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Narrow perspective harms war correspondent's memoir

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Is This Your First War?

Travels Through the Post-9/11 Islamic World

By Michael Petrou

Dundurn, 220 pages, $25

THE prologue for Canadian journalist Michael Petrou's war-zones memoir seems to signal that the book will be a screed against the scourge of militant Islam.

He writes of the "spectre of Islamist extremism," words that remind the reader of how Marx and Engels wrote of 19th-century Europe being spooked by "the spectre of communism."

He certainly lays his biases on the table as he decries the terrible Islamists who are "like radical Marxists" and says their hateful ideology is "like fascism and communism."

Also in the prologue, he mentions western soldiers, politicians, diplomats and "people outside embassies" that he spoke to, but no learned critical observers, as his chief sources.

One could be excused for expecting, after reading the prologue, a badly biased book based entirely on the sorts of conventional sources that lazy journalists use to lard their daily output. And one wouldn't be entirely wrong.

First War is biased, though not too badly, and it is poorer for the author's refusal to consider viewpoints much outside his narrow perspective. But it turns out to be not as tedious and shallow as its prologue suggests.

It is, to be blunt, not especially thoughtful or well written. Nor does it offer much, aside from the Maclean's reporter's particular war stories, that hasn't been presented elsewhere. But it is entertaining in spots.

There are plenty of tales from Petrou's visits to Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan and Israel, plus an unsuccessful attempt at getting into Iraq via Turkey.

The reader meets some interesting people in these stories, such as the Afghan man who once was thrown in jail by the Taliban for teaching schoolchildren the words Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism -- not the religions, just the words.

Then there are the Iranian dissidents who risk incarceration and torture by meeting with Petrou in Tehran.

One destination outside the Middle East is New York City, where he predictably describes the burg's firefighters as "brave" and "selfless."

He writes of America's "terrorist problem," and it surely has one, but nowhere in First War does he admit that the U.S. might in any way have done things to inspire terrorism against it.

When in Israel, Petrou is told by a militant Jewish West Bank settler that Palestinians didn't live in the area until the state of Israel was created. The assertion is left uncorrected until 14 pages later.

Petrou signals his biases when he challenges a Palestinian Muslim leader much more strongly than he challenges any of his Israeli sources.

This book does not question the wisdom or ethics of the western occupation of Afghanistan, nor does it offer any serious appraisal of the Iraq incursion.

Petrou says he was in favour of the latter to liberate Iraqis from a terrible dictator, and doesn't seem to have given more than the slightest consideration for the legal and ethical case against it.

Noam Chomsky and Gwynne Dyer would not have been around for face-to-face interviews while Petrou was in war zones, of course, but he could have read some of their work to re-examine his biases.

He seems like a bright guy -- he went to Oxford for graduate studies -- so he likely has read at least a little Chomsky. Still, there's no sign in this book that he gave it much thought or even understood it.

War correspondents go into places where many of us would refuse to tread, and for that they deserve our admiration.

But that doesn't mean they can write excellent books. In this case, the war correspondent didn't.

Mike Stimpson is a Winnipeg writer and editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2012 J8

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