As Generals Send the Nation to War
Scott Taylor is a Canadian journalist, as well as an editor, publisher, storyteller and ex-commando. He has reported from Serbia, Cambodia and Western Sahara, and is the veteran of 21 (unembedded) trips into Iraq. In September, 2004, he was betrayed by Iraqi police and kidnapped by anti-Western insurgents. After four days of captivity and beatings, Taylor was released through intervention by Turkish intelligence services. Undeterred, he returned to Iraq in 2005.
His magazine, Esprit de Corps, has been called the “voice of the grunts” for its willingness to take on the military establishment. The author of six best-selling books, Taylor has received the Quill Award and the Alexander Mackenzie Award for his work in journalism and communications.
CD: Your magazine was originally handed out to the troops by the army, but your relationship with the military appears to have changed for the worse after 1994 and the book Tarnished Brass, which told of corruption among the officer corps.
ST: Not among the rank-and-file - we are popular there still. The breaking of trust between them and the brass was shameful. Ordinary soldiers had to go to food banks while officers were taking golfing trips to New Zealand on the taxpayer. We made them look in the mirror and got the system changed. Some generals got fired and some had to pay money back - $200,000 in one case. As well, they would have buried the Somalia cover-up with only a few privates going down if it hadn’t been for us. But we still have to be careful. We never encourage any soldier to come to us as a whistleblower. We insist anyone with a beef go through the system, the chain of command. The military would love to close us down, get us for sedition.
CD: Canadian forces are in Afghanistan, bringing them democracy and our values. Is this possible, to franchise out our way of life?
ST: You can’t. We say we are giving them democracy, fighting oppression - but so did the Russians. They were invited in also, and probably had more support than President [Hamid] Karzai, who asked us in. We and the Russians both see Afghan customs, the constraints of their religion, as oppressing women, but many Afghans see our ways as freeing women to become strippers and take drugs. It cannot work, not even in terms of daily life.
For example, in Iraq, every day between 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. for shopkeepers, or 2:00 to 7:00 p.m. for government offices, was a break, like a siesta. It was a time I would do my writing - nothing was happening. Kids would come home from school, have a nap, then study and go out in the cool of the evening. You might see families out in a restaurant at midnight. For 200 years this was the social schedule they have evolved to match the climate. I was talking to Americans, and they said that the Iraqis would have to learn a workday is 9:00 to 5:00, the American way. So, they had the Iraqis out in the heat of the day - even for de-mining. The workers taking up the mines would get heat exhaustion, and so the U.S. contractors had to provide air-conditioned tents to revive them.
CD: In my limited military experience, I learned that the army has an official procedure for everything. When I see all these photos in the media where soldiers are handing out candy to kids, I wonder if there is a military system for candy handing.
ST: Ha! By the numbers. Yes, the army does everything by the numbers. It’s propaganda. This is a new “hearts and minds,” proof that we are losing the war in Afghanistan. They are trying to sell us on these PRTs [Provincial Reconstruction Teams], but after four-and-a-half years into the war, we still need armed military to hand out candy and blankets.
CD: Why do you think this candy propaganda is being presented to us as if it was real information?
ST: The problem is the military wants it both ways. They do not want to be seen as peacekeepers anymore - they are fighting soldiers. They really insist on that. But the minute anything goes wrong, they are then desperately trying to sell the mission by saying that it is UN-sanctioned, or under the UN umbrella, or whatever will please the public. But it is not. We are in Operation: Enduring Freedom and under American overall control. The UN only sanctioned the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force], which we left when we quit Kabul.
Even [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper said, on the death of Private [Robert] Costall, that it happened on a UN-sanctioned mission. I had to roll my eyes at that; they must know better on Parliament Hill. Show me one UN blue helmet, one blue flag - anything - on the ground over there. For a while, they made us take down our own Canadian flag. The Americans, that is - not the Afghans - said the mission was going to fly only U.S. or Afghan flags.
Also, what do embedded journalists get to see? They’re never going to see any reality. What would you say if the Romanian military occupied your town and a Romanian tank and journalist showed up at your door? You love the government they have installed and want these guys to stay! Of course the locals are smiling when a reporter shows up with an armoured vehicle and an armed patrol. After the gunships and tanks are gone, they come out to hit us, like they did to Captain Trevor Green. He was part of a PRT.
At the NATO briefings in the Balkans, they would tell us about the 5th Serbian Armoured Brigade being stationed someplace. I’d travel down there and it would be a 22-year-old officer, fifty kids and pot-bellied old men sitting around drinking beer, and one vehicle up on blocks. That was the reality of the 5th Brigade. The other reporters were at NATO headquarters jotting down press releases. Now we hear about a firefight that killed eight Taliban - then it’s thirty Taliban. What does this mean? Anything? The media pick up on the official rhetoric and run with it. Information is a weapon. Quality of information? People do not read enough. News has to be a minute and a half of entertainment. You cannot simplify the Balkans or Afghanistan like that. We talk of the Afghanistan people - which ones? Tajiks, Uzbeks, Pushtuns, Turkomen, Taliban, anti-Taliban? Not that simple.
CD: How big is the Green Zone in Iraq we hear about?
ST: Ten square kilometres in Baghdad - but any airfield or secure base is considered a green zone. The main one, in the capital - the Americans took all the best places. The cornerstone is Saddam’s palace, then the former Ba’ath Party Headquarters, the finest hotel in Iraq and all the surrounding streets. Before the invasion, an ordinary Iraqi could walk around there. Now, it’s all blocked off behind huge walls. So, where Saddam’s people might have been hated, you could walk into their homes and everywhere else in the neighbourhood. Not the palace, of course, but that’s only a tiny part. If it was wrong for Saddam to have his palaces while his people lived in poverty, now the Americans have bigger castles and have all these luxuries - ice makers, air conditioning, pizza ovens, stuff that Saddam’s followers never imagined. And the [electrical] power is still only four hours on and then four off outside the green zones.
CD: I do not recall the military as being a democratic institution. Yet all of the soldiers I see interviewed are 100-per-cent behind the mission. Do they have any choice but to say that?
ST: No. If a soldier has a good case, he or she can go through the system - but we know people who have suffered the backlash for disagreeing or making waves.
CD: I am getting a little concerned that the military seems to be sending Canada to war. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
ST: Absolutely. The military keep trying to get the Canadian public to support the mission, and that is just not their job. No one is saying that we are taking casualties because we are not up to the job. No one is even hinting that. But if we question the role we are playing, it is not supporting the troops, disrespecting them somehow. A couple of our people are killed and Canadian citizens ask what are we doing there - and that’s right.
What about the reverse? What if we didn’t care - did not question if we are squandering our soldiers in an unwinnable war? Say we are up to 35 dead and 200 wounded, then tractor-trailers of body bags coming home - and nobody blinked? How would the serving army feel? Like they’re dying over there and nobody gives a rat’s ass?
In April, General [Rick] Hillier was at a conference in Ottawa, all defense contractors honouring him. There were hips of beef and flagons of wine, and he made a brief speech. But mainly it was to honour Hillier. He has become a major political figure, a real driving force. I don’t think the Conservatives know what to make of this guy - I don’t think anyone does. We have not seen his like in Canada. Ever. Maybe we have a General MacArthur on our hands.