War Junkie by Jon Steele

Few people know the main players in Red October, the Russian parliamentary siege of 1993 and even fewer people know why in 1994 the Hutu Tribe went on a killing rampage of Tutsi civilians. The fact is that few people in the wider world really care. Jon Steele, however was at both of these places as well as several other world hotspots and tries to make small inroads into our wider ignorance by letting us know what it was actually like on the ground. The book is billed as “One Man’s addiction to the worst places on earth,” and for all intents and purposes it seems to live up to this rather vulgar publicist’s hype.

By way of background, the author was a cameraman for a major British broadcaster at the time of the conflicts at hand. Having lived in Russia (and presently Jerusalem according to the cover) he was sent on assignment to some quite interesting places. It was for this reason and not the over-hyped and overdone “adrenalin junkie” cliché that was being pushed by the promotion surrounding the book, that I found myself reading it.

A first person account of dangerous places at dangerous times often makes for an exciting read and this book certainly seems no exception. Gunfights, drugs, sex – this book has all the ingredients of a non-fiction Wilber Smith novel. It does however, lack any deeper attempt to give the reader an understanding of the places involved and why they had come to such perilous predicaments. Steele is obviously an experienced and adept traveler and he employs his experience well to give an exciting account of the “worst places on earth,” often mixed in with the black humor that only travel to such places can foster. His account at being left at the mercy of a crowd of pissed off civilians in Rwanda is genuinely terrifying and is laced with the kind of funniness that could only be realised after such a frightening experience.

Nor is the genuine tragedy of the people living in such places lost in the writing of the author. Steele doesn’t miss too many opportunities to remind the reader of the almost comically despairing situations of the people living in these places. The child dead by the handy-work of a sniper in Bosnia while playing on the street or the bodies upon bodies rotting in the heat of Africa. Each place has its own personal tragedies. But once again a more thorough understanding of how they all came to be in these predicaments would have been a great asset to the story.

War Junky is not without its drawbacks. The opening chapter detailing Steele’s own mental breakdown comes across as a superfluous way to start the book. It is also an indicator of the style of reflection that comes later in the prose with intermittent monologues at timely intervals of the story. I must admit to having stopped reading the book after a few chapters as I was finding it difficult to stomach the author’s self-reflection though this is certainly a personal bias. Once I resumed reading, I regretted having put the book down, as Steele saves his better writing for the second part of the book.

His accounts of these places is, at most times, quite engrossing, even if the adrenalin junkie thing is a tad overdone. However, for anyone who has in interest in travel to dangerous destinations, this is certainly a book that deserves a read.

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