American Warlord: The Wayward Chucky Taylor and Liberian Civil War

A daily news chalk board in Monrovia, Liberia, 2008, during the trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor

In broad outline, the story of Chucky Taylor sounds like it could be a heartwarming fairy tale, albeit a particularly treacly and improbable one: after a long separation, an American teenager is reunited with his father just as his father becomes the president of a foreign country. But the story that journalist Johnny Dwyer tells in his riveting new book American Warlord is the furthest thing from heartwarming, largely comprised instead of the horrific atrocities Chucky commits while working for his father, and ending with Chucky sentenced to ninety-seven years in prison as the first American convicted of torture.

Long before Charles Taylor became the brutal president of Liberia, he was a student in Boston, where he married a woman named Bernice Emmanuel. In 1977 they had a son named Chucky, after his father. Political upheavals in Liberia called Charles Taylor back to his home country, and away from his American family. Charles remarried in Liberia and had more children; Bernice also remarried, and moved Chucky to Florida.

There are conflicting accounts of exactly how involved Taylor was in the life of his son during the eighties, but by the early nineties -- now fully embroiled in Liberia’s civil war -- Taylor appears to have initiated contact, and in the summer of 1992 Chucky went to Liberia for a brief visit. As a teenager in Florida, Chucky repeatedly had trouble with the law; a 1994 arrest related to armed robbery led Bernice to send a seventeen-year-old Chucky to live with his father for good.

Taylor, who was waging what Dwyer calls a "bloody stalemate" among rival factions for control of Liberia, enrolled Chucky in an elite boarding school in Ghana, but Chucky was soon caught with a gun and other contraband, leading his father to take him to Liberia. In the midst of fending off attacks and launching his own, Taylor continued to enroll Chucky in various schools. At the last one, Taylor assigned Chucky an armed bodyguard; when another student asked why he had a bodyguard, Chucky struck him. The school administration, afraid to expel Taylor’s son, merely suspended him, and was relieved when he did not return.

After this and an attempt on his father’s life, Chucky, who by now fully embraced his role as the son of a warlord soon to be elected president, formed the Anti-Terror Unit, "a force," Dwyer writes, "that would serve the sole purpose of protecting his father’s power."

Despite the fact that he was now a democratically elected leader, Taylor continued to use the same vicious tactics he had used as a warlord. His forces murdered opponents, and sometimes people they simply felt like murdering. A former loyalist who criticized Taylor was butchered along with his family, and rumors spread that Taylor himself had eaten the man’s liver.

Chucky’s tactics followed suit. Under the tutelage of a mysterious American known only by the probable pseudonym "Dave Smith," Chucky’s forces put down a revolt against his father by, according to one account, "killing hundreds of innocent people, including women, children, and the elderly." He was brutal and capricious with his own men, forcing one to give another twenty-five lashes for failing to hit a bottle during target practice.

Brutalities increased from there, resulting in many outrages that are often difficult to read about. Sulaiman Jusu, a refugee from Sierra Leone unlucky enough to be stopped by Chucky and his forces, was forced to watch as his brother-in-law was shot and beheaded. That Jusu’s testimony helped convict Chucky in American court provides a small -- very small -- measure of justice.

Not that that justice is entirely without irony. Late in the book, we read of Alice Fisher, a US assistant attorney general who, noting that Chucky Taylor’s case marked the first time that the Justice Department had charged a defendant with the crime of torture, demonstrated that "crimes such as these will not go unanswered." In the next paragraph, Dwyer reminds us that Fisher’s nomination to her post had been held up by Senator Carl Levin, who was looking into her possible role in interrogation practices at Guantanamo Bay. Chucky Taylor may not be the only American guilty of torture, but it is a relief that he, at least, is behind bars.