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In 'American Warlord,' Real-Life Drama Falls Flat On The Page

When it came time for Chucky Taylor to propose to his girlfriend Lynn, he didn't bother with embellishments. After having spent most of their relationship an ocean apart — he in Liberia, she in Pine Hills, Florida, where they'd met — Chucky drove Lynn to a beach in Monrovia and handed her not a ring but a bag of uncut diamonds.

Given that Chucky was the son of vicious Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, who was partly funding a civil war through the illegal sale of conflict diamonds from Sierra Leone, Lynn had plenty of reasons to be unimpressed (though she did say yes). "She wasn't holding a ring but instead artifacts of the place and situation she found herself in," writes Johnny Dwyer in American Warlord. It's the story of how Chucky, born in Boston while his father was a graduate student and raised by his mother in the suburbs of Orlando, came to lead Taylor's most violent and feared security force, regularly torturing and killing anyone deemed a risk to his father's regime.

In 2008, as a result of these actions, Chucky became the first American to be charged and convicted of the crime of torture in a foreign country — and I should note here that the indictment refers to him as "Chuckie," but throughout Dwyer's book, and in many news accounts, he's "Chucky."

He was ultimately sentenced to 97 years in prison. (Four years later, the International Criminal Court would convict his father of war crimes.) Chucky's trial came at a time when the US was being roundly criticized for its use of "enhanced interrogation techniques." In fact, Alice Fisher --the assistant attorney general who charged Chucky — was one of the people accused of sanctioning the use torture on terrorism suspects, an irony Dwyer revels in.

There's no doubt that, then, that Chucky's life story — unexpected in its origins and horrific in its outcome — is well worth telling. Which is why it's so disappointing that American Warlord is such a slog.

Part of the problem is the complexity of the Liberian civil war at the heart of the book. Dwyer attempts to put it in its historical and political context — writing about Liberia's founding by freed American slaves who proceeded to treat the natives in the area as second class citizens, as well as the wider West African conflicts that were occurring at the time of Taylor's rule — but his execution is muddled.

Dwyer's writing is a larger stumbling block. He travelled extensively and interviewed a number of people from Chucky's life — including Chucky himself, via phone and written correspondence — in order to tell his story. But he writes it all up in a detached style that hides much of the work he did, and worst, keeps us at a distance from the book's subjects.

There are moments in the book when you feel Dwyer trying to achieve the opposite effect: Rather than recounting his subjects' experiences in their own words, he attempts to step into their shoes and speak for them. But the bland writing (and the lack of detail his subjects provide) doesn't get us any closer to the events at hand. Too often it saps them of all emotion. Here, for instance, is Dwyer describing how Matthew Baechtle, the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agent who led the investigation into Chucky's crimes, felt after his first day of testimony at Chucky's trial:

"The trial had been a period of exhilarating uncertainty, but he felt confident in the evidence that the witnesses could provide and in the abilities of the prosecutors. The investigation had been long and meticulous, leaving very little to chance, but Baechtle recognized the inherently unpredictable nature of a criminal trial."

It's Baechtle's first night off in weeks, the culmination of years of work, a moment when his goal of locking Chucky up is within sight. But in Dwyer's hands it falls flat, utterly matter of fact.

American Warlord can be difficult to read, but that in itself isn't the problem — it's a book about a torturer, after all, and Dwyer rightfully doesn't hold back when detailing the horrendous acts Chucky ordered or committed. The problem is that Dwyer never digs any deeper than surface detail, never gets to the psychological underpinnings of Chucky's actions.

He does provide a glimpse into Lynn, who throughout American Warlord is both repelled and drawn by Chucky, vexed by the question of whether to escape the atrocities of war in Liberia or to stay with the man she loves — and with whom she has a son. But there's no equally compelling conflict in anyone else. Certainly not in Chucky, who, as Dwyer ultimately suggests, seems incapable of self-reflection. That may be what sinks American Warlord in the end: Chucky offers no inner life for Dwyer to explore. Without that, all that's left is the horror of his actions, in the face of which the book goes numb.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tomas Hachard