I’m probably not the most objective reader of Scott Taylor’s latest book, Unembedded: Two Decades of Maverick War Reporting, his memoir of exposing corruption in the Canadian military and reporting from war zones like Afghanistan, Bosnia and Iraq.
Taylor, the Ottawa-based editor and publisher of the military magazine Esprit de Corps, is my friend, mentor and onetime neighbour. It’s a small country, and the recklessly independent Taylor has made many friends and enemies.
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.
While media organizations used to shun these sorts of arrangements, the practice has grown as editorial budgets have shrunk, and the temptation to take on the point of view of your hosts and protectors is powerful.
Taylor has long refused to stay with the media tour, and made a point of interviewing the “enemy,” whether Serb, Iraqi or Taliban. Travelling on his own ticket, Taylor has often ended up in over his head.
In the book, he recounts his sense of “impotence and injustice” witnessing the gang rape of a woman by armed Slovenian paramilitaries and a night in Morocco spent hiding in the bushes from a gang of muggers with switchblades.
When he went missing in 2004, taken hostage by Ansar al-Islam Mujahadeen in Northern Iraq, many, including Taylor, thought his story was over. He describes in brutal detail his five-day crucible, during which he was denounced as a spy, tortured, and told he was to die by beheading before being unexpectedly released.
He was lucky. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 41 journalists were killed in the line of duty or targeted because of their work last year, 11 of them in Iraq.
During Esprit de Corps’ muckraking ’90s heyday, one of Taylor’s favourite targets was Robert Fowler, the well-connected civil servant and diplomat who was then deputy minister of defence. In December, Fowler was abducted in Niger, while on a mission as UN special envoy to the country. His whereabouts remain unknown.
“This is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy,” says Taylor, confirming that Fowler, for years, was just that. The two had finally met and buried the hatchet just a few weeks before Fowler’s disappearance when both participated — on the same side — in a debate at Ottawa’s Ashbury College.
As for Taylor, at 48, he’s aware it may be a little early for memoirs, so he ends his tale with these words: “To be continued.”