Unembedded. Two Decades of Maverick War Reporting. By Scott Taylor. Douglass & McIntyre, 2009.
Review by Maya Khankhoje
Unembedded is the mid-life autobiography of a toy-soldier-playing boy turned real soldier, of a soldier turned journalist, of a fervent admirer of the military turned its acerbic critic, of a proud Canadian turned whistle blower on his own armed forces. It is a riveting book which can be read at two levels: as a personal account of a man’s life and as a journalistic account of life on the other side of the trenches. When the publisher’s representative expressed the hope that I would enjoy reading this book, I cringed. After all, how can one enjoy reading about duplicity, death and desolation? She was partially right and I was partially wrong. I enjoyed reading the story of Taylor’s journey through life as much as I enjoyed reading his clear and honest prose. What I did not enjoy was the insight he gives his readers into Canadian defence policy “what we see in them [Americans and their militaristic nationalism] we do not wish to see in ourselves; yet the Canadian government continues to largely follow in lockstep with the US State Department’s directions”.
Scott Taylor was born into a working class family whose parents skimped so that the children could travel all over the world. They wanted their children to understand otherness. This wide-open childhood gave Scott a desire to join the military to continue seeing the world. What he saw was that the world was not black and white, but different shades of grey. After three and a half years of soldiering he and his wife became publishers (both had a background in arts and writing) and ultimately established Esprit de Corps, a military magazine originally aimed at providing entertainment and information. It morphed into the voice of the rank and file and then into the conscience of decision makers of Canadian military practices and policies.
Taylor exposed the double standard of the Canadian Armed Forces: one for the rank and file and one for the officers. He decried the injustice of a system that denied pensions to some veterans while providing some officers all-expenses-paid golf vacations in the Caribbean. Taylor rejected the corruption of an autocratic hierarchy and the blatant racism of some soldiers who belonged to white supremacist groups. And his heart went out to all victims of war, whether victors or vanquished.
Taylor’s journalistic career has taken him to many hot spots in the world including the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. He interviewed, or rather was interviewed by Slobodan Milosevic as a potential witness for the defence (Taylor’s take favors Milosevic) in Milosevic’s trial for genocide. He believes that Louise Arbour undermined the credibility of The Hague Tribunal by indicting Milosevic as a war criminal without supporting forensic evidence. He criticizes Kim Campbell’s performance as Minister of Defence in the Somalia cover-up and holds Michael Ignatieff responsible for the misunderstandings that led to NATO’s intervention in Kosovo. Taylor also holds the mainstream media accountable for perpetrating myths.
Since Scott Taylor has warned his readers that they should not believe everything they read and hear, why should his readers believe him? Especially since he has let them know that he is savvy in military intelligence yet denies having been a spy. We should believe him because he writes about what he saw with his own eyes and felt with his own heart. We should take him seriously because he writes from the perspective of a man who has hobnobbed with the powerful and shared the extreme conditions of the man in the trenches. We should honour him because he has risked his own life to live up to his own dictum: “Knowing the truth is not enough. We must have the conviction to act upon it.” In his quest for the truth, he was held captive, tortured and sentenced to beheading in Iraq. Apparently it was his record as an honest journalist that in the end saved his life.
Regardless of our feelings about all things military, we should read Unembedded, because at the end of the day Taylor had the courage to trade his heavy machine gun for a light but powerful quill.
[In 1996 Scott Taylor was awarded the Quill Award for his outstanding contribution to Canadian communications. In 2009 he received the “Unembedded Reporter” award.]