We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
War is one of those things that, if it didn’t already exist in its own right, we would have to invent—if only to escape the muffling banality of our daily lives. There are few things in life with the power to put us in touch with our collective heart of darkness; the brutality of battle is one of them—a bitter truth George Orwell learned in Spain. Returning to England from a stint reporting on the Spanish Civil War in 1937, Orwell wrote of the “deep, deep sleep” of peacetime petit-bourgeois London, “from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.”
Soldiers may be constantly told lies, but, as every journalist who ever covered a war will tell you, battlefield time is a time of truth; the ever-present prospect of imminent, awful death or dismemberment scrapes off the illusions like sandpaper. It’s there that we see the social contract wither and die, replaced by a more primitive and less hypocritical set of values. It’s hard to be full of shit when people around you are being dismantled by shrapnel.
That said, however, it’s a short scamper from terror to nostalgia, from epiphany to romance. How many veterans have come back from war certain that the quotidian existences to which they were returning could never produce the intensity of their wartime experiences? Because “Christ, we were real there. We will never be that real again.”
It is into this there’s-no-place-like-war tradition that Anthony Loyd descends in My War Gone By, I Miss It So, his rambling memoir of two years covering the war in the former Yugoslavia, first as photographer and then as print journalist. Loyd, who says he was irresistibly drawn to combat—initially as a soldier in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and the Persian Gulf in 1991—went to cover one of the last great human blasphemies of the 20th century in 1993 and left definitively in 1995, the year of the Dayton Accords. Having come from a family of military men and having been in trouble with drug abuse from a fairly young age, Loyd seems to have thought of war as both a way out and a way in: a way out of the tedium of middle-class British life; a way in to relating to his family’s past, which had given birth to a rich and mysterious mythology of lost limbs, surreal trenches, and hopeless causes.
Writing of his decision to become a soldier, Loyd tells us:
My own path was obvious: I wanted to go to war, so I joined the army. There had never been any family pressure upon me to sign up. There never had to be. From my earliest recall I had wanted only to be a soldier. The legends of my own ancestors were motivation enough. Their medals were their identities.
My War Gone By is free-form and episodic. One chapter will begin with an account of a massacre of Bosnian Muslims, move to a description of the family Loyd stayed with, pause for a philosophical inquiry into the meaninglessness of life, and end with a sad memory of a fleeting love lost. The next chapter will have most of the same elements, perhaps in a different order. People spend lots of time smoking in this book; there are usually one or two smoking scenes per chapter. There is more than a little gore, as every now and then the author stumbles onto corpses left over from a firefight or, in one case, watches a soldier’s brain fall out of his shattered skull.
One of the things Loyd does quite a bit in his book is leave. He leaves England for Bosnia; he leaves one devastated town for another, one set of compadres for another, one drug for another, one woman for another. He leaves Bosnia to return to England but is pulled back and leaves England for Bosnia. And each departure is accompanied by great guilt and tortured explanations of why he must leave, of the demons that drive him away, and so on. There is a beginning (Loyd arrives in Bosnia), and there is an end (Loyd leaves Bosnia for good), but in the great middle space there is not much linear “plot” to be discerned.
Themes, however, abound. There is, for example, the father question. Loyd’s father left when the boy was 6 years old—for “another woman,” Loyd says without further comment, though we are perhaps meant to suspect that all the leaving he does in the book is a re-enactment of that original departure. Loyd certainly isn’t the first man for whom war offered the hope of camaraderie with older men to fill the paternal hole in his head. Like many, he yearns for the tantalizing possibility of identity achieved in the shared experience of constant danger and unimaginable atrocity.
Every reporter struggles with striking a balance between the personal and the public, not only in matters of style but in the choice of lenses that can be put on the mental Nikon. Perhaps war reportage is the most difficult in this regard. So if Loyd turns the Bosnian nightmare into a personal odyssey of self-discovery, it can perhaps be forgiven—maybe the only true way to tell that kind of story is through the prism of one’s own life.
That conceded, Loyd’s book is, it must be said, remarkably short on historical context or political insight. We don’t hear much about Slobodan Milosevic or Radovan Karadzic or the complex history of the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims that led to the outbreak of open fighting in 1992. (In fact, Loyd is uncharacteristically silent on the historical reasons for the ethnic hatreds that permeate his account.) What we get instead is not any real understanding of this war or even, ultimately, of the people whose lives it destroyed or mangled, but a chain of loosely connected narrative episodes, connected primarily by what it means to be Anthony Loyd in such situations.
There are long, impressionistic stories of Loyd’s experiences in Sarajevo and elsewhere, of his heroin addiction, of his sexual exploits, of his difficulties dealing with the thousand faceless military and governmental bureaucrats, of his feelings toward the families that put him up, of his insecurity about being a war photographer who wasn’t taking any pictures. Loyd’s war is like an American mall: You could be in any war, not just this particular one. And to his credit, the author makes no pretense of making it specific. It’s his war gone by.
And, to tell the truth, the book wouldn’t be half-bad as a second-tier self-help tome if the prose were not so bloody purple, the pontifications and self-revelations so embarrassingly sophomoric. It is a low blow, perhaps, but the book begs for it on nearly every page: Both Loyd and his readers would be better off if Loyd hadn’t taken so many drugs. Many of us have had drug-induced epiphanies that we frantically scribbled on the back of takeout menus for the benefit of future generations, but that on morning-after inspection turned out to be profundities like “There is water in the glass.” Such are many of the musings with which Loyd pummels us:
There is no God behind me, and I have strong doubts concerning the existence of a soul these days, but when I look at a corpse it always seems as if there is more than simply life missing.
I had never had psychotherapy before and regarded the thought of it with great suspicion. I saw it as an admission of vulnerability, and it was a signal of how damaged my pride had become, how fucked up I felt, that I agreed to it at all. Yet if I had not found that clinic…then I might not have been around for much longer. It did not bring easy answers.
Of course, we want our books to have some personality, and we can all empathize on some level with the emotions of a troubled psyche seeking out therapy, but must these meandering and masturbatory contemplations take up so much space in a book about Bosnia?
Of his father’s death, Loyd tell us:
He was not a bad man, merely weak, and he had become confused and lost sight of his values. Most of the time, though, I hated him. He was a selfish and damaging bastard. If I ever saw him again I would not even want to waste time speaking to him. Respect for the dead comes second to respect for the living, and I believe no man’s demise exempts him from culpability.
My War Gone By is clearly burdened by the weight of literary as well as personal ghosts. Michael Herr’s powerful and brilliant Dispatches, published in 1977, lives not only in Loyd’s own reference to it and in the critics’ inevitable comparisons of the Bosnia book with its Vietnam predecessor. Dispatches is also the model for much of its younger cousin’s attempt at style and organization, which mingles personal observation and the sensibility of a novelist, and intersperses long italicized vignettes into the overarching narrative.
But Dispatches, though it is only 60 pages shorter than My War Gone By, is far more compact, far more restrained and subtle in its explanations of what happens to men and women in war. When the last page has been read, we have in some very real way been taken to Southeast Asia in the ’60s. And Loyd’s effort also pales in comparison with Joan Didion’s Salvador, which is genuinely personal without being maudlin, and which in a spare 108 pages evokes the essence of human brutality and fear without constantly stepping up to the pulpit.
In the end, Loyd clearly does miss his war—by a wide margin. CP