Tournament of Books 2015

Saturday, February 3rd, 2007
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My War Gone By, I Miss It So

by Anthony Loyd

Visions of Hell

A review by Doug Brown

Many books are "must reads" because they broaden readers' perspectives, illuminating the varieties of human experience. Some of these books are pleasant and enjoyable, infusing the reader with a private smile and a bounce in the stride. Others hit you like a percussion grenade, leaving you quiet, dazed, tattered, and vaguely troubled, but wiser. My War Gone By, I Miss It So is one of these latter books. I would be lying if I told you I enjoyed the experience of reading this book, but I would also be lying if I said I regretted a minute of it. It simply is a damn good book, and if you are at all interested in wars and why they keep happening, you really should read it.

Loyd was a war tourist, a bored junkie looking for a new fix. He claimed to be a photographer so he had an excuse to go to Bosnia, where he hoped to find some action. As Captain Willard says in Apocalypse Now, "I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one." What Loyd found over the next several years in Bosnia and Chechnya would unhinge most people, and Loyd was no exception. Fortunately he is a good writer, who was able to capture the conflict and contradictions of war and atrocity with vivid, brutal clarity.

Here are some of his thoughts on stumbling through the town of Stupni Do, where the Bosnian Croat HVO army had massacred every living thing in the town mere hours before. After describing the complete devastation, he adds:

And there was something more than what you saw, smelled and felt inside. The atmosphere. It chainsawed through your senses and squirmed glass over your body; shut your eyes and you could still hear the screaming. For whatever had been sucked out of that place, something else had been pumped in. An open scar in the ether; pleading chokes scabbing the edges. Some empty black infinity inside that spat and laughed. Ever had a bad hallucination? You've seen nothing. Nothing.

While wars often feed off of the desire for vengeance, they can also crush the desire out. Loyd quotes a woman whose oldest son was killed days after her husband was blown apart. "'I have no use for anger or revenge. I lost everything in this war. I have only poverty and six children to feed: justice will bring me nothing.'"

Sometimes little vignettes can say so much. In Chechnya, the town of Grozny was shelled into oblivion by the Russian army. On some days over 30,000 shells were fired into the town. As Loyd sped out of town with a group of journalists to escape the barrage, he noticed, "...a Chechen kid emerged from somewhere with a sledge. He sat down on it and pushed himself along with his legs, alone in the desolation, eyes completely empty."

Pondering it all, he says:

I had come to Bosnia partially as an adventure. But after a while I got into the infinite death trip. I was not unhappy. Quite the opposite. I was delighted with most of what the war had offered me: chicks, kicks, cash and chaos; teenage punk dreams turned real and wreathed in gunsmoke . It was an environment to which I had adapted better than most, and I could really get off on it. I could leer and posture as much as anyone else, roll my shoulders and swagger through stories of megadeath , murder and mayhem; and I could get angry about the poignant tragedy of it all. But what did it amount to? Everything I had seen and experienced confirmed my views about the pointlessness of existence, the basic brutality of human life and the godlessness of the universe.

In spite of having reached this conclusion, he breaks the rules of journalistic non-involvement and helps get a wounded little girl to a UN aid station, then bullies the staff into taking her through the lines to a hospital. She had been shot in the forehead, the bullet splintering into her brain. No one thought she would survive the day. Two years later, he finds out she not only survived, but appeared to suffer no permanent brain damage.

My War Gone By, I Miss It So is a good companion piece to Chris Hedges's exceptional War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Loyd's book is much darker, shot through with a throat-grabbing intensity and brutal honesty, almost like Hunter S. Thompson stripped of satire and optimism. If you haven't read War Is a Force, stop reading this right now, get a copy, and read it. Reading Hedges will explain how and why Iraq happened. Reading Loyd will help you understand why Abu Ghraib happened (and My Lai), and why things just like it will happen again and again. It ain't cheery, but sometimes it's better to recognize the face of evil than to just hope you never meet it.

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