2003, Esprit de Corps Books, 231 pages, 111 illustrations.
on the Axis of Evil documents the trips Canada's top war reporter has
made to Iraq since 2000. Each time, the author spent days traveling the cities
and countryside, often winding up in considerable physical danger, just to find
out what people were saying, doing, and thinking. Unlike the usual "embedded"
Iraq war reportage-lite, Taylor's in-depth focus results in a unique
and unforgettable narrative that adds considerably to our understanding of America's
most destructive intervention since Vietnam.
Soldier-turned-writer Scott Taylor first won the enmity of the Canadian military
brass for exposing corruption in the ranks, and then scrambled through various
Balkan war zones, winding up in all the wrong places at just the right time.
And, while continuing to publish a Canadian military magazine (Esprit
de Corps), he made television appearances as an analyst for Situation
Report and CNN. Far from being the typical retired quarterback-commentator,
Taylor stepped up his travels – and especially, to Iraq.
Taylor's methodical practice of recording the situation on the ground before,
during, and after a conflict makes him stand out in this age of parachute
journalists blinded by "the fog of war," as Geraldo once put it. Having spent
years researching, visiting and making contacts, Taylor knew in advance how to
operate in Iraq. Most importantly, Taylor was not cowed into writing the kind of
laudatory review that the US government and its neoconservative warmongers
An Apt Title
What kind of book is this? Well, its title speaks
volumes. The phrase "Axis of Evil" has become an artifact in the history of
the war ever since President Bush first used it in early 2002 as a manifesto
against Saddam Hussein. Prefacing it with "spinning" simultaneously alludes
to the vertiginous, chaotic state of Iraq that followed Bush's remark and subsequent
war; as well as to the propaganda spin both the US government and the Hussein
Administration dished out to journalists. As Taylor writes, "…the truth was
that almost all of the media's reporting on this conflict was being closely
monitored and controlled by whichever faction or organization they were in contact
with" (p. 177). Rarely does a book's title sum up so well its major themes.
The Realities of an Unreal Media: a Kosovo Prelude
Taylor's narrative begins in Belgrade, in the
penultimate moments of NATO's 1999 bombing of Kosovo. This provides overlap
between the author's two projects – the Balkans and Iraq. First of all, Taylor
notes the type of flawed media coverage predominating in Kosovo, which would
be resurrected in Iraq 4 years later. The second connection is personal: a Yugoslav
embassy official in Canada invited Taylor to lunch at a restaurant owned by
an Iraqi immigrant, a man who would later prove instrumental in arranging Taylor's
initial contacts in Iraq.
The first chapter summarizes some of the author's prior observations recorded
of Serbia and the Kosovo Conflict, an excoriating condemnation of the
US government lies that were used to sell an unnecessary and destructive war
– something that would happen once again in Iraq four years later. As in Iraq,
the media's war efforts were expedited by a general ignorance of the Balkans.
Taylor's best example here is a depressingly hilarious telephone exchange he
had with a "young research assistant" from the Canadian Broadcasting Company.
On 3 June 1999, the 72nd day of NATO's air campaign, Belgrade was
under fire yet again from allied planes. Taylor, one of the few Western journalists
there at the time, was asked by the research assistant about the "mood among
the Albanians," now that a peace agreement had been signed. Patiently explaining
that Belgrade was over 400 kilometers from the refugee camps in Macedonia, Taylor
reminded her that the war was very much still on, peace agreement notwithstanding.
Not to be deterred, the CBC assistant asked whether the Serbs in Belgrade
were "happy for" the refugees, now that they were going back to Kosovo. Taylor
explained that, lacking power and water and, "…on the receiving end of yet
another air attack," the Serbs probably had more important things to think about
"than the mood of the Albanians."
To this quite sensible response, Taylor's interlocutor huffed, "…that is
rather insensitive of them, don't you think?" Brushing off this absurdity, our
narrator asked if the CBC would be interested in the fact that air raids were
continuing, despite the announced peace deal. No thanks, said the assistant:
"…tonight's lead story is about the peace celebrations, so the air attack would
only be confusing to our viewers" (pp. 11-12).
Categorizing the Axis
This is the reality of what independent journalists
like Taylor would soon be up against in Iraq. Colossal ignorance of geography,
culture, history, and society, combined with the slickest Pentagon PR efforts
ever, helped sell the US government line. When we add to this the omnipresent
factor of cutthroat competition among journalists, it's not hard to see how
the war was spun.
Helpfully, the book contains a short history of Iraq in the 20th
century. Taylor shows how, far from being a recent phenomenon, American (and
earlier, British) intervention has formed and deformed the entire Middle East.
From his opening quote, attributed to Henry Kissinger ("oil is much too
important a commodity to be left in the hands of the Arabs"), we are reminded
that the history of Iraq is inextricably intertwined with the story of war for
Background to a Tragedy
Following his denunciation of Kosovo "spin," and
the Iraq history lesson, Taylor reminisces on his first visits to Iraq (during
the 1991 Gulf War). The author laments the fact that his inexperience made him
produce coverage that was admittedly "..naïve and heavy on the rah-rah" (p.
16). Learning more about Iraq, however, caused Taylor to change his views.
In what follows, Taylor provides damning evidence against the interventionism
of the past three American administrations. He reminds us that the Gulf War
never actually stopped; it merely took a different form between 1991-2003. After
the US intervention, Saddam solidified his tyrannical rule, cracking down on
Kurdish and Shiite uprisings. Meanwhile, a silent war was being waged against
the Iraqi people: UN sanctions and the wasteland of decaying munitions (like
depleted uranium) wreaked havoc with their health. The author quotes former
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright who, when confronted on 60 Minutes
with the reality of 500,000 Iraqi children dead because of sanctions said, "…we
think it is worth it" (p. 44). The number of photographs detailing these devastating
results of sanctions and war is a major (and gruesome) asset of Spinning
on the Axis of Evil.
Taylor also reminds us that the Clinton Administration continued regular (if
sometimes unreported) bombings. What would be considered a state of war in most
countries was treated as everyday reality by Iraqis. Further, the author shows
(pp. 39-40) how the vaunted "oil-for-food" program was just a UN shakedown: the
scheme "…provided the perpetually cash-strapped international agency with a $600
million windfall." The Iraqi government, faced with crippling sanctions, could
only qualify for contracts tightly controlled by the US, and sold its oil at a
loss – and, with damage to its dilapidated oil wells.
In contrast to the optimistic predictions of Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and
Donald Rumsfeld in early 2003, Taylor details how the cumulative effect of
sanctions created a festering anti-Americanism that would emerge to deadly
"…the only reason Iraqis were suffering and dying, they (the Americans)
said, was because of Saddam's personal greed and power-mongering, not because
the sanctions had created shortages. For the average Iraqi, however, the delays
and sanctions became a focus for simmering anger and frustration. If the United
States' intention was to undermine the people's support for Saddam Hussein,
then the plan backfired.
"…instead, the object of the Iraqis' animosity was the United States,
the country they blamed for the ongoing embargo" (p. 41).
It would not have taken a genius to predict that operation "Iraqi Freedom"
would be considered a hostile invasion, and not a liberating one. However, the
US government banked on its citizens' collective ignorance – and was proven
right. Reading this book helps Americans to understand that the Iraqi reality
has always been wildly different than the government claimed. Taylor's
photographs and first-hand testimony provide compelling evidence that a massive
human tragedy has taken place in Iraq – one for which the United States is
largely accountable. After reading this book, even the most sclerotic
red-blooded American patriot will have to agree with the author that even if
Saddam represented "evil," he "did not have a monopoly on it."
More Essential Services: Informing Disinformation
Spinning on the Axis of Evil's analysis
of US government propaganda is particularly amusing when Taylor quotes US military
personnel, some of whom spout the kind of G.I. Joe bravado that gives the army
a bad reputation abroad. We are treated to the remarkably incongruous sight
of a tank full of "good ole' boy" rednecks sporting a Confederate flag, speeding
along right behind another one manned by black soldiers blasting gangsta rap
(p. 203). Then there is the tough-talking Special Forces soldier in Turkey who
bloviates, "when George Bush, our Commander in Chief, tells us to start the
music, we are going to rock and roll" (p. 162).
However, when the same soldiers had to face the music they started, their
perceptions changed. Taylor's final interviews (from September 2003) offer
poignant glimpses of American soldiers' present reality, demoralized, far from
home and in constant danger. We hear from the grumpy sergeant who complains that
he and his men are booze and sex-starved (p. 213), about female solders getting
"knocked up" just to get out of Iraq (p. 214), and the tank commander who muses
on his statistical rate of being killed in battle (p. 213), while hoping to
someday go home and "…forget forever that there is a place on earth called
Some Drawbacks in Style and Substance
Stylistically, Taylor is more of a Hemingway than
a Fisk, though not as eloquent as either. While his terse, just-the-facts approach
to war reporting keeps the book moving along at a good clip, it can also prove
somewhat flat. True, this style keeps him from preaching, or engaging in the
dubious British style of emotive narrative; nevertheless, some of the situations
recorded are so remarkable (almost getting shot by nervous Iraqi soldiers, attempting
to bicycle into Iraq through a Turkish minefield, etc.) that a little bit more
of a literary flourish would have been a nice touch, and certainly permissible.
While Taylor uses larger world events to stitch his narrative together, the
book's structural strength – its snapshot view of events before, during, and
after the Iraq war – can also be a weakness. Since Taylor's Iraq visits came at
three to four month intervals, and only for up to two weeks at a time, the book
sometimes lacks a real sense of narrative continuity or organic wholeness. So,
while the same characters pop up again and again in various chapters, we fail to
get a real sense of the war's impact on them beyond their immediate fury, shame,
depression and sadness.
Taylor is also sometimes elusive, leaving tantalizing characters and events
hanging. But, if his reticence is a flaw, it is one that leaves the reader
impatient to know more.
Monitoring the Media's Gaffes in Iraq
In parallel with Taylor's factual account of the
war is his coverage of the media's coverage of the war – a fascinating subject
in its own right. We are reminded often of the competitive nature of war reporters,
who will do almost anything to "get the story." Thus we hear of one Spaniard
who paid $2,500 to be illegally smuggled from Turkey into Iraq, and another
who bribed an aid worker to change places with him in the delivery truck (p.
178). We also get disturbing confirmation of the cutthroat quality of journalistic
competition, when an unknown reporter endangers Taylor's life by telling Saddam's
men that he is a "Mossad spy."
Charging that media coverage of the war amounted to "an exercise in bluff and
deception" (p. 174), Taylor recounts the exploits of news agencies that purported
to be giving firsthand accounts:
"…to pull this off successfully, networks were relying heavily on the general
public's relative ignorance of this region and its geography, and the basic
premises of news gathering and dissemination.
For instance, a journalistic low point occurred during one of Fox
Television's weekend reports about the allied military buildup just south of
Baghdad. To provide analysis of this subject, the anchor went live to his
correspondent in Amman to ask, 'just how capable are the Iraqi Republican Guard
units after the allied softening-up bombardments?'
Without a pause, the young woman in Jordan went on at great length describing
the troop strength and possible morale of Saddam's Medina division of the
elite Republican Guard. Most viewers would simply accept this report at
face value, without questioning how an American reporter based 1,200 kilometres
from the fighting – and with no access to Iraqi military officials – could
possibly know anything more than what had been included in the Pentagon's
assessments. However, by tagging the information with a Middle Eastern dateline,
mere speculation suddenly appeared to be credible reporting" (p. 175).
Taylor also gives some compelling reasons for
the media's generally limp and compliant war coverage. Taylor cites the case
of NBC reporter Peter Arnett, who was fired for saying that the initial US attack
had "failed to meet its objectives." Taylor speculates that the network's decision
to sack him sent
"…a very clear message to all its correspondents that negativity (even when
supported by fact) will not be tolerated in this war. Journalists who were lucky
enough to be embedded with front-line units knew there was a tremendously long
waiting list of eager, young reporters who were anxious to take their place.
Obviously, any commentary that would be embarrassing to either the detachment
or the commander would result in a one-way ticket home" (p. 178).
Taylor also notes the haughty, even imperialistic attitude that he witnessed
amongst some of his American comrades, a large number of whom ran up extensive
hotel bills and then left the country without paying. One reporter, when
confronted, crumpled his invoice into a ball and threw it at the manager,
saying, 'consider that the price of your freedom'" (p. 202).
If such behavior indicates that the kind of Wolfowitz or Perle-like tyrants
extend right down through the "objective" press corps, then we are doubly indebted
to journalists such as Scott Taylor, writers who remember that they are in a
foreign country as guests, not overlords, and who treat the people they meet
with fairness and respect. Until the imperial, self-centered mindset disappears
from American journalism, it is not likely that the imperial, self-centered
policy of the government will disappear either. Spinning on the Axis of Evil
is a corrective to this defect, one of the only books thus far to have presented
the human side of the Iraq catastrophe with compassion and insight. It thoroughly
lives up to its dedication "…to all the innocents that have suffered and died
in Iraq: first as the victims of their own brutal dictator and then as the collateral
damage of international power-brokering, lies and greed."
What place, then, should Spinning on the Axis of Evil occupy on the
history buff's bookshelf? The author himself would probably admit that it is
not the overarching synthesis that readers should turn to for a comprehensive
view of the Iraqi war. In any case, it is too early for such a book, considering
that now (late January 2004) Iraq is still far from stable. To be sure, there
are plenty of chapters yet to be written in the history of this war.
For all that, Taylor's book is not simply ephemeral, not just a dashed-off
account forced into print because of its timeliness. Rather, it is a cohesive
work with many years of painstaking research and experience behind it. That
said, Spinning on the Axis of Evil is most important as a vital supplement
to the larger historical record on Iraq. Any subsequent history that aspires
to be comprehensive must use it as a major source. The author's observations,
experiences and citations are unique, detailed, and lucidly presented. Even
more so than in his previous accounts of war in the Balkans, Scott Taylor has
written a highly original work containing unique observations of Iraq under
the guns of "liberation."