Anthony Loyd’s My War Gone By, I Miss It So is a searing account of the author’s experiences as a war correspondent in Bosnia and Chechnya. He writes with a savage passion of conflicts that seemed far away and alien to most Europeans and Americans. Loyd reminds his readers that their governments, actively or passively, were deeply implicated in the way that these struggles played themselves out. He also brilliantly evokes the human drama of what he witnessed. Readers will not soon forget Loyd’s descriptions of atrocities and carnage, cynicism and suffering, idealism and courage.
As such, Loyd’s book is a compelling contribution to the growing body of war correspondents’ memoirs, a distinguished genre of twentieth century literature. That distracted century offered writers ample opportunity to practice this branch of letters. In war after war reporters were confronted with the results of official and individual belligerence. World War I, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, Korea, Vietnam—all these conflicts, and others besides, bred their own distinctive literatures. Now, with Loyd, it is the time of the dirty little wars of the 1990’s.
Newspaper correspondents first began sending home dispatches from a military front during the Crimean War of 1853-1856. Rapid technological change in the late nineteenth century revolutionized communications and helped create the mass media—newspapers and periodicals hungry for stories. During these years journalism began actively to interest itself in war. A press baron such as William Randolph Hearst could boast of fomenting the Spanish-American War, while reporters such as Richard Harding Davis crafted the enduring image of the dashing war correspondent. Thus, from the turn of the century, the war correspondent became a fixture of modern military life. These reporters might have varying degrees of access to the battlefield, and their reports might be subject to a range of censorship, but their presence somewhere in the area of military operations was no longer questioned. Indeed, over time, the great militaries of the world grew adept at using, and sometimes managing, the press. The hard and dangerous profession of war correspondent attracted many literary luminaries to its ranks. Among others, Winston Churchill, Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, and John Steinbeck found themselves drawn to covering contemporary struggles for the press. During great wars, some correspondents become popular legends, such as Ernie Pyle during World War II. Classic war reporting is the raw material of history. Exciting and often moving, it captures the immediacy of men and women’s lives at the extremities of human existence.
It is this latter dimension of the war correspondent’s experience, the intense encounter with death at its most abrupt and violent, that fostered a genre within a genre. Some of the most enduring writing about war by foreign correspondents has intentionally gone beyond straightforward narrative. In these cases, the book instead becomes an exploration of the evolving consciousness of the author. Here war reportage becomes an existential journey, and the correspondent becomes as much the subject of the work as the war being covered. A classic forerunner of this style of journalistic memoir was Vincent Sheean’s Personal History (1935). This book recounted Sheean’s adventures as a correspondent in a succession of capitals and wars in the 1920’s and early 1930’s. In addition to providing insight into current events, the author described the impact of these events upon his own life, leading to his gradual embrace of revolutionary politics (hence the title). Sheean was recording the stuff of history, but his perspective was determinedly individual, subordinating objective observation to the imperatives of his subjective spiritual progress. This made for engrossing reading, and Sheean’s book inspired a host of imitators as the coming of World War II provided correspondents with the greatest moral drama of the century.
Anthony Loyd has written his own “personal history,” and, just as Sheean captured something essential about his day, Loyd’s book casts a mordant light upon contemporary times. Sheean in the 1930’s was caught up in a great clash of ideologies. Communism, fascism, and democracy were words of genuine substance then, connected as they were to vigorous political experiments around the world. Idealism, strictly construed, seemed natural in a poisoned international landscape, with the great powers girding themselves for war. Loyd inhabits a far different world. Instead of a depression-wracked Europe, on the brink of a major cataclysm, he writes against the backdrop of the prosperity of the 1990’s and a West largely untouched by conflict. If political commitment seemed a burning and obvious necessity to Sheean, Loyd wrestles with the absence of ideological passion in his own life....
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