Travel Writing as Symptom

scarred buildingBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

There’s a very special kind of travel writing that involves risking your life, if you’re any good. To do it, you have to go put yourself in the middle of somebody else’s bloody conflict. Nobody, for instance, wrote about Greece like Orianna Fallaci.

One of the grittiest war correspondents is Anthony Loyd, who lately has been reporting from Sangin, Afghanistan, on the sad mess that’s still going on over there. In The Times (UK), he describes the low voter turnout in the recent election as a win for the wrong side. It’s actually pretty harrowing. As a matter of bureaucratic convenience, the fingers of voters are marked with ink, so the citizens can’t sneak back and vote again. Apparently, the Taleban promised to chop off any ink-stained fingers, and they probably wouldn’t stop there. Loyd says:

By the time polls closed and the final echoes of air strikes, artillery and gunfire died away, barely 500 Afghans had managed to vote in a district of 70,000 people, a number signifying victory for the Taleban’s power of fear and intimidation.

Loyd also tells us what the British soldiers write about their prime minister on the latrine walls, and many other details essential to creating a sense of place. Which he surely managed to do when describing Bosnia and other wars he ranges over the globe to experience. Loyd started as a photographer, but found that pictures couldn’t express what he wanted to say. He has written for all kinds of major publications, and his articles draw out serious, informed discussion. Unlike some war correspondents whose contributions range from ineffectual to ridiculous, Loyd is respected by the blokes who are actually fighting the war. And hated by the politicians, as Tory Rascal illustrates with an anecdote.

The thing about Loyd is that he wrote this hellaciously intense book called My War Gone By, I Miss It So, about his heroin habit, and how being in a war zone is the only thing that cures it. The scary part is that by the time you get done reading it, you see exactly what he means by “I feel sane as anything in war… It is peace I have got the problem with.”

Of course, Loyd isn’t the only writer whose dedication is tinged with what might be seen, in some circles, as pathology. There’s always Sebastian Junger. There’s a great publisher called Travelers’ Tales, and one of their books is Testosterone Planet, an anthology of essays by people who go to great lengths and travel great distances to do extreme feats. Junger also put in his Sarajevo time, which is described in “The Lure of Danger.”

Ultimately, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that here is a person who simply thrives on crisis. He is unnaturally good at it — good at finding it, surviving it, swallowing it whole. He interviews others who feel the same way, like a guy named Brown who says, “I’ve always reacted well under intense insane circumstances.” He quotes a friend who places the thrill of battle on a chemical basis, a drug in fact, that gets you “completely amped.” Junger says the high comes from dopamine, a chemical the brain is swimming in after a terrifying encounter with mortality.

Junger issues a disclaimer, warning potential imitators that “the most dangerous circumstances don’t always produce the greatest epiphanies.” This is something you don’t usually find adventure-crazed men admitting. But he too missed his war, saying:

All I wanted was to go back to that strange city where everything I did seemed big and important and was, potentially, the last act of my life.

Scarred building photo courtesy of MuntyPix , used under this Creative Commons license

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