Unembedded: Two Decades of Maverick War Reporting Hardcover – Feb 2 2009
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Quill & Quire
Scott Taylor – publisher, journalist, and all-around action figure – is best known these days for his military punditry on television. Back in the 1990s, though, he made his mark with impassioned investigations into corruption and incompetence in the senior ranks of the Canadian officer corps and their betrayal of the common solider. As a freelance journalist, Taylor has travelled to all the post-Cold War hotspots – the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan – filing hard-line dispatches or publishing his experiences through his own imprint. As a result, Taylor has a fan base – subscribers to Esprit de Corps (a soldiering magazine that he edits), honest folk, iconoclasts, the downtrodden, and those perennially suspicious of subtlety or the official line. These readers will not be disappointed with Unembedded, a memoir of two decades spent revealing “the suffering of the vanquished that is rarely recorded by the victors.” The book reads as an extended adventure travelogue – the man knows how to spin a yarn – more or less framed by Taylor’s reporting. There can be no doubting Taylor’s courage or drive. He has gone places few would venture. More often than not he is travelling on scratch budgets, with no media conglomerate to bail him out of the trouble he so often encounters. The most harrowing example of such trouble came in 2004, when Taylor was kidnapped and tortured in Iraq for five days. Taylor’s writing falls decidedly into commentary rather than reportage. Unembedded, like his previous works, is short on corroboration and devoid of annotation, while at the same time brimming with unequivocal opinion – opinion occasionally lifted almost verbatim from his previous books. If you like your action figures brave, driven, opinionated, and self-absorbed, then Scott Taylor is your man.
"Maverick is an overused label, but in Scott Taylor's case it only partly describes the man. He has been an artist, a musician, a professional soldier and, since 1988, editor and publisher of the Ottawa-based military magazine Esprit de Corps. He's part pragmatist, part romantic, part journalist, part author and, for reasons even he might not totally understand, a man addicted to danger." (Edmonton Journal 2009-02-08)
"The book's title refers to the practice of 'embedding' reporters with military units. Journalists live with the soldiers in the field, depend on them for their safety, and, if their handlers do their job properly, see and report just what the military wants them to...Taylor has long refused to stay with the media tour, and made a point of interviewing the 'enemy', whether Serb, Iraqi or Taliban." (Metro News 2009-02-16)
"Throughout the book, Taylor resists the black and white morality plays often seen in the mainstream media. He refuses to present complex issues in terms of good guys and bad guys. A compelling read, Unembedded also offers nuanced explanations of both the history and multifarious aspects of the many conflicts he has covered." (Waterloo Region Record 2009-02-27)
"Most western journalists covering the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are embedded, which means they operate under the protection, guidance and watchful eyes of their country's military. It also means that despite their best efforts, reports are inevitably one-sided. Taylor is graceful in his dissent but obviously doesn't like that sort of arrangement. 'The dangers of being embedded are real,' he said in an interview. 'You can get hurt. But if you're not getting both sides of the story, you're not getting the whole story.'" (Ottawa Citizen 2009-02-28)
"Unembedded is an unforgettable, in-your-face reminder that there is more to the war in Iraq than what most Americans see on the nightly news; and it isn't pretty. This book is not neutral, nor does it pretend to be. Rather, it is an impassioned response by its author to the Pentagon's 'embedded' version of events." (National Post 2009-03-06)
"Unembedded is such a compelling read that the 360-page ride from part one of his kidnapping saga to the dramatic conclusion seems no distance at all." (Calgary Herald 2009-03-14)
"Hats off to the man's lunatic courage. Scott Taylor is extraordinarily brave, and like many extraordinarily brave war correspondents, his courage allows him to meet people and tell stories that most pretty brave war correspondents never get to tell...Who cares if he's not Proust...You're not reading Unembedded...for the lush prose; you're reading it for the ripping yarns and the insight into forgotten worlds, and boy, once they get going, do the yarns rip." (Globe & Mail 2009-03-19)
"With Unembedded, Scott Taylor has given us a warning of what will happen if we don't ask tough questions or hold people to account. Sometimes you have to get off the media bus and go see for yourself." (Canadian Newsblog 2009-03-24)
"If you like your action figures brave, driven, [and] opinionated...then Scott Taylor is your man." (Quill & Quire 2009-03-24)
"This is Scott Taylor against the world, boasting that he makes his own way through the hellholes of the world without the constant protection of friendly troops enjoyed by embedded journalists. The book opens vividly...[and] repeatedly roars back to life with war stories so detailed that the reader can smell the blood...Taylor's willingness to interrogate himself, to examine his activities and motivations -- a kind of courage often missing in the action of this genre -- is the enduring strength of Unembedded." (Winnipeg Free Press 2009-03-28)
"Taylor is willing to accept risks that confine many modern-day war correspondents to hotel rooms of the supervision of official handlers, and Unembedded gives a clear idea of what's at stake when a reporter plots his own course through a war zone." (Georgia Straight 2009-04-03)
"Scott Taylor has been an artist, musician, soldier and, since 1988, editor and publisher of the Ottawa-based military magazine Esprit de Corps. He's been pilloried as an amateur glory seeker and worse, but a 20-year record shows an often brave, principled man. He's been in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan dozens of times, both pre-and postwar, and has in recent times traveled in Afghanistan." (National Post 2009-11-28)
"From his battles with the Department of National Defence and his side of the Airborne saga to independent reporting in Kuwait, Cambodia, Western Sahara, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, Taylor consistently aligns himself against the official line and the pack consensus." (Esprit de Corps 2009-04-21)
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I wish Taylor hadn't followed at least some of his editor's advice - I prefer unabridged stories when told so well, especially concerning events still echoing in the global situation. I don't want to wait twenty years to hear the rest of the stories omitted from this first installment of memoirs.
What is notable in his reporting is that it is done by one who understands the nature of war, the failings of bureaucracy, and has the empathy (not the same as sympathy--empathy being simply understanding other people's feelings) and intelligence to figure out individual motives while remaining wonderfully cynical. He has traveled the world from Canada to various aspects of military life (the comforts of Germany to the joys of a dip from the HMCS Ottawa) while a journalist. The intricacies of running a magazine (initially an in flight magazine for the Canadian Air Force) while under attack by the largest subscriber are of fascinating interest to soldier, businessman, and PR specialist.
Given the nature of the author's profession, this is not a happy book. One might even become slightly inclined to depression in reading it. In his more recent times he ranges from the massive human suffering inflicted by the use of Depleted Uranium Munitions in Iraq and the imprecise nature of sanctions, to the various bloodletting in the former Yugoslavia. What is very clear is that nobody (least of all the US and Canadian governments) is honest about their intentions and frequently their actions suffer from the mutual incomprehension that results.
If anything is sure to stick in one's mind, it will likely be the latter parts covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is from his own practice that the title comes. He spurns being embedded due to the frequent shift in perspective that results in and the bureaucratic meddling that hampers the expression of truth on the ground. From the policies and refusal to admit mistakes on the part of US officials to the machinations of Afghan warlords, what becomes apparent all the more is that Machiavelli was an idealist. The chaos and suffering of those countries is clear and the problems revealed by Scott Taylor's reporting are going to be essential in any solution or study of the brutal aftermath.
The world owes a great dept to such brave men who actually seek out the truth with professionalism and integrity. They transform the term "journalist" from a word mixed with scorn at their ignorance to one of quiet respect. While this book is no scientific study or detailed journalistic account, it is not meant to be. It is actually an autobiography relating his experiences as an independent military journalist with large parts of his experiences left out in Azerbaijan and his already having written about Serbia and Macedonia. He covers his entry into Yugoslavia in depth as well as some of his forays into Iraq and Afghanistan in his characteristic detail. While some may pass it by on account of having little in terms of the larger picture, such large scale studies frequently lose something in terms of understanding how ordinary life and operations work. This is that element.