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
Saturday 31 July 1999
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
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