A Brutally Honest Exploration of What It Means to Be a War Reporter

From a New York Times book review by Elizabeth Becker headlined “A Brutally Honest Exploration of What It Means to Be a War Reporter”:

“Afghanistan was the Vietnam of our era,” Jane Ferguson writes in her memoir, “No Ordinary Assignment.” She sees her generation of reporters as descendants of the men and women who covered the first war the United States lost to a largely rural Asian nation. In both cases, America had the overwhelming military advantage of a superpower’s arsenal and the political disadvantage of a superpower’s hubris.

The similarities end there. Ferguson and her 21st-century colleagues have had to navigate a world of wars far more complex and often more deadly than the ones that came before. By comparison, the war that journalists covered in Vietnam, while dangerous, resembled World War II set-piece battles.

Still, Ferguson always held her predecessors up as models. Her memoir is an engrossing chronicle of the costs and rewards of becoming like the women she saw delivering news of skirmishes and revolutions on TV. That Ferguson would become a war reporter who epitomizes this era is one of the anomalies of this compelling book.

She was born on the periphery of Europe in 1984 and raised on a grim farm in Northern Ireland during the final years of the Troubles. Her Protestant upbringing was marked by passages through Army checkpoints and occasional attacks on the village police station. Her indignation over the Troubles was easier to tamp down than her feelings of fear and anxiety at home, where her father withheld his affections and her mother’s volatile anger seemed “to center around a deep hatred of her children.”

Rather than rebel with drugs or escape to the bright lights of Belfast, Ferguson concentrated her considerable energy on school and field hockey. She also sought refuge with her Aunt Fanny, who lived in a serene cottage on the nearby County Down coast. Fanny encouraged her niece’s curiosity as she pored over the memoirs of war correspondents like Kate Adie. Ferguson recalls gathering with her family to hear Orla Guerin and Moira Stuart deliver the latest from conflict zones around the world. “All the men watched and listened in a way I knew they never would have listened to me over dinner,” she writes.

After a post-college internship at the BBC went nowhere, Aunt Fanny sent Ferguson a check for $4,500 and an admonition: “Please use this for something fun.” Ferguson’s idea of fun was studying Arabic in Yemen. She landed in Sana in 2007, at the age of 23, when the country was largely at peace. Then on to Dubai, where she took a job as an assistant sports editor at The Gulf News, an English-language daily, and settled into the Emirati expat life of air-conditioned skyscrapers, chic nightclubs and luxury cars.

While on assignment at a Mazda car dealership the spell broke. Wars were being fought across the Persian Gulf. “I couldn’t hide from the reality that I was living a life I did not want to live anymore,” she writes. What happened to the young girl admiring the women who brought the news from Rwanda and Yugoslavia to her Irish living room? Ferguson drove directly to the airport, parked her Porsche and bought a ticket to Afghanistan.

A few days before a chaperoned trip to a British military base in Kandahar — her desultory first outing — she interviewed Tim Page, the legendary Vietnam War photographer. The elder Page lectured the newbie about the emptiness of most war reporting, with its emphasis on the bang-bang and the view from military vehicles. Humanity comes first. He urged her to “put a face on this war of the Afghan suffering.” Page’s advice became her lodestar over the next decade.

In Afghanistan, Ferguson was on her own. The financial rout of the news business in the early 2000s meant staff foreign correspondent posts were rare. She joined the coterie of freelance reporters willing to work in war zones without proper pay, health insurance or benefits and distinguished herself by specializing in the most dangerous or obscure conflicts.

She arrived in Somalia a few months after two reporters had been kidnapped, operating her own camera as a “solo, self-shooting one-woman band.” Soon she was filing regular, hair-raising stories for CNN, not just from Somalia, but Sudan and Yemen too. She worked for such little pay she had to sleep on friends’ sofas. After a year and a half, a new foreign editor arrived and abruptly cut Ferguson from the network’s freelance roster.

Ferguson was angry, but undeterred. In 2012, working with Al Jazeera, she pulled off a career-defining assignment covering the civil war in Syria. The rebel stronghold of Homs was under constant shelling by the forces of Bashar al-Assad. Mosques broadcast calls for blood types from their minarets. Somehow Ferguson was smuggled into the city and emerged safely with an exclusive series on the inhumanity of that siege. Other reporters followed her, including Marie Colvin from The Times of London. Assad’s soldiers, under orders to kill journalists, discovered Colvin’s hide-out — the same apartment where Ferguson had stayed — and murdered her.

Ferguson was occasionally hindered because she was female. Institutional bans against women on the battlefield were lifted decades earlier, largely during Vietnam, but cultural biases persisted. After she survived a deadly Taliban attack on the Serena Hotel restaurant in Kabul, an executive producer pulled her out of the country and replaced her with a male colleague. (“Don’t be all feminist about it,” she was told.)

What truly held her back, Ferguson suggests, was television’s unwritten rule favoring attractive women for on-air reports. “I will never be known for my beauty,” she recalls thinking after CNN punted her. I let out a small scream when I read the solution she came up with years later. In 2017, the fearless war correspondent suffered through two black eyes, swollen cheeks, a bloodied nose and a swollen lip, the result of a cosmetic surgery that cost her entire savings.

She managed to dodge injury in Somalia, Afghanistan, Egypt and Palestine even as she kept taking risks. Her descriptions are carefully rendered; the stories never blur into each other. In northern Yemen, she was the only journalist to breach an air, sea and land blockade to report on the humanitarian disaster that Saudi Arabia created with American complicity. In Cairo, she fled gunfire and followed a tip into an ornate mosque that had been converted into a morgue where shrouded corpses lay across crimson carpets.

In Somalia, the presence of armed African Union peacekeepers served as a reminder of that country’s long history of conflict and set up a scene in a makeshift Mogadishu hospital: Ferguson, filming a baby as he died on a hospital bed with his mother beside him.

It was here that she understood the futility that comes with war reporting. “To stand in a hospital with a camera and not a stethoscope,” she writes, “is grotesque.”

Ferguson did eventually reach the highest rungs of her profession. In 2019, she won an Emmy and a George Polk Award for her reporting from Yemen. As a special correspondent for PBS and a contributor to The New Yorker, she covered the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

What raises “No Ordinary Assignment” above many other memoirs is the way it shows Ferguson’s refusal to take shortcuts in her reporting. She fully lived her stories, experiencing the wars with the people she covered and writing with the kind of intimate knowledge that is prized by novelists and historians. To understand the alchemy she achieved, start with her stories from Yemen. That country has burrowed deep in her bones.

Elizabeth Becker is the author of “You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War” and a winner of the Sperber Book Prize and Harvard’s Goldsmith Book Prize.

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