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A war of his own

Mon, May 22nd, 2000
Posted in

Monday, May 15, 2000

Anthony Loyd is a war junkie. He also has somewhat of a fancy for heroin and in his recently released memoir, My War Gone By, I Miss it So, (Atlantic Monthly Press, 321 pages), he is brutally honest about both of his addictions. Modern war attracts all sorts of opportunists: gun runners looking for fast money, soldiers of fortune seeking to quench their bloodthirst and wannabe writers out to jumpstart their literary careers. Hemingway set the standard when he went to Italy to drive ambulance for the Red Cross during WW I. He got his legs blown to bits by a mortar but he also chanced upon a lode of material and a swaggering prose style that would set the literary standard for the next fifty years.

Anthony Loyd had some of these half-baked notions in his head when he went to Sarajevo in 1993, but it seems he went there, too, because he didnt know what else to do. A British Army veteran of both Northern Ireland and the Gulf War, Loyd found his civilian life boring and pointless. He felt himself drawn to the conflict in Bosnia when he was transfixed by a photograph of a Serb soldier, cigarette in hand, kicking a dead Muslim fighter.

Loyd arrives in Sara-jevo, with a rudimentary comprehension of Serbo-Croatian, a limited amount of money and little idea of what to do next. The city had been besieged by anarchy and chaos for the past year, suffering constant Serb bombardment and incessant sniper attacks. Loyd finds the novelty of being shot at by invisible men disconcerting and a bit exciting at first. "Once you have been shot at a few times even the first thrill of that begins to pall," he writes, "leaving you with a realization of how pointless it could be to be gunned down for nothing on the streets of a strange city."

Loyds account does not analyze the underlying causes and roots of the conflict, because the Balkan War is the ultimate ab-surdity; it makes no sense to anybody, especially to the peo-ple fighting it. One night in Central Bosnia Loyd is invited by a local Muslim officer to visit the nearby enemy Serbs. Dur-ing the day the two sides had been engaged in their usual fierce and deadly firefight. Loyd is amazed to watch the Muslim and his Serb counterpart chat together like old friends as if, "discussing an issue at work; there was neither coldness, nor malice." The two men talked of mutual friends and expressed sadness upon hearing of the wounding and death of several of them.

"What defined these two groups? Race? They were the same race. Culture? They were all Tito-era children. Religion? No man present had the first clue about the tenets of his own faith, be it Orthodox or Islam," Loyd writes as he begins to understand that ultimately there will be no understanding of this war. "The war was about polarity and separation," he concludes.

A couple years later, in 1995, Loyd seeking an escape from his spiraling drug use in London packs off to Chechnya, where Yeltsins Russian forces are pulverizing the capital city of Grozny. This time hes carrying reporters credentials from the London Times and a cellular-telex to file his reports. In Chechnya he finds a different kind of war, and a new kind of hell. Grozny is a "concrete killing zone" where "a hurricane of shrapnel had swept through every street."

The Chechens are a rag-tag group who are totally outnumbered and outgunned by the second most powerful military machine on earth. Yet Loyd is awed by their single-minded purposeness and grim determination. He tells of two Chech-nen brothers meeting in a makeshift hospital. One brother, who has had his legs and one arm blown off the day before, is a mass of bandages and lying in a filthy bloodstained bed. He is conscious but cannot speak. The other brother enters the room and showing no emotion or sadness speaks softly for a few moments. When he stands to leave, the wounded brother lifts his one arm and raises his thumb in defiance. "Imagine the power of such men." Loyd writes. "Hail them and fear them."

For much of the last decade, we in America have been force-fed a daily dose of media pap that heralds our unprece-dented prosperity and technological accomplishments. Weve been lulled into an apathetic complacency. We need courageous and disturbing books like My War Gone By, I Miss It So, to remind us that the world is still a very dangerous place.

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