Another bloody love letter

The Balkans international press corps in the nineties had its fair share of haunted characters. Sitting around in Sarajevo or Vitez of an evening as slivovitz melted inhibitions and loosened tongues it seemed that almost everyone present was on the run from something. Even among this slightly self-conscious Legion of the Damned Anthony Loyd stood out. He was ostensibly escaping a heroin habit. His real enemy was boredom. War cured that and helped keep his smack problem in check though it might be argued that in the process one addiction was swapped for another.

Unlike many of those who turned up looking for thrills and purpose, Loyd had talent and originality. He started out as a wannabe photographer. One day he took his turn as  pool journalist patrolling with the British army in central Bosnia and returned with a story that crystallised the peculiar sickness of the violence. Rather than simply recount the details he was encouraged to write it up himself.

As the result was passed around for the scrutiny of the professionals it was immediately clear that the new boy had something. Had it more than we did, in fact. His effort was published in toto and he has never looked back.

Loyd has never quite relinquished his aura of amateurism and he would be foolish to do so. It allows him to push into areas of feeling that that the pros have been programmed to steer clear of.

How very different from the approach taken by Kurt Schork, another who arrived at war corresponding by an unusual route and who in his totally-contrasted way was also a master of the genre.

This book is almost as much about Schork as it is Loyd. Anyone who ever heard a shot fired in anger is called a war correspondent these days. Most are foreign reporters who from time to time go to war zones. Loyd and Schork genuinely fit the description, in that it is only war that has held their professional interest. This is an unusual and dangerous condition, fatally so in the case of Schork who was killed along with another who shared his passion, the  Spanish cameraman Miguel Gil Moreno, in an ambush in Sierra Leone in 2000.

Schork’s work with an international news agency did not allow much scope for comment or emotion. Even if it did I doubt he would have made use of it. He had a holy reverence for facts, believing their power to be greater than anything he could say. He was, as Loyd says, the most famous war reporter you have never heard of. He liked it that way, believing anonymity kept you pure.

There were head-on differences of style and manner between the two men. Loyd  was a sybarite, Schork an ascetic work junkie. Yet the differences were easily swamped by what they shared. They recognised an integrity in each other that lead to admiration and a loving friendship that is one of the central themes of the book.

Foreign correspondents of my generation tend to steer clear of the vertical pronoun and are suspicious of those who overuse it.  It smacks of self-regard and rarely adds anything to the reader’s understanding of the story.

Loyd’s devastating honesty clears him of the charge. He is as hard on himself as he is on the gunmen, gangsters and freaks who stalk these pages. He is breathtakingly clear about his motivations and his own professional and personal steeliness.

On his way into Kabul in 2003 he came across a Talib fighter lying in a pool of blood. ‘We had no medicine and I needed to preserve my stock of dressings in case one of us was hit,’ he wrote. ‘He was all but through anyway. So we left him to die and moved forwards towards Kabul.’ Most reporters would have done the same thing but might have have tiptoed around their reasoning when describing such an incident. Loyd’s frankness shows a different kind of courage to that he demonstrates on the battlefield, but it’s courage none the less.

There are occasional excursions into thickets of verbal exoticism. But for most of the narrative Loyd shows himself to be the best guide through today’s wars working in the English language. He can be very funny. He can also be very moving. This is a book about love as much as war. His account of  the death of his mother is as powerful and affecting as anything he writes about the battlefield.