My edition has been printed in 2000 and, as all cheap paperbacks, isn’t ageing very well. The pages are yellowing with the characteristic celerity of poor quality pulp; its spine is bent, but in fairness it was already in this shape when I first bought it; the cover is cracked and ear-marked. The artwork, the one that struck me in the first place, is still there though. A man in fatigues, right hand holding a rifle, left holding his head against the wrinkly trunk of a tree. Of his head, only a 1990s mop of hair is visible. His face hidden, we are left free to wonder what has caused him to lean against the trunk. Sadness, exhaustion, something overwhelming? Who knows. All I’m sure of is that it is the cover of a book, My War Gone By, I Miss It So, that can claim its status as a modern-day classic.
It almost begs belief that a slender volume of 300 pages and change, dedicated to the experiences of one Antony Loyd, journalist, in the Balkans and Chechnya, can be an almost inextinguishable source of new insight, but this is precisely what’s happening here. This is something more than a war book, it is a kaleidoscope of views on humanity in which every sentence is necessary and poignant, every opinion bound to generate thought and debate. In fairness, and without trying to dramatise, I hadn’t read anything like this since Hemingway.
I’ve read My War Gone By, I Miss It So four times now; each and every one of them has given me something new. The first one happened some years ago, the book being the company for a driving holiday through the very places where the conflict had happened, Bosnia and Croatia. Of that first read I remember my surprise at the realisation that, far from being relieved by its end, Loyd was missing the conflict. I went through the pages on Sarajevo whilst we journeyed through that city, and I struggled to reconcile the haunted description of the besieged town with the lively place we were in. Mankind’s capacity to bounce back from the abyss was, without a doubt, the most poignant lesson I took from that trip.
The second reading of My War happened one winter. A particularly rainy one, before the switch to the daylight saving time, for both my commutes happened in the dark. There were pages, in the book, written in italic, their subject quite different from the wars in Bosnia and Chechnya: a frank and matter-of-fact description of the author’s addiction to heroin, a monkey that he seemingly could only lift off his back by descending again into the conflict. I had never heard anything as hardcore – war as a substitute for smack – but I had no doubt in believing what I was reading. The book helped me realise that addiction is as much, if not more, a public health problem than a criminal one.
Sometimes between spring and summer of 2017 I had another occasion to pick up My War. This time the trigger was, in a copy of The Times that I picked up on a business trip, a reportage by Anthony Loyd from Syria, a touching and enraging article on the legacy left by the genocidal folly of Daesh. Once home I rushed back to the book. This time I discovered the vivid, cinematographic description of war: the blast of an apocalyptic Russian shelling on Grozny, beating the author through the closed doors of a speeding car, or the heart-in-your-mouth escape through the woods, a mad dash towards friendly lines as bands of Serbs descended behind him in a hail of fire and promises of horrific death. As far as action writing went, Loyd was second to none.
I have just completed my fourth read of the book; this one proved, rather worryingly, that the message of My War is still very much actual today, anno Domini 2018, as it was in ninety-four.
The whole array of Balkan wars are considered in a rather paternalistic way in Italy. My high-school history manual, for instance, was as good an example of this as any. The affair was liquidated in a page-and-half in terms that one could only describe as Darwinistic. Jugoslavia, the book went, was an invention, cobbled together only by the personality of Tito; him gone, the various peoples returned to their heritage, which was inevitably made of wars and Medieval hatred. War, it concluded, was only inevitable once the whole house of cards had tumbled. Loyd made short work of this idea, time and again.
The Muslim commander called Beba and his Serbian opponent, sitting together on the frontline at the foot of Mount Vladić, bringing each other up to speed with the latest from common acquaintances, now divided by the fighting. The Croat soldiers of Vareś who drove their Muslim friends and neighbours to the safety of a maniple of Swedish UN troops, away from the murderous reach of a gang of fellow Croats from elsewhere, crying tears of shame and anguish as they did. And many more. No, this wasn’t a war of race or religion, said Loyd, and I believed him over my history book.
What caused it, then? How could neighbours, people of the same ethnicity, who spoke similar languages, drank the same slivovica, turn on each other with such bestiality? How to explain Srebrenica, Stupni Do and the countless acts of wanton cruelty inflicted on civilians and prisoners? Peddle enough propaganda, Loyd said, and it’ll work. Stir up enough reports of Islamist bestialities, he said, and even the most urbane and secular person would succumb to suspect and fear. The proof, for me, was the case of one separatist enclave, nominally Muslim, led by an opportunistic former apparatchik. In a bid for power he managed to whip up such a terror of the government, whose secular army he painted as a band of deranged fundamentalists, that he managed to get Muslims to fight other Muslims.
At the time of my first reading of My War Gone By, I Miss It So this tactic – throw enough dehumanising bullshit at some specific group and soon your minions will stop considering them as people – felt very effective but, I thought, a bit passé. I thought we’d grown past it. But now, as every day brings more fake news, more Presidents blabbing about bad hombres, more Sun commentators writing about “cockroaches” and more Interior Ministers talking about “big cleaning-up operations”, I’m starting to reconsider it.