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on 5 September 2005
Months ago I saw a documentary on the BBC about war correspondents on the front line. The journalist who impressed me the most was actually a cameraman named Jon Steele. I did a Google search and found he'd writtin a book called War Junkie. I picked up the book on a Friday evening in London. I finished Sunday afternoon. I could not put it down from the first page. I checked Amazon to see if Jon Steele had anymore titles on offer. Sadly, he did not. One can only hope he is somwehere in the world writing another book.
I have read many books by journalists but was in no way prepared for the world Jon Steele dragged me into. That is exactly the feeling. He pulls the reader into his camera and makes you see the world of war through his eyes. It is a grim world of suffering and pain. Unsanatised and uncensored. The reader can smell blood on the pages of this book. The pace from the beginning is like a bullet that keeps gaining speed, till it ricochets and catches Steele between the eyes.
He becomes part of the wreckage of war himself. The book is an almost surreal account of what happens to a man who finds himself enjoying the buzz of danger. When flesh and blood human beings are reduced to nothing more than pictures he films and then disregards and forgets, till they return to haunt him. At times it feels he is asking for forgiveness, but the truth is, Jon Steele is begging the reader to notice the faceless and nameless humans we see suffering on our televisions screens.
Steele writes in in the style of a novel. The men and women he works with are not presented in the usual style of nonfiction factoids. The readers comes to know them as genuine people with deep feelings and often funny quirks. And though Steele writes in a gonzo style, his work shows a keen influence of some of the greatest American writers. Hemingway, Faulkner and the current master of American letters, Cormac McCarthy. Mostly I had the feeling Steele was reworking Mark Twain's 'Huckleberry Finn'. A boy's adventure that leads him into lands of horror and fear. Act one is full of bravado. A revolution in Sokhumi and the civil war in Boris Yeltsin's Moscow streets both read like he is pretending to live in an action movie with himself desperatly wanting to be the good guy hero.
I wonder how many comic books he read as a boy. These chapters are full of Pows and Bangs. But it's only a trick. He draws you into his world with a wink and a smile. Slowly and too late, the reader finds himself trapped in a suffocating tension. At times it's almost too much to bear.
Then, as if pulling another literary trick out of the hat, the reader finds himself crossing Russia on the trans-Siberian Express. One the surface, a humorous intermission, but the passage gives Steele the opportunity to strech his style in mystical fashion. I particullary enjoyed the story of the ice fisherman on the frozen Sea of Japan. I could see the colour of the sky and feel the cold. It also reveals some of the darker secrets driving Jon Steele back to the danger zone. The curtain rises on act two, and the reader feels something terrible is about to happen. It does, in Africa. The Rwandan genocide of 1993, in which nearly one million people were murdered with clubs and machetes in a matter of weeks, gives Steele the opportunity to display a writing brilliance rarely matched in the world of non-fiction I defy anyone to read the two Kigali chapters and not find themselves sweating with fear. The last of the Africa chapters is set in Goma where Jon Steele finds himself in the middle of tens of thousands of Hutu men, women and children dying of cholera, is the most emotionally gripping account of one man's walk through a man made hell I have ever read.
I will never see another news story of human suffering in the same way again. Oddly enough, I don't think television itself can capture such horror as well as Steele did in this chapter. I found myself in tears. Steels's portrait of General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian General who tried to stop the killing, is a wonderful tribute to a brave man who suffered his own nervous breakdown and later wrote his own book 'Shaking Hands with the Devil'. A powerful read in its own right.
The chapter, 'Last Shot'is a quick trip to Sniper Ally in Sarajevo. The place where a young girl is gunned down by a Serb sniper. It would be wrong to tell too much here. I'll simply say it is on 'a Sarajevo back street' where Jon Steele learns the terrible truth of the world he jumped into so freely, looking for adventure.
There is a Hollywood feel at the end of the book. Very much as in Charles Dickens 'A Tale of Two Cities.' One has the feeling Steele was asked to tag on an epilogue to help the reader up from the trenches, in the same way Dickens was asked to add the final, 'It as a far better thing I do' speech after the hanging scene. The publishers thought it too morbid.
But if that was the case, it was Steele who had the better of the publishers. The killing of a boy stone thrower in an Israeli Palestinain clash on Jerusalem's Via Dolorosa is almost a warning of the terrible wars to come in the Middle East. The wars that have spread to throughout the world and our very own streets.
I telephoned ITN, the television company Jon Steele worked for. I wanted to talk about the book. I was told Jon Steele resigned from ITN at the beginning of the Iraq War. They would not tell me the reasons for his resignation. I may have a clue. The same BBC program mention Terry Llyod, the ITN reporter killed at the beginning of the war along with two of his crew. The chapter in Sarajevo has Steele teamed up with Terry Llyod. It's obvious from the book they were friends and had affection for one another. Perhaps it was the death of a friend that finally made him give up his world of war. I asked where Steele might be, they did not know. As I said, one can only hope he is somewhere safe and writing another book.
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on 30 December 2003
One extremely powerful account of this mans journey into hell and back behind the lens for ITN. Im surprised he lived through it to be honest and it has given me a new found respect for the the men and women behind (and in front of) the cameras who have to endure to bring us the pictures we take so much for granted these days. In many ways a sad book however there is a lot in here to uplift as well.
If there is anything i would say its that theres not a piece at the end telling us of what Jon Steele, the author, is up to these days. It just stops and your left with a hole, with a lot of 'what abouts..'...but then maybe thats the point.
Also it would have been nice to have a few photos in the middle of the book..not to show the devestation, its described in detail, but just to put a few faces to the many people in the book...i have done a check on the net and still cant find a picture of Jon himself! A trival, but it would have been nice.
Five stars mate.
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on 26 May 2007
This is an incredible book. I felt as if I was watching a film more than reading a story. Perhaps that's to be expected of a man who lived behind a camera. I thought I was in for a 'Bravo Two Zero' tale and have to say, I wasn't prepared at all for the emotional impact of Steele's story. A story all the more powerful because it was written first hand by someone who 'walked the walk' as the yanks would say. If you have a thought to knowing what war 'feels' like, order this book and read it. The raw emotions will simply shake you to the core.

I first saw the book in a hotel bookshop in Amman, Jordan when I was coming out of Baghdad a few months ago on a tour of close protection duty with a private security firm. I thought about buying it but went for Dan Brown instead. (note to Dan: 'Angels and Demons' is complete bullocks.) I met some mates in the bar for a few pints. One of my mates said he had bought 'War Junkie' in the book shop that day and spent the afternoon in his room reading it. I asked him how he liked it and he rolled his eyes. 'Crap, is it?' I asked. My mate said just the opposite. Couldn't put it down it was so bloody real. Felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand right up in some places.

The next day I went to the bookshop to get my own copy and learned it was sold out. The clerk said the last three were sold the day before but more would be coming in a week. He also told me the book was the best selling English language book in Jordan. After reading it, I'm not surprised. I can imagine people like me coming in and out of Iraq seeing the title 'War Junkie' on the bookshelf and having the urge to read it.

Back home in the UK I did read a bit of the book on Amazon and ordered it. I've had a long career in the military and been involved in a few conflicts and I can tell you I have never read an account of war that is so gut wrenchingly real. What Steele lacks in knowledge of weapons systems and tatics, he makes up for in the emotional impact of war. Today there are lots of books about war on the shelves thanks to the buggering job in Iraq, I've read most of them. None of them come close to capturing the emotional impact of war like War Junkie. I think that's what makes the book so bloody good. It isn't the specific conflicts or time of Steele's story, because they all have the feel of a universal truth about war, any war, no matter the year. There are the generals and the troops following the orders of political fools and villans. On the bottom of the pile are the innocent people caught in the middle, 'like shadows' Steele calls them in the first chapter. This is the power of War Junkie. One reads it knows that the images of faces and broken lives described in War Junkie are still there in Iraq, Sierra Loene, Darfur. The emotions captures in 'War Junkie' fit every other war in the world because in the end all wars are the same. Steele may have been a cameraman but the fact is his emotions in the heat of battle and his reactions to the death of innocent people are the same as those of a soldier in the field. His struggles with post combat stress syndrome are the same as those being endured by soldiers and civilians in Iraq this very day.

I've read the Amazon customer reviews and have something to add to the mystery of Jon Steele's whereabouts. The clerk of the bookshop said he was once in the hotel's Mexican bar with his Jordanian wife who is rather wellknown in Amman. She came into the shop to buy a pack of fags and saw the book on the shelf. She left and soon returned with Steele and told him to sign a few copies. He did the deed then went back to the bar. She had a fag in the shop and told the clerk the two of them had worked together for years and were in Baghdad at the start of the war but they had both quit journalism when one of their friends had been killed. They had moved to Europe to get away from the world but were now back because she was starting up a TV station in Jordan. Steele was writing a novel about how the press helped tell the lie that led the UK and America into the Iraq war. That one I would very much like to read. Apparently Steele still comes round the Mexican bar every now and then. I hope so, because the next time I pass through Amman I'd very much like to buy him a pint.
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on 24 July 2003
War Junkie is a collective account of one man’s ordeal to live his life by placing himself in the presence of death.
From Moscow to Goma, power struggles to racial crimes, spirit-draining ordeals to soul-destroying ordeals, Jon Steele is a cameraman trying to capture political strife at its most atrocious. It would be convenient to assume that this man was just doing his job, that he was trying to show the world the reality of life some place far away shown during a news spot on television, but that would only be part of the truth. The book also reveals Steele’s decline into escapism that resulted with him hitting the ground, hard, and needing help getting back up.
The book is gritty and written with a cavalier attitude that belies the emotional trauma. That would be the main criticism of the book. The reader has to wade through the war enthusiast’s detail to find the real suffering. To struggle through the lens view world that Steele saw through his camera. But the book is heavy in experience and the author lends a gripping read to a book full of sorrow and horror as it covers the terrifying battles between people sharing the same world.
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on 17 October 2002
You often see death and destruction on mind boggling scales on a screen in your lounge while eating dinner, or just flicking channels, and every time it just passes you by as some far away people in a far away land, fighting about things you've barely heard of, let alone care about. This book book hits you that the world really is a small place, and these people suffering, fighting for a cause or just caught up in the middle are REAL, and not something to fill the time between Eastenders and Casualty on a Friday night. Jon Steele takes you way beyond the other side of that screen in your lounge, and into the foul, dirty, evil places that the world generally tends to ignore. You are introduced to some of the worst, and best people you could ever hope to meet, from the bravery of an anonomous Ghanian UN soldier stuck in a place far from home, to psychopathic drugged up butcherers itching to kill someone. It had me enthralled, appalled and annoyed, in so far as I too am guilty of ignoring the horrendous plight of many of the people in the events he witnessed.
Read this book.
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on 19 February 2009
This is a great book but its really, really heavy. Not heavy as in hard to read - Jon's writing style is gripping, exciting, easy to understand but detailed and eloquent in using language to explain emotion as well as fact - but the content, it's heavy. Some of the stuff, the no holds barred accounts of the stuff happening on the ground that the news networks can't show - its pretty hardcore, emotionally. I don't mean graphic, nessessarily either. But reading this book, it gives you a sense of the scale, and actuality of being there, particularly the parts set in rwanda and goma. In a sense, its something everyone should read. Stuff like this shouldn't be forgotten.

Certainly, it's a page turner - as someone else mentioned, once you start reading, you can't put it down - but there's a grim morbidity to it, like watching something terrible happen, unable to turn yourself away. And when you finish the book, having (perhaps unknowingly) opened your mind to the realities of what happened, unprotected from the kindness and sanitation of the pre-watershed editors cut, there's definetley a sense of having done something to your head. I read this directly after reading "Ice Man", a book about Richard Kuklinski, who killed over 200 people - and War Junkie just made it look like a disney movie.

Really great book. Five stars. But be prepared for what you're about to do to your head.
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on 24 September 2004
Jon Steele is a "crazy" guy. Throughout this book he's constantly being reminded of that by those around him for doing dangerous "crazy" things like popping his head out of a ditch when a tank's pointing its gun at the ditch ready to start shooting. Or, as Steele invariably describes it; "shootin'". He's crazy, you see. He never says "writing" when quotin' himself, it's always "writin'" and always "ain't" instead of "isn't". Presumably this is to show us he ain't no stuffed shirt correspondent and he ain't got no time for proper spellin' (though all the apostrophes are in to show he isn't merely illiterate).
If you've ever winced and prepared for some awful anecdotes when someone says to you: "I've got this friend, right. And he's really mad..." this book isn't for you.
Unfortunately he is also self-obsessed, and this book focused a great deal on him and his "mad" friends - including the particularly irksome ITN crew that accompanies him on the Trans-Siberia railway. (You're really crying out for that lot to get stranded a Siberian winter when they jump off the train for a bit of exploration).
It's not all bad. The section in Rwanda does make the flesh crawl and if the rest of the book had possessed this intensity, without all the irritating "shell-shocked correspondent" cliches, it could have been a very good read. A man who has experienced what Steele has experienced, coupled with his love of dangerous zones, should have written something excellent.
Some people will probably enjoy this book nonetheless as it does convey a feeling of excitement, but it could have been so much better.
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on 26 September 2002
Jon Steele brings us a book that will shock you. Reporting from wars that, as he said himself, "nobody cares about", he risks his life on several occasions to bring the world the latest news. The whole book will have you sitting on the edge. He also brings his own brand of humour to it. But when the bullets start flying you feel like you are trapped in a real life version of Black Hawk Down. This book will make you laugh, it will make you cry and when all is said and done this must surely be recognised as a journalistic classic. A must read.
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on 12 November 2012
I suspect this book was primarily aimed by the publishers at the kind of male readers who would read Andy McNab and pretend they were in the front line. Jon Steele was on the front line - albeit behind a lens - and his graphic accounts of what being such a witness does to the human spirit makes for salutary reading and is not for the fainthearted. I gather he has gone on to be a novelist and - if this book is anything to go by - he has a great career ahead of him.
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on 10 August 2002
This book will become a classic. The best piece of war reportage in the last 10 years, brilliantly conveying the horrors of the late 20th Century "ethnic wars". Steele is a cameraman of great courage and some wisdom. He writes with energy and originality. The risks he and his colleagues take to bring the news into the nation's living rooms often chill the blood. Some of the ITN reporters he works with too are pretty awesome individuals -- one even saved his life.
This is an important book.
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