastate conflict ravaged dozens of countries throughout the 1990s—the outrages of western neglect inaugurated an era of long-form narrative meditations in boutique publications and books that bemoaned the failures of liberal theory and its promise of humanitarian intervention. 

The battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan—the most elaborate and conventional manifestations of an otherwise pathologically unconventional “war on terror”—have provided fertile ground for the full blossoming of the fourth estate’s most recent manifestation: do-it-yourself journalism. With little more than access to broadband, possession of a plane ticket, and a healthy appetite for risk, most anyone can make their way to the frontlines of battle, and many have over the past decade. The result has been a genre that varies wildly in the type and quality of its production, oscillating between fits of brilliant reportage and misleadingly weak coverage, between the publication of beautiful travelogues describing stays in remote areas of social upheaval and the sort of crass, cavalier, and self-serving memoir that only a passion for war tourism can inspire. 

Given the media’s recent turn towards an expansive corps of amateur upstarts, which happens to be overwhelmingly young and entirely untrained in the ethics and best practices of professional journalism (let alone good judgment), it’s surprising that no one has thought to capitalize on the comparative inexperience of this new class of foreign correspondent by authoring a kind of Idiot’s Guide to War Reporting. Rosie Garthwaite’s How to Avoid Being Killed In A War Zone looks to fill the gap by bringing together the advice and recommendations of dozens of seasoned reporters, aid workers, military officers (and even a Somali pirate) for getting by in hazardous hot zones. Garthwaite and her stable of experts offer an ambitious agenda by promising to furnish all the nuts and bolts needed to ensure successful entry to and exit from the world’s most dangerous destinations. They aren’t all that successful.

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.    

Similarly, in a chapter on “avoiding trouble in sex, love and war,” we learn a lot about Garthwaite’s own hard-won battles with binge-drinking “via a few panicky morning-after pills, lost friendships and lost boyfriends,” but when it comes to discussing the ins-and-outs of keeping the body safe, healthy, and satisfied, one gets the sneaking suspicion that Garthwaite has simply cut-and-pasted from a high school sex ed book, or the back pages of a Lonely Planet guide. If you want to avoid pregnancy or a case of creepy crawlies in your privates, Garthwaite advises the use of contraceptives. If you want to avoid waking up naked next to strangers, avoid overdoing booze and drugs at the bar the night before. That burning sensation when you pee? Evidence that you should probably get to the doctor.  And in a section labeled “Safety for Girls” (by which Garthwaite actually means “women”), the book notes that the best defense against rape is found by “not walking into dodgy areas [or] drawing attention to yourself with your behavior or jewelry.”  

The experts quoted throughout are often equally unhelpful and too cute by half. Among other things, readers are warned not to “ride roller coasters in Sudan,” and “as a general rule, avoid getting into arguments with voodoo priests.” In a section on what to do when bombs start to go off, one Afghan army officer notes that “the Holy Koran says that whatever happens to us is our destiny…The date for our death is written; we cannot change it.” One wonders, too, what the families of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros—the award-winning photojournalists killed earlier this year in the battle for Benghazi—would make of Patrick Hennessey’s observation that “invariably the unlucky men who were injured in a contact, or the unfortunate teams that got stuck in difficult situations, were those who didn’t commit wholeheartedly.”

And then there are the passages that simply make you wince.  In a revealing section on the importance of teamwork in the field, one MSF doctor inadvertently wanders from the discussion into a reminiscence of his own cultural discovery that the natives enjoy the taste of food, too.  “When I first got to Yemen we used to eat our breakfast separately from our national staff—us with bread and chocolate spread, and them with the local food. But I decided it would be better for the team if we ate together. Then we discovered they had some amazing food. Honey and meat and their own type of pancake. It was delicious. Now, wherever I am, I seek out Yemeni restaurants, I love the food so much.”   There’s undoubtedly a lesson to be learned from this anecdote, but it has nothing to do with teamwork.    

To its credit, however, How To Avoid Being Killed In A War Zone does offer some sound advice for those planning trips—whatever their purpose—to difficult environments characterized by conflict. This is particularly true in its opening pages where Garthwaite delineates a helpful checklist of items to direct the preparation process. As she correctly notes, travelers can’t merely go along for the ride but “need to have thought through all the risks before” leaving home “and made sure [to] have done everything possible to minimize them.” To this end, readers are reminded to attend to the simple things that can easily get lost in the excitement of imminent departure: making sure visas have been secured, passports are updated, sufficient cash is on hand, medications are in full supply and your next of kin knows exactly where you’ll be, and when, in the event of misfortune or trouble.  The book also tenders helpful hints of what to generally expect in areas experiencing social, political and environmental turbulence and how to recognize the signals of situations that are about to get rough. 

But one gets the sense that Garthwaite loses the thread of her own best intentions when talk of negotiating the unpredictable dynamics of rioting crowds and natural disasters gives way to detailed discussions of how to skin bears for dinner, deliver babies, and fire automatic weapons. This last topic is especially troubling, as Garthwaite devotes surprisingly little consideration to the ethical and legal dilemmas at issue when non-combatants engage in gunplay on the battlefield. Instead, readers are stuck with a book that begins to feel like a hybrid of A Boy’s Life and Soldier of Fortune, and are left dizzy by its whirlwind tour though every possible scenario that could confront the would-be extreme adventurer.   

Beyond these considerations, however, the dirty secret of Garthwaite’s book—whispered repeatedly throughout its pages—is that the pros don’t actually follow their own advice. In some cases, doing so directly threatens the macho mystique of the profession itself. As Garthwaite points out, “Where there is danger...bravado follows. War zone junkies with years of experience writ on their faces will tell you to have another drink and ‘forget the curfew,’ the underlying message being that you should join in the naughtiness to be part of the gang.” More frequently, though, we learn that sticking to the game plan becomes impossible when bullets scream past your ear, mortars tear up everything around you, and the rebels you’re following are preparing for the final assault. Leith Mushtaq, an al Jazeera cameraman, frames it best: “Sometimes I can’t control myself when I work in a war zone. I feel ready to die for the job. It’s not work—it’s making history.” 

All of which begs the question: who is this book actually for, then? After all, it’s hard to imagine either grizzled veterans of the trade or newbies just hitting the scene feeling comfortable pulling out Garthwaite’s book—with its shockingly fluorescent red packaging and title splashed in bold block lettering across the cover—in the heat of battle, or even packing it to begin with for those quiet moments alone in the hotel.  

A clue may be found in a reader’s comment at the Washington Post’s online review of Garthwaite’s guide.  “I’m buying it,” BJ Smith enthused. “Not that I am planning to be a journalist or to travel in war zones, but I'll love the vicarious experience.” And that’s just it: in the same way that mud-stained reports from the trenches, or epic travelogues that recount treks across Afghanistan on foot excite the imagination with experiences most of us will likely never have, Garthwaite’s survival guide will speak most deeply to those who wish for safe escape from the protections of the nation-state at peace, but only momentarily. For that small portion of the population willing to risk it all for the next big story, or even just an adrenaline rush, it’s unclear how much can be meaningfully gleaned from a guidebook. This is especially so, as the long list of reporters killed in action certainly attests, the moment you enter an arena in which you’re just as likely to lose your head as you are a limb. Or more tragically still, your life.  

Michael Busch is research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, and program coordinator at the Colin L. Powell Center for Leadership and Service at The City College of New York, where he teaches political science and international studies. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkbusch.

How To Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone by Rosie Garthwaite (London: Bloomsbury, 2011)