Of Carnivores and Cavalrymen
This was published August 16th by Iron Mike magazine. http://ironmikemag.com/of-carnivores-and-cavalrymen/
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:
Johnson’s weak defense is noted at the beginning of the article.
Filed under: Writing | 18 Comments
Tags: carnivore, custer's last stand, dillard johnson, veteran writers, william taylor