War As a Drug
Anthony Loyds My War Gone By, I Miss It So belongs to that genre of war-tourist journalism that began (perhaps) with Hemingway and was seen most recently in Misha Glennys Fall of Yugoslavia. The idea is simple enough: You go to a region embroiled in conflict, get into a moderate amount of trouble, then escape by your wits andor your diplomatic contacts. Safely ensconced once more at your computer, you write it all down -- which Loyd has done memorably. He is to be applauded for being openly biased: He takes the Muslim side, reporting in a partisan fashion. And his involvement is neither superficial nor merely observational; he lives in Bosnia for a couple of years, learns the language, saves a wounded girls life, and even sets up a booby trap targeting a Croat who killed his dog.
Why is he there in the first place? Disappointed not to have seen front-line action in Desert Storm, he resigns his post as an officer in the British army and bums around in a haze of alcohol and drugs (with which he was not unfamiliar -- Loyd had been expelled from Eton for smoking dope). One day he sees a photograph of a Serbian soldier, cigarette in hand, kicking the corpse of a Bosnian civilian in Bijeljina. The photo fascinates him and draws him into Bosnia to work as a photojournalist. But Loyd is first and foremost a writer and trusts words more than visual images: Take away the sound, motion and atmosphere from a scene of fighting, transpose an image onto a two-dimensional surface, and you have to have something really special to communicate even a trace of the madness you witnessed. He sells his photographs to other journalists, and writes eerily poetic prose to render his impressions.
There were places among the crowded trees where the birdsongs dropped away to nothing, shaded clearings with a sound vacuum: Once you had stepped in, no noise could reach you from the outside world except the rustling summer breeze, and you did not want to listen to that too carefully, for if you were alone your mind began to play tricks and it was more than just the grass that you heard whispering. The bones lay strewn for miles through this woodland . . .
Loyd seeks the front as he might a drug, as a source of thrills, and believes others do also: U.N. general, BBC correspondent, aid worker, mercenary: In the final analysis they all want the same thing, a hit off the action, a walk on the dark side. He is particularly fascinated by corpses, and his descriptions of them verge on arty necrophilia:
I once saw a dead Russian girl. In her early 20s, long-haired and lithe, she had caught a bit of shrapnel in her chest, one of those tiny wounds that you would not believe could take a life but does. In death the rude sun-burnish went from her skin, retreating before an ethereal blue glow. Alive she was strikingly pretty. Dead she was so beautiful you could have raised an army to sack Troy just for possession of her casket.
Other women Loyd meets are far from being corpses:
She was a Serb from Vojvodina. A couple of days afterwards we screwed each other in her flat: proxy war repackaged as love. Then we got wasted together and hung out for a while. I wanted to bite her, scratch her, hurt her, fuck her, love her. I adored her. She was one of those.
The title, with its two first-person pronouns, suggests the highly personal nature of the books text. Loyd even recounts his bowel movements. My War Gone By would have benefited from less self-revelation and scatology and more analysis of the conflicts in the Balkans. After an initial stay in Sarajevo, Loyd moves on to Vitez in Central Bosnia, where he lives with a Croatian family. For almost two years he has a front-row seat at the secondary war between Muslims and Croats. He doesnt examine the causes of this war, other than to blame it squarely on Croatian expansionism, an interpretation that has validity. But he ignores other factors: that the Serbs drove huge numbers of Muslims into Bosnian Croatian territory partly to provoke the new war (divido et impera); and that the Croats, as the smallest of the ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina (17 percent of the total before the war, fewer now), had good reason to feel threatened and overrun.
Croats have ended up as the only ethnic group in Bosnia without control of a city. When he describes a thousand Croatian refugees thrown out of their homes by Muslim soldiers, Loyd portrays them as a vicious mob, without a shred of sympathy, and abstains from zeroing in on the soldiers. In this secondary war, the Bosnian Muslim troops fared much better than the Bosnian Croatian ones. This he interprets as the result of the Bosnian Muslims having justice and a superior spirit on their side; he forgets to mention that the Muslim side had three times as many soldiers. Loyd says that the war in Bosnia is incredibly complex, yet he resorts to simplistic interpretations. When theres an atrocity committed by Muslim troops, he merely mentions it. But the atrocities in Ahmici and Stupni Do, where Croatian thugs massacred several dozen Muslim civilians, he recounts in detail.
Eventually, Loyd is sent to another war -- Chechnya -- from which he reports in his typically lyrical manner (the ravens pecking into the scarlet ice . . .). This war, however, surpasses even his taste for intensity. When he looks in the mirror, The face that looked back at me was haunted and furtive. In Chechnya, he nearly ODs on war heroin; Bosnia seems just the right dosage, so he goes back and writes a finale with several passages nearly worthy of the Iliad. As a Bosnian brigade flees in front of advancing Serbs, a young soldier begs to be allowed to bring along his cousins corpse:
He looked desperate, close to tears even, for to abandon the body to the advancing Serbs would leave it at the mercy of their knives . . . Yet once more the driver refused, shaking himself free of the boys grip and swearing at him. Dobro, the young man said, good, picking up his RPG and stepping quickly in front of the vehicles bonnet. Go as you wish, but leave without him and I will kill you. He spoke softly but with such certainty that there was no doubting his threat . . . Two men jumped out, slung the body over the side of the jeep, then spun away in a cloud of dust, the stiffs boots kicking rhythmically over the tailgate with each bouncing rut in the track.
For all its faults, My War Gone By moves at the pace of a thriller. Why bother reading war fiction when you can read such intense reporting?# Josip Novakovich, born and raised in Croatia, is the author of Yolk: Short Stories, Apricots From Chernobyl: Narratives, and the story collection Salvation and Other Disasters, which won the 1999 American Book Award. He reads at the Los Angeles Central Library on Sunday, March 12, at 2 p.m.
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