The unspoken truth about the life of a war correspondent

Loyd's description of coming down off heroin is as chilling an account as I have ever read

BOOKS BY foreign correspondents about their own lives and professions rarely achieve true honesty or insight.

A crude generalisation, you may think? Well, having lived the life and read most of the books, I am prepared to risk that generalisation. An awful lot of the time, what we serve up in our memoirs is a world in which the human reality is played down. What you get is the journalistic reality: the dodging of bullets, the witnessing of great events, the sense of history. But the loneliness, the absences inflicted on others, the divorces and abandoned families, the relentless self-obsession - somehow these are seen as less important than retelling dramatic war stories or revelling in the moments of greatness we have seized from other people's history.

And as for films about foreign correspondents, I struggle to think of one that is remotely accurate. There are plenty of films that are good fun, exciting, heart-rending. But real?

The closest I've come to seeing the truth of our lives was in the romantic comedy Broadcast News - it was zany and ruthlessly satirical but very, very true. The venality and the cut-throat competition, the self-importance and the childlike insecurity: Broadcast News illuminated a world that everybody in the international media - broadcast and print - could recognise.

What you get most of the time, in print and in film, is a kind of heroic carnival. The foreign correspondent as the laconic loner, or the plucky hero battling for truth; we are the knights in white suits or the sage old warriors. I am thinking of the hero played by Mel Gibson in The Year of Living Dangerously, or Nick Nolte's gung-ho cameraman in Under Fire. There are exceptions to the rule in print: Edward Behr's Has Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English? is a wonderful book; here speaks a true voice of experience, but shorn of any pomposity or self-pity. Or, for a younger generation of journalists, there is Michael Herr's masterpiece, Dispatches - a book of profound honesty that transcended the war memoir genre to become a classic of non-fiction literature. Herr's powerful descriptions of combat and his honesty challenged the "keep your feelings to yourself" orthodoxy that was so prevalent among the press corps of the time.

But, sadly, most of what foreign correspondents give us are self-congratulatory epistles - long on places and external events, short on the price that is paid to keep operating in zones of conflict, the psychological taxi meter that keeps ticking.

And then along comes a truly exceptional book, one of those rare moments in journalistic writing when you can sit back and realise that you are in the presence of somebody willing to take the supreme risk for a writer, of extending their inner self. I finished reading Antony Loyd's account of his time in the Balkans and Chechnya only a few days ago and I am still feeling the after-effects.

My War Gone By, I Miss It So is a first book, and perhaps the author has not learnt the tricks of literary concealment - how to use the artful phrase to suggest but not reveal a deeper truth. Thank God for that. I read his story of war and addiction (to conflict and to heroin) with a sense of gratitude for the honesty and courage on every page. Sure, there are places where styles collide, and his debt to Michael Herr is occasionally too obvious. But these are small gripes when set against the generosity and passion of this book.

I do not know Antony Loyd. Although we have both made our living from covering other people's wars, I was covering Africa when he was reporting the war in Bosnia. I came late to the Balkans and so our paths never crossed. But I was aware - through conversations with friends - of the impact of the Bosnian war on the lives of many foreign correspondents. Bosnia seized the hearts and imaginations of a generation of reporters; it presented them with horror and madness that few would have experienced before; it gave them a cause about which it was possible to feel certain. It was exciting and dangerous, and for some it became a substitute for the mundane slog of everyday life back home. The passionate indignation, the daily wash of horror, the surge of adrenaline and the boozy comedowns - there is nothing quite like them to take you away from yourself.

Some of my friends were badly damaged by the war: burned out, emotionally drained, haunted. These are descriptions that barely describe the impact on some of those I met wandering around London, struggling to put a new life together in the wake of the most important experience of their adult lives. As Michael Herr wrote of an earlier generation in Vietnam, they set out to cover a war but the war covered them.

Until I read Antony Loyd's book I had never quite understood the pull or power of that Balkan experience. As he writes in the prologue:

"Faces, sounds and lights began to move in my mind over the dark screen of the foliage; there was the crackle of the flames and screech of shellfire; Darko and the Jokers; an old woman with her broken teeth falling bloodily down her chest; a girl's severed ear; the last letter in its blue envelope; Hamdu, the Tigers and the final attack; frightened soldiers, the reek of smoke and clatter of a gunship. My war gone by, I miss it so."

Loyd was not a born foreign correspondent; he is a former Army officer who admits he was looking for a war when he left the British forces after a career that had taken him to Northern Ireland and the Gulf. He wanted excitement and escape. (I would suggest that is an almost universal truth among war reporters - though few are willing to be as frank as Loyd). Bosnia gave him both, and a lot more that he had not bargained for. He began as a political neophyte, became a passionate supporter of the multi- ethnic ideal and finished as a weary survivor, with his certainties scattered across Bosnia's ruined landscape.

He is the child of an unhappy family, and his account of his war within is equally compelling. Loyd was a man on the run and, as with so many of the people you meet in war zones - journalists, aid workers, combatants, UN officials - the line between his inner furies and the war he was covering was blurred. Antony Loyd is a recovering heroin addict. He is not alone in trying to suppress his pain; some do it on adrenaline and booze, others by feeding the hungry god of the ego with scraps of praise from their masters. His description of coming down off heroin in Croatia is as chilling and painful an account of the power of addiction as any I've ever read. And yet this is never a cynical book; there is too much honesty for that. Loyd does not condemn his colleagues - he has shared too much of the danger and the mental pain for quick and easy put-downs. All of us who have travelled into war's darkness know the amazing bonds that grow between people who daily face danger together. As Loyd says of his Sarajevo friends: "we had shared something together in Sarajevo so intimate and incommunicable, a humility and compassion among individuals unconnected by blood tie, which I have never found elsewhere. Some would call it the human spirit." I don't know what choice Antony Loyd will make: to stay with the wars or seek another life that offers the hope of healing. That is his business. I am simply grateful for his honesty and courage.

The writer is a special correspondent for BBC News

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Arts and Entertainment
Queen Christina left the judges baffled with her audition
X Factor
Arts and Entertainment
The Vienna State Opera
opera
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'
musicLilly Wood and Robin Schulz bag number one single
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
    The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

    The fall of Rome?

    Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
    Glasgow girl made good

    Glasgow girl made good

    Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
    Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

    Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

    Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

    Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
    The landscape of my imagination

    The landscape of my imagination

    Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories