MY WAR GONE BY, I MISS IT SO By Anthony Loyd Atlantic Monthly Press 336 pp., $25
My War Gone By, I Miss It So" should not be confused with other books about the war in Bosnia. It neither attempts to explain the entire conflict nor waxes poetic about the tragedy of "brother-on-brother" violence.
Rather, this is the story of Anthony Loyd, a cynical British journalist who becomes addicted to war and heroin. Sometimes, Loyd is admittedly repulsive, a voyeur to human suffering who seems to relish the carnage and destruction. Other times, he is brave and admirable.
That unsettling balance - good journalist versus bad journalist - makes the book worth reading.
Almost haphazardly, Loyd tackles the role of the war correspondent and whether he or she can operate without bias. By the end of the book, the answer is a resounding "no," as Loyd becomes almost as consumed with fighting as the combatants. In the book's final scene, Loyd is traveling with Bosnian soldiers as they launch a final offensive against the hated Serbs.
"There was no other place in the world I would have preferred to be," he writes. "No other company I would have chosen; no event I could more have wished to witness than the one I watched. There can be few instants in life that a man is lucky enough to feel so at one with his time and place. It would have been a good moment to die."
The book begins slowly and at times awkwardly, perhaps like Loyd's journalism career. A former platoon commander in Northern Ireland and the Gulf War, Loyd went to Bosnia as a freelancer and had little idea what he was doing.
But he made some astute choices along the way. When an established correspondent got injured, Loyd immediately decided to fill in. Rather than establish a base in Sarajevo, he chose central Bosnia, a less publicized part of the war, which perhaps was more telling and gave him more access to real people.
He became contemptuous of the mainstream reporters who stayed in the capital: "Too many simply walked into the basement of the Holiday Inn each day, drove out in an [armored] car to a [United Nations] headquarters, grabbed a few details, filled them in with the words of 'real people' acquired for them by their local fixers, and then returned to their sanctuary to file their heartfelt vitriol with scarcely a hair out of place."
Loyd, on the other hand, became a top-rate, blood-and-guts reporter for The Times of London, the kind who writes in the first person and whose own adventures sometimes drive the coverage.
Unfortunately, while Loyd was getting better and better at reporting and finding his way to the front line, he was also developing a heroin addiction during months off in London. Heroin became his only substitute for war, and war his only substitute for heroin.
The book focuses on Bosnia, but perhaps the most interesting part is when Loyd went to Chechnya and stole a rare glimpse into the brutal Russian attack on the rebel-held capital, Grozny. Here, Loyd is at his best, with vivid descriptions of shelling, human suffering, and new depths of fear. "You can grade conflicts according to intensity if you desire: low, medium and high," he writes. "Chechnya blew the bell off the end of the gauge, and revealed an extreme of war to me that I had no conception for.... It was indeed a first glimpse from the edge of hell."
Also in Chechnya, Loyd is faced with an injured civilian who presents a reoccurring dilemma between humanity and professionalism. Loyd first takes a photograph of the elderly man, then tries to help him, and finally leaves him to die.
In the end, we are left wondering what will happen to these ravished countries where peace seems impossible. And we wonder what will happen to Loyd as he fights and loses to his addictions. Despite a few feel-good anecdotes, two troubling entities resound: a war-starved journalist with license to roam, and a world that is never short on war.
r Justin Brown was the Monitor's correspondent in Yugoslavia from 1997 to 1999. He currently reports from Washington, D.C.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society