“My War Gone By, I Miss It So,” Anthony Loyd’s provocatively titled memoir of the wars in Bosnia and Chechnya, challenges many of the conventions of the genre. Loyd admits right off that he isn’t interested in journalism — that for him it’s just a passport to war. So he doesn’t “cover” these wars so much as he reports about himself playing tourist on the scene. He isn’t sympathetic to any particular side or cause, and he isn’t outraged by the carnage or moved to what he calls “sluttish displays of empathy.” He doesn’t see anything of value in being a witness. “What good did reporting do in Bosnia?” he asks with considerable justice.
Loyd says soldiering is in his blood. The military men he’s descended from fought in the Boer War and in World War II, and he was a soldier himself with the British in Northern Ireland (where he apparently didn’t witness a single shot fired in anger). He tells us he “wanted to know what it was like to shoot people. I felt it was the key to understanding so much more.” But as a journalist/photographer (he’s never clear about what, if anything, he’s doing work-wise), when he gets his chance to actually kill a Serb, he doesn’t. And elsewhere he forgets to take photos altogether, making him an all-around fuck-up as a “shooter.”
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Since he’s not interested in “the story,” you won’t learn much here about these wars that you haven’t already read in the newspapers. Perhaps because he’s not tied to the daily story the other journalists and photographers are covering, though, he does make use of the time he spends cruising around on the fringes of the fighting, discovering how tribal the Bosnian war is and how provisional the ethnic loyalties and the alliances between Muslims, Croats and Serbs are.
But he isn’t much of a storyteller. There are a few revealing anecdotes: How an American peacekeeper was so spooked by a Bosnian killing field war-crimes investigators were exploring that he wouldn’t patrol it at night. How some Swedish peacekeepers backed off from the courageous move to free a score of Muslim prisoners from their Croatian captors after a visiting BBC team decided the scene was too dangerous to film. But nothing here compares to the stories Tobias Wolff tells in his Vietnam memoir, “In Pharaoh’s Army,” which distill the whole war into a few pages.
Loyd’s strongest writing is in his descriptions of carnage — of the sound and smell of shellfire; of the sexual release of blasting away with an automatic machine gun; of the stroke victim’s daughter who is raped while her father lies paralyzed and unable to help; of the Croats who wire up Muslim POWs with claymore mines and make them walk back to their own lines, forcing their buddies to shoot them to save everyone else. This is pure war reporting, free from the usual journalistic constraints that often give a false significance to suffering. And Loyd waxes eloquent on the backblast of his war time, a heroin addiction that begins before his arrival and becomes the only way he can survive his breaks from the fighting.
Smack and war go together like a horse and carriage. That nihilistic cocktail can seem truer than the hysterical humanism of TV war reporting. But druggy ruminations are notoriously shallow, and an “existence is meaninglessness” POV makes for dreary reading. The hype machine has compared “My War Gone By” to Michael Herr’s masterpiece, “Dispatches,” but Loyd’s book is devoid of Herr’s vivid prose, his wacko humor and his wild, deep love for the American grunts he hung with in Vietnam. There are no people we come to know and understand in Loyd’s book except for a Sarajevo family he looks up when he arrives in the war zone, and he really doesn’t even bring them to life. Although he does once brave enemy lines to save some wounded children (and even saves a cow), he’s ultimately just a tourist.
For Loyd, war turns out, like smack, to lose its transcendent power after a while and decline into an addiction. As for his hope that war would be “the key to understanding so much more,” maybe before he set off he should have listened to Frank Zappa’s warning: “Understanding is the booby prize of life.”