More than a decade after Liberia’s civil war ended, we are still learning about what happened during the conflict and how those events affected ordinary people. One of the more bizarre stories is that of Chucky Taylor, a Liberian American teenager from Orlando who became one of the most notorious and violent warlords involved in that conflict. While most books about Liberia’s conflicts focus on his more famous father, convicted war criminal and former Liberian president Charles Taylor, journalist Johnny Dwyer explores Chucky Taylor’s life in his excellent new book, “American Warlord: A True Story.” Dwyer kindly answered my questions about what motivated this study and what it tells us about warlordism, America’s relationship with Liberia and the many stories about Liberia that are still untold.
LS: Most work on the conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone focuses on Charles Taylor. Why Chucky? What made you decide to focus on him rather than his famous father?
Johnny Dwyer: One reason was because I identified with Chucky. We’re both American children of the ’80s, raised within the same kind of absurd popular culture. As a point of departure his coming of age was much more familiar terrain for me. The other reason was that his personal story — an African American kid who goes to Liberia and uses his privilege and power to brutalize the indigenous population — to some extent, mirrored the history of the American settlers there. It’s tough to get an editor to buy a pitch about a distant African civil war. That parallel provided an opportunity to use a strong nonfiction narrative to examine U.S. policy in Liberia during the war — something that had really only been done for an academic audience.
LS: Chucky Taylor grew up in the United States, and, until his father called to ask him to come to Liberia, had a pretty normal life. Why did he go to Liberia? Did he have a choice?
JD: He made his first trip as a teenager with his mother. Like most summer vacations for teenagers, the issue of consent is debatable. But, my reporting didn’t show that he resisted or objected to going. The trip was, in essence, a reunion with his father.
LS: Once he was in Liberia, as you describe in the book, Chucky quickly became a violent and dangerous individual. How did this evolution happen? Could anything have prevented it?
JD: I don’t think that Liberia altered his personality. Going into the trip, he was entering his teen years, in a tough neighborhood in Orlando, where guns, violence and conflict with cops were part of the landscape that Chucky didn’t shy away from. When he arrived in Liberia, all of those things were amplified. The military hardware. The warlords and factions. And, most significantly, the absence of rule of law. That last element is what gave him a platform to be as brutal as his whim dictated.
LS: What does the story of Chucky Taylor tell us about Liberia’s conflicts? Are there any broader lessons for those who care about peace and stability or Liberia’s long-term future?
JD: Liberia’s civil war was an American civil war, in many respects. The points of rupture in that society were established at the moment freed American slaves began settling land that had been occupied by indigenous people for thousands of years. U.S. policy went on to play a direct role in the rise of Charles Taylor. Looking at the diplomatic history, there were many failures and a few notable successes. To distill it down to a broader lesson: The power of U.S. influence in a nation like Liberia can do a lot of good, but indifference, neglect and condescension can cost lives.
LS: In the conclusion of your book, Chucky Taylor is tried and convicted in the American courts. He seems to show regret for his father’s actions but not his own. Why do you think that is?
JD: Violent crime — especially torture — is very personal and intimate for both the victim and the perpetrator. Chucky never demonstrated to me — or in court — any ability to reflect on what he had done. It’s one thing to cast blame on someone else, which he did with his father’s role in Sierra Leone and failure of leadership in Liberia. But, to admit guilt and to acknowledge the really ugly truths put forward by the U.S. prosecutors and investigators seemed to require an ego concession he wasn’t willing to make.
LS: After five years on this story, what’s your next project?
JD: I fell in love with the courts covering Chucky’s trial in Miami. My next book focuses on the courts a bit closer to home, in New York City.