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'American Warlord' struggles to tell an important story about West Africa

The stories of former Liberian president and warlord Charles Taylor and his son Chucky highlight the suffering of the Liberian people.

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    American Warlord:
    A True Story
    By Johhny Dwyer
    Alfred A. Knopf
    368 pp.
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For many Americans, Liberia fades right into the chaotic background of sub-Saharan Africa, just another place where civil war and disease ride roughshod over a hapless population. But that perspective overlooks the special links between the United States and this fascinating country on the continent's west coast.

Former American slaves journeyed to Liberia in the mid-19th century, and their influence as an elite political class has waxed and waned ever since.

Of course, when it comes to those 19th-century transplants, "journeyed" may not be the correct verb to use. Considering the way Africans from America changed the fiber of Liberia, "settled" or "colonized" or "invaded" all might be more correct, and the impact of this cross-cross Atlantic relationship can still be felt today, compounded as it has been by official American influence for both good and ill.

Journalist Johnny Dwyer largely sets the action of his new book, American Warlord: A True Story, amid the bloodstained backdrop of modern Liberia. Into this place comes warlord Charles Taylor, whose career is the backbone of the book. Returning to Liberia in 1989 after time spent in the US (at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., and in jail in Plymouth, Mass.) and Libya (training as a guerrilla fighter), Taylor fought his way to power. He first worked in the government of Samuel Doe, but after Doe's execution became a warlord, finally assuming control of the country in 1997, winning an election for the presidency after the country's first civil war. (His unconventional campaign slogan: "He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him.")

As opposition to his regime turned into outright rebellion, Taylor presided over another civil war from 1999-2003 that ended with his ouster and indictment for war crimes by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Taylor was convicted in 2012 and sentenced to 50 years of prison, which he is currently serving in Great Britain.

Dwyer, however, isn't laser-focused on Charles Taylor. He spends most of his ink and analysis instead telling the story of Taylor's American son, Chucky. Through Chucky's journey from Florida to Liberia to Trinidad and finally to an American prison, we're given a first-hand opportunity to delve into the depths of Liberia's suffering under the Taylor regime.

By following the misadventures of Taylor, father and son, the pages of "American Warlord" ladle out a toxic stew of tribal rivalries, blood diamonds, mercenaries, arms dealers, cross-border subversion, human rights abuses, and death. Readers wanting to know more about the complicated relationships and rivalries of the region, and the international powers that take advantage of the chaos, will come away engaged and satisfied. Although the threads are numerous and tangled, Dwyer does yeoman's work of laying out the complexities without overwhelming the reader.

But while "American Warlord" delves deeply into its subject matter, it's hamstrung by its own title. You are prepared by the book's framing and narrative drive to hear the story of Chucky Taylor, a ruthless but sometimes conflicted decision-maker who moves from a cossetted life in the United States to staking out his own patch of hard-won ground amid the brutality of West Africa. Chucky's role as a leader of the volatile and sometimes brutal ATU (the so-called "Anti-Terrorist Unit") is a perfect window into the fine-grain impact of torture and extra-judicial killing that made the Taylor years so terrible.

But as absorbing as the story of the ATU and its swath of destruction might be, Chucky isn't enough of a presence to hang a story on. He comes off as a troubled, aimless kid who never really grows up – corrupted by power, warped by fear, addled by drugs, he goes from a weak, lost American youth to an impulsive, violent, inconstant man undone by his own temper and lack of focus –  a personality described as "sometimey" in the Liberian idiom.

In short, the book has a Hollywood-esque focus on a colorful central character, but that character largely lacks an arc. Chucky starts out a mess, remains a mess, and ends up in jail, a life wrecked by a series of bad decisions that stretch back past the receding horizon. While jumpcuts from suburban malaise to human rights abuses at an African military camp to time spent recording hip hop tracks at a studio in Trinidad offer superficial jolts of interest, they're not enough to sustain the whole work.

Chucky's father, the dictator Charles Taylor, is both a more natural and more interesting focus. Amid his ruthless maneuvering and plundering, there are glimmers of responsibility and self-awareness that move the story into a more Shakespearean realm of grand tragedy.

Yet framing aside, Dwyer's work here is important – not just in giving the suffering of the people of Liberia a sympathetic and nuanced retelling, but also in giving citizens of the world a first-hand glimpse at the effects of both the meddling and the indifference of foreign powers in Western Africa. The millions of displaced and thousands of deceased Liberians should serve as object lessons in what happens when foreign nations agree to empower a killer – or look the other way as things fall apart.

The next time chaos breaks out overseas, one can only hope that the decision-makers will be remembering the story told in "American Warlord."

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