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Book Reviews

Shooters: The Canadian Army Film And Photo Unit ~ 1941 – 1946 (dvd)

by James O’Regan, Department of National Defence Public Affairs

Run time, 48 minutes, 50 seconds

War Reporting For Cowards: Between Iraq And A Hard Place

by Chris Ayres

London: John Murray, 2005
289 pages, $29.95

Reviewed by Lieutenant-Colonel Terence W. Loveridg

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Book Cover Shooters is the visual story of the members of the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit [CAFPU], who risked life and limb to record the Second World War. This story of a group of Canadian soldiers, who carried cameras into action instead of Lee-Enfields or Bren guns in order to take “history by the neck,” is impressively presented on DVD. Much of their effort is relatively familiar to anyone today who has viewed World War Two documentaries, but the original audience for these stills and films was meant to be the soldier, and, to that end, they had to be grittier and more representative of what really occurred than the usual newsreel. The story of the CAFPU is a visual one, and it could not be properly told without the moving pictures produced, so DVD is therefore an excellent medium. The images give Shooters tremendous impact.

James O’Regan, the son of one of the early members of the CAFPU, has achieved a remarkable feat in assembling the story of a unit, originally formed in October 1941, and consisting of two officers, one senior NCO and one junior NCO, to record Canada’s war. By 1945, over 50 of approximately 1400 Allied servicemen performing this function were Canadian, and they frequently led their peers in obtaining journalistic ‘scoops’. They were the first to provide film of the assault waves landing in Sicily and in Normandy, the first to get still pictures from Normandy onto the front pages of the world press, and the only ones to produce coloured pictures of Operation Overlord.

Admittedly, the first few minutes of Shooters has all of the hallmarks of one of those intense, sonorous Remembrance Day specials on the History Channel, but the unit veterans soon assume control of their story and they captivate. They begin their story as all good war stories, with tales of light humour and camaraderie in training, then with the early success of their first film about the Forestry Corps, Wood for War. They tell of a Canadian corporal’s education of Bernard Montgomery in the basics of how to look good on camera. In the tradition of a good military story, this light-heartedness soon gives way to a deeper story of dedication and of sacrifice. Although too little time is dedicated to the Italian theatre, despite the relatively high casualty rate among CAFPU members serving there, the story of the unit’s proudest moment, the Normandy landings and subsequent campaign, is brilliant. The film footages may often be familiar, but they are made more breathtaking by the viewer’s new knowledge of the role of training, of courage, and of sheer luck in obtaining the only assault footage obtained by the Allies. And the participants tell their story in that poignant, matter-of-fact style that so marks the veteran.

They explain why their pictures were always of a first class calibre. In order to discourage the shaky, disorienting cinema verité of the hand-held camera, they were trained as soldiers and drilled to always use tripods, even when under fire, and even, as was often the case, when they went forward of their own troops to film the advance. The viewer has cause to reflect on this dedication while watching remarkable film footage of Major David Currie in the process of winning his Victoria Cross, or while watching Canadians scurry along Norman streets as bullets smack the walls around them, or, in the most moving part of the DVD, watching a CAFPU cameraman film his own death over the Rhine River.

John O’Regan and the Directorate of Public Affairs have produced a solid historical video-document that makes the film and picture record of a “writing generation” available to a more visually-oriented generation. They have also honoured a particular type of uniformed warrior-chronicler that no longer exists.

The Gulf War of 1990-1991 established new expectations for instant war journalism, and these expectations were different for the public, for the media, and for the military. Chris Ayres, a British reporter for The Times, and descendent of what he claims was a line of conflict avoiders, became a victim of these expectations. Unlike the CAFPU experience, he found that history ‘took him by the neck’. War Reporting for Cowards is the rich, humourous and trenchant story of a young reporter’s journey from denial to 21st Century war. The denial began with the fall of the Berlin Wall when the “Cold War was over and, as one of the most influential books of the decade said, it was The End of History. Our Greenpeace subscriptions lapsed... We stopped thinking; we bought shares in dot-com companies; we skimmed through the stories about missing suitcase- sized nukes, and titillated ourselves instead with Bill Clinton, the intern and the cigar. We were distracted: borderline delusional. But it wouldn’t last...”

Ayres, a self described clinical coward whose ‘fight or flight’ response is permanently set to flight, wheedled his way into The Times business section with a view to becoming a light entertainment reporter in Hollywood. Instead, he was ambushed by history. He made it as far as New York in time to see the World Trade Center fall virtually at his feet. He filed the story by e-mail while still in shock, and his editor wanted more. In fact, his editor’s return e-mail read, “Thousand wds please on ‘I saw people fall to death,’ etc.” Ayres then soon found himself deep inside the “Anthrax” story that followed, and he was only too relieved to escape an embattled New York for an easier-going California venue. The Times, however, had decided that he was a suitable candidate for a new type of media representative being assembled for a new type of war, the embedded correspondent. The “embed,” from a military viewpoint, was to be an approximation to the CAFPU member, while from the media viewpoint, it was to fulfil the role of the Monday Night Football colour commentator while bona fide correspondents, armed with impressive 3D graphics, covered the real story from distant headquarters. Both groups misread the situation. The “embeds” were to be the ones to experience “non-linear war,” and they, like the public and a surprisingly large section of the military, did not know what it was that they were seeing. Ironically, it was to be writers who produced the real chronicle of war for the video generation.

Ayres loves and respects real war correspondents, such as Ernie Pyle and Robert Capa, but he is very unlike them. He is not an outdoorsman and is far too conscious of the fact that they were both killed doing their jobs. He lacked both the nerve to refuse such an inappropriate assignment and the most basic knowledge of military affairs. This meant that he spent his California sojourn dashing around mountain outfitter stores trying to obtain a US Marine Corps NBC ensemble, and, although he managed to dash off to the United Kingdom to get a survival course, he also managed to attend the wrong one. This Candide arrived in Kuwait City with an electric toothbrush and a mound of belongings on a trolley. There, he continued to demonstrate an inability to accomplish the most basic of survival skills. He could not master his kit or complete a gas mask drill in the appropriate time, and he lived in mortal fear of his auto injector. His trolley is likely still half-buried in the sand where the Marines left it when they moved into Iraq.

Like most post-moderns, Ayres is troubled by the likes of marines. In his preface, he notes that he “left Iraq dumbstruck at the sacrifice made by Rick ‘Buck’ Rogers and his fellow United States Marines. I also left Iraq with a desire never to be trapped in a Humvee with them again.” Despite his experience in New York, he was discomfited by radio reports from the infantry that congratulated the artillery for leaving nothing but body parts and pink mist in front of them, and his role as an observer in bright blue body armour left him feeling apart from his hosts. As it became apparent that only he and his fellow embeds were reporting the real war, he became further discomfited by that responsibility. The contrast between Ayres and the CAFPU veterans is never starker than at this point. The climax of his experience occurs when Iraqi tanks counterattack his unarmoured unit during a moment when the overwhelming weight of technology was not available to stop them. Then, like all soldiers before him, Ayres experiences terror, resignation and joy in overlapping waves. With his life in the balance, he “was about as neutral as Murphy’s trigger finger” and “apologized to the God I didn’t believe in for having ignored him all my life...”

Ayres renders a sublimely honest view of modern war. His absolute naivety makes it work. ‘Contact’, in the language of the Marines, where all emotion is surgically removed to avoid collateral damage to troop morale, means being attacked by the enemy. When fire is returned, it becomes ‘engagement’. A nuclear exchange, presumably, is a ‘white wedding’. Finally, Ayres lost contact with his paper, and therefore having no useful function, he left his Marines. The shameful joy he felt at being able to abandon the field is the reason he places “coward” in the title of his book. The judgment is, of course, unfair.

In the end, one can picture Ayres sitting with the tripod warriors of the CAFPU laughing in shared experience, but he would still be the outsider. He came to respect and adopt his unit to the point where he felt one of them, but, unlike the CAFPU veterans, he never came to believe that his unit adopted or respected him in return.

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Lieutenant-Colonel Loveridge, an infantry officer, teaches history at the Royal Military College of Canada.