Of Carnivores and Cavalrymen

19Aug13

This was published August 16th by Iron Mike magazine. http://ironmikemag.com/of-carnivores-and-cavalrymen/

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I’ll start by saying this: I don’t, generally speaking, have heroes. But recently I think I found one. I’d really like to tell this man why he’s such an inspiration, but I’m fairly certain I’ll never meet him face to face. So I’ll tell you about him.

This man’s name is William O. Taylor. He was a U.S. Army Cavalry soldier, and took part in one of the greatest, most memorialized events in American history. He wrote a first-person account of that event, without embellishing his small part in it. After he was discharged from the Army he led a quiet, normal life focusing on marriage and career. No media appearances, no desperate quests for 15 minutes of fame, no sacrificing honor and integrity for a few dollars. Just a man with his wife and job, unfading memories of the battle he barely survived, and a passion to tell the honest truth about it.

Like me, William O. Taylor joined the military at 17. Like me, Taylor wound up in a far off, desolate, exotic land with a hostile native population. Like me, Taylor watched, with a jaundiced eye, the military’s effort to on one hand defeat the enemy through force, on the other hand convince them they should change the way they had lived for millennia. Like me, Taylor was deeply affected by his combat experience. Not in the sense that he was psychologically damaged, but rather that he felt driven to spread the truth of his experience through writing.

Decades after Taylor’s frantic, frenzied experience of a battle lost, he finally completed his handwritten manuscript about it. When he finished, I’ll bet he felt the same sense of pride and accomplishment I did when I finished my first book. Unlike me, Taylor had taken part in a huge battle that had held the public’s attention for years. But way too much like me, Taylor found a literary establishment that wasn’t interested in the story of a regular Joe. Taylor’s efforts to get his story published ended six years after he finished his fantastic manuscript.

William O. Taylor had been under the command of a certain Major Reno of the 7th Cavalry. Taylor’s unit charged an enemy force, only to be counterattacked and forced to flee toward relative safety. Taylor was nearly killed during the near-panicked retreat. Friends were killed around him. He reached cover, only to be pinned down for two days while fallen comrades decomposed in the heat. When reinforcements finally reached his small unit, he learned that his regimental commander, a legendary soldier and leader, had been killed along with over 200 other soldiers a short distance away. Taylor and his friends eventually reached the battlefield where his commander had died. There he experienced the horror of having to recover, identify and bury the horribly mutilated bodies of men he had known for years.

William O. Taylor’s regimental commander was Colonel George Custer. Taylor was a survivor of Custer’s last stand. He died in 1923 at age 68, never having seen his work published (given my agnostic skepticism about an afterlife, as I said, I doubt I’ll ever meet him). His wife carried on the effort. She died in the 1950’s, after achieving no more success than her late husband. Taylor’s manuscript wound up in a museum, among miscellaneous documents in an old tin box. Decades later a passionate Old West historian named Greg Martin bought the museum’s contents, and discovered the manuscript. In 1996, 120 years after Custer’s last stand, the manuscript was finally published as With Custer on the Little Bighorn.

I’m not a student of the Old West or Indian Wars. They never held much interest for me. But despite my lack of knowledge on the subject, Taylor’s account simply rings true. He didn’t write – not one word – about his own bravery. He makes the explicit point that when his comrades marched into the attack, he was the “number four man” who stayed behind with his and three other men’s horses (a cavalry troop counted off by fours, and every fourth man had to stay behind during a dismounted attack). Taylor described watching his unit’s bravado-filled advance, even pointing out that Major Reno had to order soldiers to stop yelling war cries. He talked about the headlong retreat, and of somehow breaking one stirrup while fleeing the Sioux. He wrote about firing his pistol at pursuing Indians, the first time he had ever fired his weapon from horseback (plenty of today’s combat vets can relate to doing something in combat for the first time, when they should have been trained beforehand), and how he dropped the pistol during the mad dash to safety. He gave the name of a terrified young man who was shot in the head beside him. He spoke of his enemy with great reverence and respect. He told a story that feels honest and authentic, and is absolutely gripping.

In the 17 years since Taylor’s story was finally published, it has gathered only seven reviews on Amazon. The public just doesn’t seem interested. This is frustrating to me, because Taylor was the kind of man who interests me most: an ordinary man, in extraordinary circumstances.

So who does get all the attention from the literary world and much of the reading public? Anyone who’s “special”. Or at least claims they’re special.

Recently a war memoir titled Carnivore was published. The author is a retired Army Sergeant First Class and Silver Star winner named Dillard Johnson. Johnson commanded a Bradley Cavalry Fighting Vehicle during two Iraq deployments. His vehicle was in C troop and named Carnivore, inspiring the book’s title.

Johnson’s book was notable for several reasons: first, he claimed an amazingly high number of confirmed kills (2,746). He described himself as a sniper with 121 confirmed sniper kills. He told a story about being inside a hut one night and using a knife to slice through a 220 volt power line, cutting the electricity, because insurgents were in the hut. He claimed to have been in hand to hand combat.

Johnson was part of a proud Cavalry unit that did amazing and important things during the Iraq War. He apparently earned a Silver Star, which is a huge honor. He served two tours in Iraq, even though he had to fight off cancer between his deployments. He did much to be proud of.

And with his new book, he has completely dishonored himself.

Iraq and Afghanistan vets reading this probably started getting homicidally violent when they read about Johnson’s 2,746 alleged kills. By the time they finished the sentence about him being a sniper, while simultaneously serving as a platoon sergeant and Bradley commander, they were probably shaking with anger. Once they read the claim about him being in hand to hand combat, they may have killed the nearest unsuspecting hippy.

To a War on Terror veteran, Johnson’s claims scream “BS/lies/embellishment/nonsense”. Carnivore has garnered, as of this writing, 81 reviews. Many are from people who claim to know Johnson, or to have been in his unit during the period he wrote about. They almost uniformly say Johnson is a liar. They point out the obvious impossibilities of the claims he made. They go into detail about how much Johnson was hated, both as a soldier and as a contractor later. Other respected military bloggers and web sites have torn Johnson’s story to shreds. His book has been exposed as a work of fiction/fantasy, as close to real combat as Disney’s Cars is to the Indy 500.

But Carnivore is still on the Amazon Best Seller’s list. Johnson has been interviewed on a national media outlet. He’s been called one of America’s greatest and most humble heroes.

Johnson hasn’t exactly backed down from his claims. He has admitted that he didn’t personally kill 2746 enemy; his entire unit did. He’s admitted he wasn’t a sniper either; he was a designated marksman, but since the public “wouldn’t understand that term” he just called himself a sniper. When he was called a hero, sniper and was given credit for 2746 confirmed kills during a television interview he didn’t correct the interviewer; no, he was “flustered”, and didn’t point out that those things weren’t true.

To give him the benefit of the doubt, maybe he’s not a complete lying scumbag. One rumor floating around is that the publisher pushed him to embellish his background; after all, that would sell more books. And Johnson, being a combat veteran NCO and Silver Star winner (you know, not the kind of guy that would stand up for what’s right), was such a pushover that he went along with the publisher’s bad idea.

I guess that’s believable. I’m pretty sure the same thing happened with Kevin Powers, author of The Yellow Birds, the first supposed “classic” Iraq war novel. Powers was a humvee gunner in a combat engineer unit, yet on his book jacket he somehow became a machine gunner (no, those two things are NOT the same). But hey, “machine gunner” sells more books than “combat engineer”. So what the hell, go with it.

Either way, the success – ANY success – of Carnivore is a sad thing for America. Liars shouldn’t get book deals. Publishers shouldn’t salivate over stories that defy common sense because the author claims he was a sniper, Green Beret, SEAL or whatever. Combat vets who earned treasured awards for valor shouldn’t defile themselves to make a buck. Veterans shouldn’t send the message that our honor and integrity is worth less than a hefty advance for writing a book full of lies.

And most of all, William O. Taylor, an ordinary man who survived extraordinary circumstances, who chose to tell truth instead of self-aggrandizing fantasy, shouldn’t have gone to his deathbed believing his country never cared about his story.

NOTE ADDED 8/20/13:

Yesterday at Barnes and Noble I saw this magazine, with Johnson on the cover.

The article inside was about Johnson and one of his soldiers killing a Syrian sniper in Iraq at a range of 852 meters. Johnson repeatedly refers to himself as a sniper in the article. Some of the story is believable, some not so much. A soldier hitting an insurgent, in the head, the first time he ever fired a Barrett .50, at 852 meters? Not likely.

I also found this article (again), which I should have linked in the original post:

http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Backchannels/2013/0626/America-s-deadliest-soldier-or-stolen-valor

Johnson’s weak defense is noted at the beginning of the article.

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18 Responses to “Of Carnivores and Cavalrymen”

  1. It has always been thus. The simple warrior, the man of honor, the one who gets the job done and goes home, will always be ignored by those who care only about fame and fortune. Yet other men of honor will remember and memorialize them and speak of their deeds.

    You can tell the true warriors from the wannabes, because true warriors never speak of their exploits as anything special.

    • You know, I bet when cavemen had rock fights against other tribes, there was probably the one caveman standing by the fire after the fight grunting “Og hit other caveman in head with big rock! Og save tribe! Og hero, give Og animal skins and cave woman!”

      And behind him, three cavemen who had really saved the tribe stood quietly and whispered to each other, “Og so full of shit his eyes brown.”

  2. I can’t begin to imagine what Johnson’s resume would have looked like.

    Keep on keeping on, I’m enjoying your posts and books.

    I’m a nobody baptist missionary in Mexico, and I’ll be keeping it that way.

    Jack Slaughter Jerez de Garcia Salinas, Zacatecas, Mexico

    Sent from my iPad

  3. 5 DTWND

    I knew two men who served in WWII. My uncle was a Marine in the pacific. While working on the farm with his shirt off, I remember seeing round scars in his arm and back. I found out much later in life he was shot by a sniper, though he never talked about what he did in the war.

    I also talked to my Dad’s uncle who was in the paratroops. He would talk about training to become a paratrooper but never talked about what he did in Europe.

    My Dad told me that you could tell who the people were that actually did something during the war. Those were the ones who never talked about what they did. He said the ones who talked about their “heroic efforts” were most likely REMF’s.

    Sadly, all three men are no longer of this earth but I think that the earth is better because they were once here.

    • I know what you mean. Almost all my great uncles served in WW2, but the youngest one, the only one I really knew well, was a Marine in Korea. I know he was at Inchon and Chosin, but he absolutely would not talk about it.

      I talk about my experience, but I do my best to keep it in perspective. What I experienced was nothing like what my great uncles saw in WW2 and Korea, or what my dad’s cousin saw in VN.

  4. Thanks for rest of the story about Mr. Johnson. I remember reading about him in Investors Business Daily earlier this month. It’s a pity that they wrote such a glowing account of his exploits. I expected better of them.

  5. Life Rule Number One:
    Life isn’t fair.

    Johnson is a douchtard who’s defecated on his own service record. Integrity doesn’t stop being a leadership trait just because you’re no longer on active duty, but lack of it is always the caling card of the tinhorn jackhole.

    Recall that if not for Stephen Ambrose, no one would have heard of the Band Of Brothers of E/501, because the couple of personal memoirs that existed were about as well regarded as Taylor’s.

    What finally sold it was when the cable series came out, you could see that getting them to tell what they’d done and seen was mostly like pulling teeth, and even then there was much that will never come out.

    But thanks for the point towards Taylors story; I’ll have to give it a look. One reason there wasn’t and isn’t a lot of interest is that stories of losing batles seldom go over well.

    • True, life’s not fair. Sometimes it seems that it could be a bit more fair, though. I mean, we’ve had stories like Matterhorn that the publishing industry thought, for decades, the public wouldn’t be interested in. Then when it finally gets accidentally published, it spends 10 weeks on the NYT bestseller list.

      • The publishing industry, as part of the cultural media like TV, the movies, academia, etc., doesn’t publish stories just to make a profit, they publish the stories that they WANT to see make a profit. Pro-military conservative gun-owning neanderthal white males need not apply.

        If Naval Institute Press, which had never published fiction before, hadn’t taken a lucky chance on an unbelievable submarine novel by a total rookie, Tom Clancy would be a retired insurance agent from Eastern MD. His success got you Stephen Coonts, Harold Coyle, Dale Brown, Ed Ruggero, (all former military) and probably a dozen lesser lights, none of whom would’ve seen daylight if NY publishing firms had any say.

        If you write a novel about how all vets are PTSD-timebomb homophobic wife-beaters who eat babies, go postal on a kindergarten, and then cap themselves, you’ll be the darling of the book signing circuit, with a movie option in the wings. Witness the baker’s dozen anti-war movies made about Iraq & A-stan, some from novels, made and released to horrible box office while troops (inclding you) were actually engaged in combat at the time, despite how much money the one before it lost.

        And let’s don’t over look the possibility that Dillrod got his fantasies published because the publisher knew, or strongly suspected, that he was completely FOS, and wanted to exploit the image of him as a heartless wanton killer turned loose by Chimpy McBushitler, the Emperor Sithlord Cheney, and Darth Rumsfeld on the sweet, peace-loving children of Southwest Asia.
        Publishing that kind of narrative would be seen as pro bono charity work for The Cause.

        Look how much ink they’ve spilled trying to tell you that there’s no way a war-hero president who faced down Kruschev and humiliated the Soviets was killed by a frothing rabid, citizenship-renouncing avowed communist, because there’s no way a trained Marine with a scoped rifle could have put two bullets out of three into a slow moving target from under 100 yards.

        It’s not a conspiracy amongst themselves either. They just all went to the same schools, vote the same, think the same, hang out with themselves, and can’t, for the life of them, imagine how anyone else could sanely disagree with their point of view unless it’s someone who eats lead paint chips and drinks moonshine in trailerpark in flyover-country. And I’m probably soft-selling what they actually say to each other when they think no one’s listening.

        The beauty of things now is, the traditional gate-keepers are losing sway as technology democratizes culture. You can self-publish, I can make movies, someone else can do a YouTube weekly TV show, and none of us need spend more than about a month’s apartment rental in Hollywood or New York to completely skip the Old Guard system.

        Keep writing.
        We’ll beat down the gates, pee on their corpses, and YouTube the video.
        21st century rockstars, I tell ya.

        • “And let’s don’t over look the possibility that Dillrod got his fantasies published because the publisher knew, or strongly suspected, that he was completely FOS, and wanted to exploit the image of him as a heartless wanton killer turned loose by Chimpy McBushitler, the Emperor Sithlord Cheney, and Darth Rumsfeld on the sweet, peace-loving children of Southwest Asia. Publishing that kind of narrative would be seen as pro bono charity work for The Cause.”

          That’s an angle I hadn’t thought of before. Company publishes a book they know is BS. They know it’ll become so controversial it’ll make money even if all the lies are exposed. Company can blame the veteran writer for the lies, and even get all righteously indignant that someone suggests they shouldn’t have believed the author (since the left-leaning people in the literary industry so cherish all veterans). Book makes money, veteran looks like a liar in addition to being a violent moron, everyone’s happy. Sounds like a workable plan to me.

          I definitely share your vision of the Old Guard’s demise. Will I be part of that? Hopefully, but I realize I may not be. I could be the literary equivalent of the soldier who took one step onto the invasion beach before being hit. He only took one small step, but his successors accepted the German Army’s surrender.

  6. 13 MSG Kenneth Salyers

    Hmmmm I wonder why the douchebag isnt listed in the Silver Star registry….

  7. Johnson seems to belong to that odd species of lunatics who just seems to need to build a fantasy world of heroism around themselves. I have run into them from time to time.

    My favorite story in that regard involves a pretty but not very bright gold digger who believed the fantasy world of an ex-SEAL, Ranger, Delta Force, etc. member and married him. At the bachelor party he was telling me how he had been on a Pacific Island and had had the opportunity to marry an Island Princess, but turned her father down (the King) because he was waiting for his true love.

    I never could figure out how much of what he was saying was real to him. I don’t think in his mind it was all just fabrication.

    • I had the misfortune of meeting a Marine Medal Of Honor and Silver Star winner who also has five Purple Hearts. He was captured in Vietnam, escaped from a POW camp, led a team back to the camp and rescued 85 POWs. Plus he was a sniper in Russia before Vietnam. And he has mental problems from all the babies he killed in Vietnam.

      Unfortunately, the hero’s service records show he served 2 years stateside, no combat service. Funny, I guess the Marine Corps totally failed to document his awards.

      I call guys like that disgusting pieces of shit.

  8. I just finished reading Taylor’s book. Thanks for suggesting it. The contrast between Taylor and the braggart featured in the other book you mentioned is remarkable.
    I’d like to suggest another book for your readers– The Damned Engineers by Janice Holt Giles. Written by the wife of an NCO in the unit, it’s the story of the 291st Combat Engineer Battalion’s actions during the Battle of the Bulge.


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