Small wars permitting, dispatches from foreign land

January 19, 2008

Part memoir, part previously-published reportage, Small Wars is a romp through twenty years of Christina Lamb’s career as a foreign correspondent. Her tale begins with a personal invitation from Benazir Bhutto to her ill-fated wedding to Asif Zardari. Lamb displays a talent for putting herself in the right place, where she meets not only the right person, but the right interesting  person. This talent serves her and her readers well.

Named Foreign Correspondent of the Year an extraordinary four times, Lamb has proved herself to be an intrepid adventurer. This collection of her journalism traces her steps from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe via the Amazon and numerous other conflicts, both large and small.  She has the successful war reporter’s flair for daring with a bit of courage thrown in, but she adds humanity and compassion. Her eye for detail comes out in such apparently inconsequential observations as that Benazir Bhutto’s nickname was “Pinkie.”  Moreover, Lamb’s writing communicates the strong sense of the absurd that foreign correspondents need to accomplish amazing things in ridiculous places to satisfy outrageous demands from editors back home.

This book is also about her journey from ingénue war correspondent to highly experienced and capable professional. Along the way, she has acquired a valued partner in the shape of her husband Paolo. Judging from the length and frequency of her absences, Paolo deserves many gold stars and should have every foreign editor in town who has ever contemplated employing Lamb kneeling at his feet. Together, they are raising a much-loved young son. Her description of surviving a terrifying attack by the Taliban on a “hearts and minds” mission with British troops is made more poignant by her realization that she could die in the battle. That is when her thoughts turn to her child, her guilt and her need to survive.

Having logged a few hours in war zones, always as one of a relatively small number of women and often the only mother, she writes candidly of the fundamental if usually unspoken conflict between motherhood and war zone professional. To one who has shared the experience, her account is most revealing. And the dilemma is unresolved.

This is the kind of book that drives television correspondents crazy. After careers of similar length, instead of books of clippings that can be thumbed, culled and edited, TV reporters are left with the haiku of news scripts and television spots stored in now unplayable formats. We are oh, so jealous. 

Reviewer: Sheila MacVicar is an International Correspondent for CBS News in London.