After serving in the British Army, he went on to become one of the world's most risk-taking war correspondents, reporting on conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and Iraq. Ishmahil Blagrove, Jr. interviews Anthony Loyd, war-zone journalist and author of My War Gone By, I Miss It So.
You have been a reporter in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq and many other countries. What attracted you to a career as a war reporter?
There were many reasons. As a young man I thought that the life of war reporters sounded exciting and glamorous. War had also been a defining experience for most of the previous generations of men in my family, who had served as soldiers or airmen in various conflicts including both World Wars. Though a few had been killed, others had returned home decorated for gallantry. Growing up, I had the impression that war was a necessary, even desirable, rite of passage for a man to go through. Though I joined the British Army in my teens, the realities of soldiering in Northern Ireland and the First Gulf War posed none of the challenges I thought that I would face. Leaving the army five years later, war reporting seemed an obvious alternative option. The war in Bosnia began soon afterwards. I hitched there at the start of 1993.
In your book My War Gone By, I Miss It So, you say: “Men and women who venture to war through choice, do so in a variety of guises. UN general, BBC Correspondent, aid worker, mercenary: In the final analysis they all want a piece of the action, a walk on the dark side. It’s just a question of how slick a cover you give yourself.” Do you really believe that all observers to war are enlisted participants, attracted solely by the curiosity of human suffering?
No. Human suffering is just one of many aspects of war. (And one which observers are often drawn to through a sense of altruism and a desire to help rather than simple voyeurism). There is also danger, risk, courage, fear and camaraderie. War is a frontier that poses unique challenges very different to those found in the sometimes banal and suffocating trappings of societies at peace. However legitimate or positive the work of those who by choice go to another country's war, somewhere in their heart usually lurks the need to test themselves, else seek something, in an extreme environment. This need does not necessarily make them vultures, nor does it negate the potential value of their contribution. But it is worth acknowledging. Too many people claim they work in a war zone simply to fulfill the dictates of their profession. It is a disingenuous claim. It may be partially true, but there is usually another deeper personal motivation.
You go on to describe your affections for war: “I cannot apologize for loving it so. Sure the face of war is a base one: suffering, destruction, brutality and incalculable grief…” What is it that so fascinates you about death and war?
I can hate war as easily as love it, and my relationship with the experience of reporting conflict has developed significantly in the eight years since I wrote My War Gone By. A lot has happened in my life during that time, both in and out of war. What I assumed back then, as part of the initial fascination, was that an immersion in war would lead to me discovering some sort of positive personal definition, perhaps a sense of life affirmation. At its simplest, I first went to war hoping to prove myself brave. It was the wrong question for which to seek an answer. Courage is a variability, changing under different circumstances, and proving it produces more of the need to challenge it again, rather than decisive conclusion. What still holds true after all these years is that war is a compelling arena in which to seek a sense of meaning. The huge complexities and moral quandaries war poses, both internal and external, produce a motivation and search for answers that I have never found in peace.
Some people may find your love of war a little unsettling. Are you yourself unsettled by your feelings, or do you believe most young men secretly harbour the desire to test their mettle?
Any 'love' involves contradiction and my feelings around war have become increasingly contradictory with age. On one hand, it is easier, as an experienced reporter, to justify my presence in conflict. I can judge each new event against the wealth of knowledge and memory gained over the past years with more seasoned and wiser eyes. Long term experience is a reporter's greatest asset. On the other, war reporting is a pact with the devil. However skilled a reporter, they get paid as a conduit to carnage and misery. Their humility, so essential for the integrity of their work, becomes tested and corrupted by recognition. Journalism itself is changing. The speed of communications produces a hungrier appetite in the media machine. Calculated investigation and analysis loses out. How can I be at ease with my feelings? The desire to test my mettle is long gone. War is something I know, but my role in it doesn't leave me with any ease.
During the Bosnia conflict, you risked your life by driving through a fierce frontline battle in an effort to save the life of a six-year old girl who had been shot in the head, in an effort to get her to a UN base so that doctors could treat her. Do you believe there are special circumstances where a journalist should abandon their observer status, and isn’t there then the real dilemma that you are no longer impartial?
I am not impartial. I am human. How can you be impartial when confronting a grievously wounded six year old girl when there is a chance to save her life? Stand around and watch her die? That would be impartial. That situation was one of many I have encountered in war when it was time to forget the journalistic role and act to help. I found that little girl again a few years later. She had survived. My contribution in saving her life (which was not singular - there were two other men acting with me that day) means more to me than any story I have written. As often though, indeed more often, I have left people to die, not because helping them would somehow impinge on a vague and unwritten reporters' rule, but because the situation did not allow aid to be given. In Grozny once, I left an old man, whose legs had been blown off by a shell, to die in the snow. There was simply nowhere to take him. The city was a battlefield, the roads out were closed by fighting, and the hospital had been destroyed. In Afghanistan a few years ago, I found a dying Talib on the roadside and left him too; there were rival fighters up ahead who would have killed him as soon as they saw him in my car. If the circumstances allow, and my personal input is required, then I help. If not, then I don't. Sometimes, typical of war, it is a grey area in which I am not sure what I can or cannot do. I try to operate under my own ethics rather than anyone else's.
What effects do you believe witnessing death in so many forms has had on your psyche and personality?
People who know nothing of death frighten me. They seem to exist in a shrouded world, unaware of what can be at stake, little knowing how fragile life is. To some extent, witnessing the deaths of so many strangers in war did little to lift my own ignorance. It was the loss of my parents, as well as the deaths of two very close friends killed in an ambush, and that of an interpreter who died in my arms as I tried to keep him alive, which affected me most deeply. Those deaths made me appreciate love more, and I tell those whom I care for what I feel. There's no knowing when I'll get a phone call to tell me one of them has gone too. I don't want things left unsaid. The experience of raw grief has made me more compassionate to those I see in war going through the same thing. Lose someone in a cancer ward in Britain or to a bomb in Baghdad: the anger and sense of injustice may be different but the tears are just the same.
You openly admit to using heroin during your frontline stints in the 90’s. How important was drug use in steadying your nerves during a battle and how prevalent would you say drug use is amongst frontline fighters and journalists alike?
I never used heroin in war. My addiction to the drug, which spanned the 90's, was a London-based affliction. Strangely, I used to snap out of it the moment I deployed to a war assignment, then fall back into it the moment I got home. The drug wiped out the sense of confusion I felt coming back from war. Yet it would be trite, and inaccurate, to say that my job produced the addiction, which was probably coming my way whatever job I had ended up doing. That said, drug use tends to afflict many war reporters and fighters. Both have a hard, unforgiving lifestyle that stretches and contorts their emotions. Getting wasted is a natural alleviation.
Today, what becomes news seems to be shaped by the interests of a few powerful players on the international stage. Do you believe the international media has become compromised?
Compromise is inevitable and a much more complex issue than many would imagine. The media has always been compromised. The post-colonial period of war reporting, which saw journalists attempt to physically report from both sides, was a short anomaly of perhaps thirty years, though its ethical aftermath, if a little tattered, remains. Go back a generation and journalists covered the Second World War attached to their respective army, in uniform, and sometimes armed. Today, Western journalists continue to be compromised because they reflect their society's political desires. That does not mean we are lackeys to our government's foreign policy agenda. It does mean that we are representatives of our own country's desire for freedom of speech and democracy. That naturally puts us at odds with fundamentalist Islamic fighters, who are not interested in having an open discourse with reporters from western democracies. The values of both parties, fundamentalist fighter and journalist, are at odds, and opposed at their most profound level. Freedom of speech, democracy, and sharia law don't mix. Nor are insurgents in Afghanistan or Iraq reliant any longer on the western media to have their voices heard. They have their own expansive media to disseminate their message. It is irrelevant in their eyes that we report on Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, civilian casualties, dodgy dossiers, etc. They see us as representatives of a social, ideological, and political enemy. Regardless, I still believe that British society remains extremely well-informed over the issues at stake in Iraq and Afghanistan due to the efforts of its reporters. The leadership of every side lies in war. Currently, some of those lies are reported without being challenged. But not often. Sooner or later the truth will come out, and at present, the intense level of public debate concerning the wars in which we are involved reflects an expansive and detailed level of reporting.
How does this affect the reporting of wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan?
Journalists are now seen as legitimate targets in both countries, which has impeded the ability of reporters to move with much freedom, and has made them overly reliant on being embedded with coalition forces. Even so, a high level of reporting remains. It is not ideal, but then, war journalism was always an imperfect art.
When you are an eye-witness to events on the ground that are then misrepresented in the media, how do you address any frustrations?
Contrary to popular belief, I have found it a very rare experience to have written an eye-witness report which has then been altered and slanted by editors in London. But it has happened. When it does so, then I pick up the phone, call the office, and we get into it. You should always fight your corner. It seldom does you any favours, but your credibility as a reporter is reliant on your integrity, and you should fight to keep it. A reporter on the ground knows better than anyone else what is going on, and what the effect of misrepresentation will be.
Where is your latest assignment and are you getting the same thrills from war as you used to?
I am going back to Afghanistan at the beginning of February. I first went to war as a 24-year-old. Now I'm 40. My motivations are very different. ‘Thrill’ is not a word I would use any more. But when all is said and done, I still think 'Helmand' with the same excitement and curiosity that some people would think ‘Bahamas.’
1st February 2007