MY WAR GONE, I MISS IT SO
By Anthony Loyd
Atlantic Monthly. 321 pp. $25
Reviewed by Christopher Hitchens
Every now and then, smuggled from the hell of war and the carnage of revolution, you find a piece of prose that has the smack of authenticity. This moment of recognition occurs quite early in Anthony Loyd's deeply personal memoir of his harrowing times in Bosnia and Chechnya: "My friend kept talking but my responses grew more distant. Their dead; my dead; necro-fascinations and gravediggers that did not get it at all; nationalism, fascism, level killing fields and equal guilt; all the crap you hear talked about Bosnia. You can break it down and build it up any way you want, throw on the cloak of interventionist or appeaser and spout the same words in a different order to broker your justifications for whatever standpoint you wish until you sicken yourself just thinking about it; pull up those bones like a Meccano set and make whatever you want of them until you find it is they, the dead, that are pulling your strings."
You set down the book and think, well, this is the real thing. This is genuinely bad writing.
Anthony Loyd is a one-time officer in the British army and was a fairly serious drug addict with a bad heroin habit. He is also a correspondent for the Times of London, which in my young day used to hire some of the first category and none of the second. If you remember the wackier bits of "Apocalypse Now" or Oliver Stone's "Salvador," or if you recall the more wannabe types encountered in Michael Herr's Dispatches, you have already met him. Spaced-out, high on violence, boastful, semi-tough and affectedly cynical: There's at least one in every press bar hangout from Beirut to Bogota. Booze used to be the deformation professionel, or occupational hazard. Hard drugs are worse, at least for the writing style.
I wanted to avoid the word "macho" in the litany of qualities above, but Loyd leaves me no choice. Searching for a teacher of Serbo-Croat before leaving London to keep up the war habit he acquired as a soldier in Northern Ireland and the Gulf, he makes a date to meet a lady in the open air (seldom good tradecraft in London at any season) and there: "I saw a beautiful girl waiting by the station's entrance. She had long straight hair that fell halfway down her back, its blackness matched only by the dark of her eyes. . ." Two pages later we are in Budapest, and in a bar the heavily intoxicated Loyd is approached by a girl who has "slanted green cat's eyes, pale skin and blue-black hair so clean it smelled like gun metal." That clean, eh? Was it perhaps the same girl or the same delusion?
Once in Sarajevo, we are spared nothing. Old people with awful flesh wounds, women actually "keening," hard-bitten warriors uttering gruff and terse remarks. . . . I waited tensely for the time-honored pastiche from old Fleet Street and Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, about how the body of a child lies like a broken doll in the street. I had to wait until the Grozny chapters, where the "pale, doll-like form" of a small girl is found in a hospital. To be fair, I don't think we got the muezzin at the top of his minaret, "calling the faithful to prayer," in either location. But say that and you've said everything. Loyd introduces dermatological metaphors instead. On one page he writes rather weirdly of "the security and ease of my life in Sarajevo falling away from me like a shed skin" and, two pages later, of a soldier's fatigues "clinging to his body with the familiarity of an aged lizard's last skin."
The descriptions of shooting-up, in the civilian sense of the term, are likewise written on some sort of automatic pilot. I have never done any H myself, but I knew already that there was angst beforehand, a rush of relief during, and worse angst and ennui to follow. Drug types are boring to be around because they will insist on heavy weather: on stressing or disputing things that are no big deal for the unafflicted. Having failed to be articulate on the telephone from Bosnia to London (to the girl to whom, natch, he "had not really known what to say any more"), Loyd asks, portentously: "How can you condense war into an acceptable telephone recipe and leave the person on the other end of the line happy?" What a question.
By the time the scene shifted to Chechnya, I had lost every shred of confidence in this narrative. Before his Balkan and Caucasian experience, he claims, he "had seen war as a simple equation of physical force: add up the tanks, guns and men on both sides, throw in a few other variables, and if the discrepancy is large enough, you know who to put your money on to win." This would mean that he paid no attention when serving in the British army, which has a strategic doctrine based heavily on the virtues of small units with high training and strong morale. And the unoriginal emphasis on the human factor which (he says) he discovered in Grozny was certainly a bad predictor for more recent developments there.
" `You can break the man but not the spirit,' a fighter had told me once in Grozny as he strode into battle. I am sure he had not read Hemingway, and I was cynical and faithless enough even then to have discounted his words as being those of blind machismo."
I find I'm cynical enough to doubt that this incident, with its nonsensical slogan, ever took place, and faithless enough to be pretty sure that Loyd has not read Hemingway, either.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the Nation.