Top positive review
5 people found this helpful
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.