Crimes of Omission

They say there are two kinds of writers. First, the A-line writers: the sort with magnificent prose, literary and rich, whose style is more engaging than their ideas. These people are a pleasure to read just for the sake of reading. Then, the B-line writers: Their ideas outweigh their sturdy but unremarkable writing. They are not stylists but thinkers, polemicists, detail hounds. People read their work for the thoroughness of thought. There is, of course, the minuscule array of writers who encompass both groups, but they are rare and very wealthy.

Johnny Dwyer is a B-minus-line writer. Dwyer’s American Warlord traces—key word—the evolution of Roy Belfast, who began his bizarre journey into international crime lore as an American-born teenage suburbanite. He then managed to reinvent himself as a drug-crazed commando in charge of a barbaric paramilitary unit during Liberia’s bloody civil war (1989–97). From there, he had a brief stint as a rapper in exile in Trinidad, only to gain renown once more in the sphere of global conflict—as the first American felon successfully tried by the US government under its revised torture laws (the same ones conspicuously dodged by CIA officials and those involved in torturing Abu Ghraib prisoners).

Belfast’s story is a B-line writer’s wet dream. The circumstances of his improbable series of rises and falls are so raunchy and colorful that the writerly flourishes can be minimized; in a saga this overstuffed with incident there’s little need for embroidery or conjuring. Yet Dwyer’s portrait of this warlord-on-the-make is oddly sterile, shallow, and without color.

It’s clear from the get-go that Dwyer did not have in-person access to Belfast, who is commonly known, after his father, former Liberian president and strongman Charles Taylor, as Chucky Taylor. The elder Taylor is currently in prison for the reign of terror, murder, and rape that he conducted throughout his presidency. American Warlord features scant direct quotes from Belfast, though many of the chapters feature incoherent rap lyrics of his as epigrams (“From the north, but I ride with Floridian tacts, South you it’s gritty, where I perfected my jack, stone heart cause my trauma, dawg nevers statin the acts”; “Real as chrome, march and we hone, hand to hand, man they no, flip at the birth of a fight”). These lyrics illuminate nothing substantive about Belfast’s opaque psyche, but they do place Dwyer’s book in the irritating tradition of pumped-up white-led media concerns, from Spin magazine to The Wire, that use trite ghetto poetry to pay homage to the savage wisdom
of hoods.

When Charles Taylor met Belfast’s mother, Bernice, in the mid-70s, he was a high-achieving graduate student living in Massachusetts. The future tyrant was already planning his seizure of power back home, and shortly after Belfast was born, Taylor abandoned Bernice and their child.

Were Dwyer an A-line writer, he might not have needed Belfast’s cooperation. Indeed, some of my favorite writing about the chaos of Liberia under Taylor comes from the novelist Denis Johnson, whom the New Yorker sent to Liberia in 1992 to profile Taylor. Most of the lengthy piece is about Taylor’s absence. Within this narrative void, Johnson conjures texture and mood. Here he is with Taylor’s military entourage, after he has been in the country for two weeks and not yet glimpsed the man:

Crowded into this room with these men made richly alive by the irrevocability of their choices and the prospect of sudden death, I felt ease and relief. Relief among black people I hadn’t done anything to, deeply black Africans whose history omits to implicate me. Of course, the sins of the U.S. government touch this region as all regions; but I can repudiate those sins effortlessly. They’re merely the sins of people with too much power. I’m not one of those. I didn’t wreck this place.

Over the course of his failed reporting trip, Johnson was able to make his own sense of dislocation stand in for the absurdities and privations that were then wracking Liberia under Taylor’s rule—and also to confirm that he was, indeed, implicated in that sorry tale. In American Warlord, by contrast, Dwyer is a neutral nonpresence who offers no great insight into the political intrigues in Liberia during the Taylor years—let alone the gruesome atrocities perpetrated by Taylor and his henchmen. There is, likewise, very little effort expended on, or imaginative sympathy extended to, the interview subjects quoted throughout the book. Indeed, I had to flip to the endnotes of nearly every chapter to see if plot points and quotes had been lifted from court briefs (many were) or obtained through in-person interviews. It’s impossible to differentiate first-person speech from thirdhand renderings of the action in American Warlord because everything is flattened by Dwyer’s removed, vague language.

Roy “Chucky” Belfast in Liberia, ca. 2001. Courtesy Johnny Dwyer and Lynn Henderson

For instance, in Dwyer’s description of Bernice and Belfast’s reunion with Taylor, the motivations of the principals are muddy. After more than a decade of noncommunication, the two resumed contact, and plans were made for Bernice to travel from Pine Hills, Florida, to Liberia to reintroduce Taylor to their now teenage and delinquent son. We get this dry, dispassionate summary:

In the few public statements Taylor has made about the couple’s relationship, his feelings are unclear. In any case, he told Bernice that he’d prepared separate accommodations for her; his son would be staying with him.

Chucky spent that first night in Liberia with his father. It was a departure from the narrow horizons of Orlando and grim streets of Pine Hills, where his mother had raised him. Liberia presented to Chucky the possibility that he was heir to something larger.

Well, obviously. Florida is a departure from Liberia, and vice versa. And, yes, I imagine that being the firstborn son of a president does make you feel a bit entitled. Dwyer cannot offer much insight as to why Belfast went from being a wayward teenager to fighting in a death squad.

It’s probably unfair to expect a first-time author to rise to the narrative standard set by Denis Johnson. Nevertheless, the material in American Warlord cries out for some—indeed, any—closely reasoned or emotionally resonant writing. Dwyer’s incuriosity about the inner lives of his subjects becomes nearly pathological in his interviews with Lynn, Belfast’s high school sweetheart, who traveled to Liberia to marry him in a lavish ceremony while he was the head of a torture squadron. Her husband had his victims stabbed, beaten, and beheaded. He burned plastic sheets on the skin of prisoners. He had his men kill his driver over a traffic accident. He ordered members of his squadron to punish an insubordinate soldier with a thousand whiplashes—a sentence that resulted in the man’s death. We never know if Dwyer gave Lynn the UN reports or confronted her about her husband’s atrocities. Instead, everything is again rendered in the flat, faux-ominous clichés that you might encounter in any episode of Behind the Music:

Lynn was aware of the fearsome reputation Chucky and his men had developed. “Some of those boys were pure evil,” she recalled. . . . Yet most interactions with Chucky’s men gave her no reason to fear them. “I never saw the evil side of them, but I suppose it was there when [they were] confronted with the enemy. Killing, torture, I’m sure it takes a toll on the soul.” . . . Lynn understood why people feared Chucky: “He kind of had, I don’t know, maybe a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde personality.” But she had been immune from his outbursts. . . . In fact she always felt safer around him. “I always thought I brought out the better side in him because I’m a good person.”

Had he been a bit more attuned to the tensions evident even in these banal reflections, Dwyer might have noted, to the great benefit of his tale, that Lynn’s clumsy extenuations on Belfast’s behalf call to mind Colonel Kurtz’s widow at the end of Heart of Darkness, moaning with grief to Marlow: “Men looked up to him—his goodness shone in every act.” Instead, Dwyer adds only that Belfast was good at “compartmentalizing.”

We don’t know whether Lynn cries or acts flip when describing her estranged husband, the father of her child. Dwyer gives us none of these details. We don’t know if he scorns or pities her. Dwyer quotes Lynn at length, so it’s clear that he had some access to her. But he is unable to make any compelling narrative use of this access. Dwyer also won cooperation from Bernice and her second husband, Roy Belfast, and had limited correspondence, through letters and e-mails, with Chucky Belfast himself. But he never describes these people as people—what they act and sound like, or whether he believes them as they give variant accounts of Belfast’s motivations, character, and horrific legacy. It’s not even clear that Dwyer traveled to Africa; you wouldn’t know he had unless you read the author’s note at the end of the book.

The best thing a B-line writer can have is ideas, even if they are cheap or bad: Look at Malcolm Gladwell, a perfect B-line writer, if something like a D-grade thinker. American Warlord could have benefited from an idea, a through line, even something as commonplace as “power corrupts” or “evil exists.” Dwyer does have one excellent, lucid idea, a rebuttal of sorts that appears as a blip instead of a unifying theory. After Belfast stopped training militant fighters and torturing citizens, he went into the diamond-mining business but couldn’t raise the capital and felt adrift. Consider it a quarter-life crisis. As Belfast’s friend remarked to Dwyer, “This was just a twenty-two- or twenty-three-year-old kid with immense power and responsibility—what was he supposed to do with it?” In a rare moment of genuine critical distance from his material, Dwyer writes, “But Chucky didn’t just have power and responsibility—he had privilege and access. He never evinced a crisis of conscience, and he publicly took issue with his father’s failures only after it was too late. He relished his role as a military adviser and strategist, but he wanted no accountability for the results of his father’s policies.” Yes. Yes to all this. But why? Beats me.

Natasha Vargas-Cooper is a senior reporter for Jezebel.