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Book Review of: Under the Wire
Marie Colvin's Final Assignment
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Under the Wire, by Paul Conroy (Hardcover, 2013)|
(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)
As someone who opted out of newspapers in 1982, opted out of television in 1990, and doesn't do online "news" sources, I don't know who the newscasters or war correspondents are. My rationale for this is explained after this review; narrowed in scope to how it's relevant to this book in particular.
Because of my "opt out," I had never heard of Marie Colvin before coming across this book. My decision to read it wasn't based, then, on a desire to follow up on a familiar face or name. It sounded like a story that would be interesting and perhaps informative. It was. I enjoyed this book. Immensely.
For those who do follow news, you probably know who Marie Colvin was and would like the real story as seen from someone who was there. This is that story.
And it is so well-written, you'll have a hard time putting the book down until you've finished it. In my own case, I was going to read from page 140 to 160 due to time restrictions, and just did not stop reading until page 302 (by then, I really had to go so stopped until later). Rare is the book that can get me to exceed my plan by even 5 pages. There's an endorsement for you.
Let me explain about "well-written." Writer's Digest and other trade publications for journalists have talked about "using elements of fiction in non-fiction." This has also been a frequent topic at writing conferences. The idea behind it is that the truth doesn't need to be boring.
Why is that crime novel so interesting? The factors that make it so can be translated over to non-fiction writing. For example, write in the active voice, provide details that help the reader feel like s/he is actually there, build tension, and provide strong transitions. It doesn't mean make things up from whole cloth, and I'm pleased to say that Conroy didn't do that.
Because of its subject, this book would have been interesting even with mediocre writing. But at this high level of writing skill, the book was downright gripping. The author is a photographer, not a columnist or reporter. The high caliber writing might seem anomalous, but if you know what goes into telling a story with photographs (as Conroy does) then you also know a person who excels at that (and Conroy is a genius at it) excels at many of the skills required for good writing.
This book is realistic partly because of the sheer grittiness of the writing. But that grittiness is a double-edged sword, because there's a lot of foul language in the book. So it's not appropriate for all audiences. Then again, it's about war so to me reading "foul" words is much less shocking than reading about a 10-year old with his legs blown off. I give Conroy a free pass on the foul language.
Another issue here is the culture of the folks engaged in war reporting (what I glean of it from Conroy's comments). Conroy, as part of that culture, seems to glorify smoking and drinking. These behaviors cause immense human suffering (not that war doesn't, but why pile it on?), plus they are very costly to the society that picks up the very high medical tabs for people who have the self-inflicted diseases resulting from these behaviors. I don't like it when people encourage this behavior.
An issue that may arise with some reviewers is this book has no bibliography. My opinion is that such a thing would actually be a detriment and I am glad Conroy didn't go there. Ditto for getting after the fact interviews. Those secondary/tertiary source practices would have indicated a revisionist after the fact rewrite, instead of the factual account we got. This is a primary source work, and such works by definition do not draw from other works. He isn't researching a topic, his experience during Marie Colvin's Final Assignment is the topic.
The subtitle is surprisingly accurate, considering the common penchant today for misleading subtitles. This subtitle is exactly what this book is about.
This book runs 319 "can't put it down" pages of hard-biting text. It also includes several pages of outstanding photographs (not included in that page count). My own photos have graced several magazine covers, so when I say someone's photos are outstanding that carries multiple meanings that go deeper than might be indicated. The subject, composition, and technical elements are all top-notch. From these photos, it's clear why Conroy is a highly respected photo journalist. I think he put these skills to work when composing the text, as well. I could see events in my mind as I read.
Just a quick summary of the story line (written at 1/10th the brilliance of Conroy's writing). Conroy and Colvin take an assignment to document the war atrocities in Homs (a town in Syria). Getting there is problematic and dangerous, the problem being solved by using a very long underground tunnel. Going through that tunnel is no picnic, due to having to walk bent over for an extended time while breathing oxygen-poor air. Try walking in a duck squat across your lawn while holding your breath, and you will (barely) begin to understand this ordeal.
Due to an alert the city will be under a vicious assault from govt forces (including drone-guided bomb and mortar attacks), they retreat back through the tunnel. But then the assault doesn't happen. However, everyone knows it is going to. All of the other journalist teams wisely refrain from going back through the tunnel. But Marie insists on going back. Conroy has a gut feeling that it can only end badly, and his gut has never been wrong. But he can't desert Marie to go back by herself. So they go back through together. And it ends badly.
Relating the details of that final trip and its aftermath is presumably the goal of this book. But I have to tell you that Conroy doesn't waste page space warming up to that. The part of the book that covers the buildup to that trip is also edge of your seat stuff.
So as you can tell, I really liked this book and highly recommend it for any adult looking for some good reading.
One reason I don't do news is it is so biased. This book illustrates that aspect, with Conroy's frequent laments about the bloody regime and how the world was just standing by letting the slaughter happen. He didn't present the other side of the story, which is that a sovereign government was trying to hold on to its sovereignty (right or wrong, that's what it is).
I am not saying he was dishonest. No, he was quite honest and I have no doubt that every fact he stated is true and what he said happened is exactly what happened. It's just not the whole picture. Not that it needs to be, but for the purposes of his personal commentary about the situation there's a gap in this book. It's the interpretation that shows bias, not the accounting of what happened.
Let me put that into perspective that Americans maybe can understand.
In our own history, banksters manipulated things to get their illegal War Between the States. This was our bloodiest war ever, the first truly mechanized war, and the first war in which the primary strategy became the infliction of massive civilian suffering and casualties. That last part sounds about like what Paul described as going on in Syria.
This war resulted in a totally different form of national government when it was over. It was a war of aggression and invasion against states that had lawfully seceded (the first having done so several years prior). It does not fit the definition of a civil war (and General Grant never called it a civil war), in which armed insurgents attack to seize the means of governance. "Honest" Abe Lincoln deliberately misappropriated that terminology in the Gettysburg Address as a form of war propaganda.
How would today's foreign war correspondents have viewed Lincoln's War? The answer is obvious.
Typically when people call for "other nations to help" they mean they want the most indebted nation in history to go even deeper into debt to get involved in something that's not germane to our national interests. The USA now has real total national debt that exceeds the GDP of all nations combined--three times over. And we're ruled by an oligarchy that added $6 trillion (source: GAO) more to that debt last year alone (not, as Obama stated, "only" $1.2 trillion).
As horrible as things are in nations going through civil unrest and war, it is not imperative that the USA do anything about it. We have our own civil unrest and war (for example, the south side of "criminal protection zone" Chicago is a de facto war zone and there's a higher rate of violent death there than in Iraq) to contend with. We also have a brutally oppressive regime, though it manages to mask the various acts of oppression through deception and manipulation.
Examples abound, from the many unreported IRS atrocities to the badly reported atrocities at Ruby Ridge and Waco. And a Navy UDT instructor flatly stated the Oklahoma bombing story simply could not be true because the technical facts don't support that story; other evidence points to that as an action of our own "government" in an attempt to discredit those calling for lawful government.
Also, we have huge infrastructure deficiencies. Nearly all of our bridges have been rated as unsafe. Two of them spanning the Mississippi River collapsed in recent times, sending many innocent tax-paying Americans into the water to experience the agony of drowning because the tax dollars aren't going toward bridge repair. They are going to wars we can't afford and various measures to protect big banking, big oil, and a few other special interests (read, "Confessions of an Economic Hitman"). Oh, and they are also going directly to big banksters; the Federal Reserve gave (not loaned, gave) the largest banks $49 trillion (49 followed by 12 zeroes) between 2008 and 2012. Stealing on steroids leaves the victims broke. We can't pay for "helping" in Syria or anywhere else.