“War kills. That is all it does.” The words come from Michael Walzer’s book Just and Unjust Wars, and Carolin Emcke has used them as the epigraph for her first chapter. Maybe she took them out of some context that would modify their meaning. I hope so, because they are not true.
War certainly kills, often lavishly. It would be easier to loathe unconditionally if that were all it does. But having lived through one enormous one, fought in one small one, and attended several others as a spectator, I can’t deny that wars can make the world go round as well as spattering it with blood and loss. Wars destroy nations and create others; they release torrents of technological change and innovation that would normally take many decades to evolve. They bereave women and also liberate them; they shatter the isolation of communities and leave them with alien diseases and mountains of military surplus. They empower and enrich thousands of unworthy people, but they also give angry self-confidence to millions of good people who had been taught to regard themselves as worthless. Wars turn cities into archaeology and green meadows into deadly minefields, but they can also generate historic upwellings of hope and solidarity. When they end, most men and women feel released from a nightmare and swear: “Never again!” But others, while sharing that relief, confess that they found something in war that they loved, and that they will always miss.
On my mantelpiece is a wooden folk carving of a pre–World War II Polish cavalryman, a scowling Uhlan with drawn saber. Around its base are engraved the first words of a song, Wojenko, wojenko…, a ballad adored by the bone-headed colonels who were ruling Poland in 1939. “Little war-girl, little war-girl, what sort of woman are you/That they run after you,/That they die for you/All the beautiful boys?” And some still do, and today not all of them are boys. Stalingrad and Omaha Beach and Khe San and Srebrenica and Falluja have come and gone, but there are always more human beings who get hooked on the taste of war and come back again and again for more. Some are soldiers, professional or mercenary. But some are spectators. And journalists, however committed or embedded or in the way of harm, remain spectators.
This is painful to acknowledge. But Carolin Emcke, who writes on wars for Der Spiegel, and Anthony Loyd, who has worked mainly for the London Times, don’t seriously deny it. Both their books are in part reportage on what has been seen and experienced, but more importantly they are attempts to examine—without excuses—the authors’ own motives. Both writers are courageous, and both try hard to be honest about their own feelings, and those feelings include guilt. A war reporter does not have to be under fire, but the combatants who are creating the story do. A war reporter, especially in the poor countries where conflict now takes place, often has better gear than the soldiers—a flak jacket, a superior first-aid kit, often a hot meal and a shower waiting back in the hotel. And if he or she is hit, the helicopter is usually soon on its way—as it wouldn’t be for a wounded peshmerga or mujahid or Iraqi policeman. The code says that journalists can hire armed escorts on perilous journeys and some carry guns for self-defense in an ambush. But even when they are in battle alongside soldiers they may know well, journalists must not pick up a Kalashnikov and fire on the enemy.
The death toll among war reporters in such places, in Chechnya or Sierra Leone, in Bosnia or Afghanistan or Iraq, has been horrifying. Both Emcke and Loyd have lost close colleagues and sometimes seen them die. And yet they can never quite be part of what they are witnessing and describing. They remain an isolated tribe, at ease only with one another and not always then. Another superb writer who follows this trail, Peter Beaumont of The Observer, has written of “the scratchy gang of misfits who chase conflicts.”
Soldiers take an ironic view of them. Anthony Loyd describes an ambush in Iraq in which an American soldier is killed. As the medevac helicopter lifts off with the body, an Airborne NCO asks Loyd, curious rather than angry: “Hey…you get what you were looking for?” Loyd says “something about people not having to die for me to be there.” The NCO just shrugs and turns away.
Carolin Emcke is the more intellectual, more academic, of these two writers. A former lecturer in political philosophy, she has been working for the foreign desk of Der Spiegel for some years, specializing in reportage with a human rights angle. War is not her primary field as it has been for Anthony Loyd, who served as a very young British officer in the 1991 Gulf conflict before going on into journalism. Emcke, older than Loyd when she first encountered war, was more shaken by it, more staggered by the sheer strangeness of that “anti-world” in which the laws of human behavior seem to be turned inside out.
As a woman from a formal university background, Emcke was not prepared for situations that defy language, that cannot easily be shared with other people who have not been there. In consequence, she suffered exceptionally badly from the warrior’s shock of “reentry,” from the discovery that nobody at home could grasp what she had witnessed, and that even friends were embarrassed to ask her about it. Quoting thoughts from Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, Emcke refers to viewers and readers among her friends “who are confronted every day with images of horror from war regions [and] see those pictures—but they cannot situate them in a meaningful context.” So, intelligently, she formed the habit of writing extended narrative letters to her circle at home which would at least communicate her own sensations. They are “letters from a witness whom one can imagine, who becomes visible, who describes how one responds to violence, who wanders between different worlds and tries to translate between them….” These letters, first written as a way of communicating and later, as she says, becoming a means to personal catharsis, form the basis for Echoes of Violence.
As time passes, those passages of Sontag’s about the difficulty of representing war are becoming scriptural. Everyone quotes this one: “We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is, and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine….” Carolin Emcke adds, a bit theatrically: “That is the burden of the witness: to remain with a feeling of failure, of emptiness because even the most accurate account does not grasp the bleakness of war.” But here we are drifting into an acceptance that violent conflict is simply beyond representation. That may be true about movies—Steven Spielberg’s attempts to show close-up combat, for instance, inflate film’s artifice beyond what it can take, until it punctures. About writing, though, it is untrue.
This is a matter of craft, a matter of devising the right technique. And it always has been. Right at the dawn of modern fiction, Jakob von Grimmelshausen recognized that his experiences in the hell of the Thirty Years’ War could not be told straight because they were beyond the comprehension of peaceful readers. So he transposed them into a key of horrifying, merciless, callous satire, The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus (1669). Don’t try to “understand,” don’t try to “imagine,” just read Simplicissimus and then be appalled at your own laughter. That way, you are getting close to what Carolin Emcke and Anthony Loyd are trying to report.
And this is partly because the two reporters and the novelist share a landscape, across four centuries. Central Europe in the 1630s and 1640s collapsed into a blackened, gutted space traversed by sadistic mercenaries and warlord militias, into low-level war without rules or lines on the map. Compare it with Bosnia, Kosovo, south Lebanon, Afghanistan, or Iraq. They are all much closer to Grimmelshausen’s scene than to the twentieth-century world wars, which came with generals, big arrows on campaign maps, accreditations, and a conventional vocabulary of description handed out with the “War Correspondent” shoulder patch.
Carolin Emcke went twice to Kosovo, which also meant a stay in Albania among the refugees before the NATO invasion rolled the Serbs back. Studying the situation of human rights in Kosovo then was rather like studying the plight of wheat after the harvester has been through. But Emcke’s letters constantly contrast the moral wreckage around her with the behavior of the few who try to keep their standards. For example, Kujtim, her Albanian driver. A day after the Kosovo liberation has begun and the Serbian civilians are left facing Albanian vengeance, he says: “What are we going to do about those Serbs? We have to help.” Or Emine, a refugee driven from her home with half her family missing, who says: “We will never be the same, but we will start to talk with the Serbs again. We have to. We have to have survived for something better.” Or Sefer, who carried his paralyzed uncle on his back as the Serbs destroyed their house. Weighed down, he fell behind the other refugees but caught up with them later—two lines of bodies lying in the road, where the Serbs had executed them.
She encounters death and suffering in many shapes. In Romania, she makes friends with street children living in sewers and goes out to find and close down child brothels with the Bucharest vice squad. In Nicaragua she records the vile exploitation of laborers by Chinese entrepreneurs running slave factories in economic “free zones.” In Colombia, she gets caught in a firefight between the army and the guerrillas in a tightly packed Medellìn slum. She reports from Kurdish Iraq, from Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, and from Afghanistan itself.
In Lebanon (in 2000, just after a previous Israeli withdrawal), Emcke meets the ironies involved in being a German who is critical of Israeli policies and finds herself in a Muslim country. David Remnick has recorded meeting a cheerful West Bank fruit vendor named Eichmann Abu Atwan. Carolin Emcke’s Lebanese photographer, encouraged by her German passport, confides to her that he admires Hitler and wishes he had finished the job. This obliges her to stop the car and deliver a lecture about recent history and the Holocaust, which becomes a discussion of how victims can so easily turn into oppressors. At other times, she is accused of being a disguised Israeli spy, but refuses to extract herself from this tight corner by proclaiming that she is not Jewish. In rural Pakistan, she meets yet again the widespread belief that the Twin Towers were blown up by the Jews. But she observes, shrewdly, that this conspiracy theory rests
not only on the strong belief that [the Mossad and the CIA] would be mean enough to commit such a crime, but also on the doubt that any Muslim organization could be intelligent enough or well enough equipped or sophisticated enough to coordinate and execute such a task.
In other words, a fantasy born less from hatred than from “frustration about their own impotence.”
It would be unfair to suggest that Carolin Emcke tries to emphasize the hopeful side of things. She is too wise for that, and has seen too many irretrievably foul events. All the same, a reader’s memory will take away from her book a gallery of magnificent survivors, men and especially women who tell their tales without self-pity and who refuse to surrender to the miseries piled upon them. There is Mariam in the Afghan refugee camp outside Peshawar, widowed, beaten, exiled, who teaches the women around her to make marketable clothes and shakes Emcke by the shoulders as she says: “You have language, you can write, tell them.” There is Linda, her Albanian translator in Pristina, whose whole life has been suddenly transformed by reading Foucault; she manages to travel to Turkey in order to buy a book of his. There is Fanny Ruiz in Medellìn, who pulls Emcke and her photographer off the bullet-swept street into her kitchen. They crouch on the floor with her children and her cat, waiting out the hours until the firing moves away and there is a chance to run for it. “And you?” Fanny asks. “At home, where you come from? Isn’t it the same? Don’t you have a government waging war against you?”
Journalists who are better than mere heartless hacks suffer occupational pain from encountering people like these. For a week or a few days, they become intimates, unforgettable friends. A few months later and into the next assignment, their identities have begun to fade—replaced by new, wonderful friends. It’s in the nature of the job, but it gnaws at the soul. Carolin Emcke obviously suffers in this way, and tries to make sense of it:
I am welcomed by strangers who open their hearts as few friends dare to do, I invite myself into unknown houses and ask for help and tea and patience and food as I would hardly dare to do toward friends, I accept gifts and generosity as if I could give anything in return. I give up the idea of symmetry, and I learn to say goodbye without exchanging addresses, without exchanging false promises of seeing each other again, and yet: without the fear of loss or death.
Then I return home and then it is my turn to give: I write.
Give to whom? Nobody, she says, ever asked her for direct practical help, and “nobody ever believed that I, as a journalist, could change his or her situation in the prisons, in the hospitals, in the refugee camps, at the front lines.” All she can give in return for those openings of hearts is the knowledge that someone has listened, someone has recorded what has been done to these people, and confirmed “that they live in the same world as ‘we.'” And Emcke is honest enough to add that the writing is given also to herself as a therapy, “Ariadne’s thread out of my own labyrinth of sadness….”
Anthony Loyd is very different. Raised in an English officer family, in a country cottage where every ancestor had been a warrior, he joined the army but emerged from the first Gulf war without having fired a shot. Frustrated, he drifted around for a few years and acquired a serious heroin habit, then headed for besieged Sarajevo and put himself up for hire as a journalist. Carolin Emcke mocks the bad-movie image of the “cynical war reporter: a macho guy, divorced or impotent, with his shirt wide open so that you can see his hairy chest,” who sits unshaved in a café drinking whiskey and waiting for a bomb to explode in the street. Loyd was neither divorced nor impotent, and though he had long hair and rock-star looks, I have no idea if he has a hairy chest. But with his wild nature, his craving for peril, and his compulsion to pass those “red badge” tests of his own courage, he might have deteriorated in that way. It didn’t happen, because he met Kurt Schork.
His book takes place in many of the same “conflict zones” as Emcke’s: Kosovo above all, northern Iraq, and Afghanistan. But it is not just a memoir of wars or an album of reflections on violence and voyeurism, although it has all those elements. Another Bloody Love Letter is a passionate elegy for a friendship between two men, a brotherhood between comrades that began in Bosnia, when Kurt Schork—the experienced Reuters man in Sarajevo—decided that he liked Anthony Loyd and gave him a job. It ended in 2000, when Schork was shot driving down a dubious, rebel-haunted road in Sierra Leone.
Schork didn’t make many wrong calls like that. He was unlike the others in the war reporters’ pack, an old war hand in both senses. For reasons never quite clear, he left a job in the New York City transit system at the advanced age of forty-three to do battle reporting in Bosnia. Soon he was regarded with awe and respect by his colleagues, almost all of them far younger. It was not just his professional skill and sagacity they looked up to. It was his steady humanity and his gift for spreading reassurance. Loyd mourns him as a “comet,” as “a pure force in a tainted world,” possessing a “profound, Solomon-like sense of justice.” Peter Beaumont remembers him as “one of the toughest and most talented of the generation of war reporters that stalked the Balkans and the wars of the Nineties…a man almost universally admired…. Schork was the real deal.”
He and Loyd became a legendary team, lurching through the worst scenes in Kurt’s armored Land Rover, never at a loss when others panicked. Loyd evokes that spirit unforgettably in his sketch of a particular moment in Kosovo, driving down one of those ominously deserted roads near the Drenica Valley. In the car with Loyd and Schork were Yanis, a Greek photographer, Mark, a South African cameraman, and a Kosovar girl serving as interpreter. The men were old friends; they reckoned themselves “a sharp team.” Suddenly, Loyd yelled out, “Stop, stop!” Instinct, nothing more, had told him of mines ahead. Moments later, a panting KLA officer caught up with them; they were only ten yards from the minefield he had just laid.
They began to laugh, wildly. Kurt turned to the terrified girl and told her: “That’s why we are still alive… because in this car, between the four of us, you have about fifty years’ and forty wars’ experience…and we’re damn good.” But later he reflected: “Intuition isn’t always twenty-twenty. So one day all our confidence and knowledge and experience will lead us around a corner to somewhere we shouldn’t go….”
That day came years later in Sierra Leone. Kurt died along with AP cameraman Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora from Barcelona, one of their closest comrades. Mark was wounded and only Yanis escaped unscathed. Anthony Loyd was away on the other side of Africa, and ever afterward felt that if he had been there, his instinct might have saved them. For Kurt’s only lack was fear. “I just don’t get it like other people,” he had once said.
Another Bloody Love Letter is a memoir moving through many scenes. It’s a vivid and often fiercely angry account of wars and tragedies, and of how it feels to be reporting them. It’s also a shockingly honest account of Loyd’s own battle with heroin addiction, and of his relapses. They all take place in London, between assignments; “I never missed heroin while abroad,” he writes. Near the end, the book recounts the death of his mother, one of the two people—with Kurt—who kept this impassioned, tormented young man from falling apart. But above all it is a memorial to his friend.
Their alliance began in Bosnia, and the Bosnian war was an indelible, life-changing experience for Loyd as it was for so many of his generation. He wrote a brilliant book about it with another weird, characteristic title: My War Gone By, I Miss It So.* He writes here that Bosnia
shaped me and my colleagues to a degree unlikely to be surpassed by any other experience in our lives. To some extent, once it was over we were never more than stepchildren to our peacetime lives.
It left him, he confesses, with “a sense of yearning for repetition.” These are dangerous symptoms, and it was Kurt Schork, the calm older brother Loyd needed, who kept him from degenerating into a mere war freak when they moved on into Kosovo.
Yet the question of whether they were in some way war addicts, prisoners of a terrible and voyeuristic habit they could not kick, has to be faced by all three journalists: Emcke, Loyd, and Schork. Carolin Emcke, the professional intellectual reporting on human rights, is plainly worried by this. At one point, she asks herself rhetorically why she keeps volunteering to take these risks, and writes:
I want to be a witness with the people who suffer injustice.
But I am appalled by war. Every time.
It does not diminish.
I don’t get used to it.
I am not fascinated by pain and despair. I am sickened by it.
The moment I begin to find these journeys bearable, I would leave this job.
What is she really saying here? All those anxious italics seem to tell their own story.
Kurt Schork, cool and imperturbable, nonetheless gave up a safe desk job in his middle age in order to write on wars. Was he immune to Miss Wojenka’s lethal allure, a war reporter simply because he enjoyed journalism? Anthony Loyd tries to draw a balance:
He was a man physically and mentally at his best in conflict, and he glowed in that environment. War both completed and complemented him. It soothed his frustration, jousted his impatient will, and he found no better soil to nurture his acute sense of right and wrong than that which lay beneath the shadow of the gun….
I cannot say that he did not love war. I can say that sometimes he hated it. Either way, he knew he was damn good in it.
After Kurt Schork made his wrong call about a road in Sierra Leone, Loyd felt driven to find out just how he died, and to seek out those who had killed him—a pilgrimage that nearly cost him his own life several times over. “He was a great man, and it was my fortune to be his friend.”
As for Loyd himself, he does not deny his craving, although—like heroin—it’s something he eventually finds he can subdue and handle. After emerging from the final, bloody battle for Kabul, he is for a moment unable to write his report. The words just won’t come:
The more intense an embrace with a moment in war, the harder it is to explain to an outsider….
For every war is a secret war, known only to those who were there. Whatever you say, however you say it, you can never explain that despite the fire, the fear, the smoke, the chaos, the killing, the madness and the loss, there exists something far beyond the trite accounting of collective risk and mortality: the best-kept secret of battle—the shared and terrible love of it all.
November 8, 2007