Ex-soldier fights uphill battle

By Toby Bartlett

There were times when it would have been easier to give it all up. Money trouble, stress and instability remain constant problems. Yet Scott Taylor presses on with his magazine, Esprit de Corps.

Taylor sits on a cream-coloured couch in his living room. The skin on his face is drawn tight, a telltale sign of a long and stressful day.

He wears a denim shirt with the top few buttons undone and gently strokes his aging black and white cat, which is purring beside him.

“I would imagine it’s read by the majority of serving and retired personnel,” says retired Maj.-Gen. Lewis Mackenzie of the magazine. “Scott deserves a lot of credit for keeping the magazine through tough times.”

The monthly magazine, published from an office on Somerset Street West, contains a mix of history and current affairs relating to the Canadian military.

Once a strictly pro-military publication, it shifted in the early ‘90s to a more critical stance. The change earned Taylor and the magazine infamy with the Department of National Defence – the reason for his perennial shoestring budget.

Taylor served a three-year term in the military in the mid-‘80s. He enlisted in his early twenties, after graduating from the Ontario College of Art, looking for adventure.

“I was keen on all the real front-end stuff,” he says. “I didn’t want to join the army and count socks.” Now 41, with brush cut dark hair, a muscular build and a straightforward manner, he could easily pass for a long-term military man.

His wife, Katherine, was his high school sweetheart and has been with him his entire adult life. She now works at the magazine, taking care of advertising and balancing the books.

“He could have become one of the boys,” she says. Instead, the military is now referred to as “they.”

It was while serving in Germany that Taylor first got the idea for the magazine. Together with Katherine, an artist who began doing military paintings while in Germany with him, Taylor got involved in a ski and travel magazine. The experience inspired him to start Esprit de Corps.

“It was just a puff piece,” he says of the magazine’s early days. “Very little text, bilingual, glossy. Now, we could do that much text in an afternoon.”

At first, in the late 1980s, advertising came from Department of National Defence contractors – huge companies like General Motors and Bell Helicopters

Eventually, the military air travel service on which Esprit de Corps had been circulated, stopped. Taylor lost his readership. He decided to take a big step and make the magazine an independent monthly.

But the second edition, published in June of 1991, sparked a controversy.

“We dared to criticize Marcel Masse, as the [defence] minister,” says Taylor. “And they yanked us. That started the first big war.”

The next day, Esprit de Corps was pulled off Air Canada flights.

“I think I was so naïve as to think that if the brass just found out, they would correct it,” says Taylor of his early reports of corruption in the ranks. “But it’s like the movies where you think ‘I’m going to take this to the sheriff.’ Then you find out he’s in on it.”

What’s it like for Katherine working with her husband at a controversial magazine like Esprit de Corps?

“It’s frustrating, lots of times,” she says, pointing to the money shortage as a reason.

But it can also be inspiring. “Scott is an eternal idealist,” she says. “He believes things can change for the better.”

She too likens their situation to a movie, but in her version Scott is the character who reveals the sheriff’s corruption.

“They tolerated us at certain points,” he says, until Esprit de Corps began reporting on scandalous behaviour by members of the Canadian military in Somalia in 1994.

“That’s when they went nuts,” Taylor recalls. “They went to all the contractors and told them to pull out. In three days everybody was sending us faxes. Everybody pulled out, even those with pre-paid ads.”

In the summer of 1994, Taylor laid off five people and often didn’t know when he would be able to afford printing the next issue.But at the same time, Esprit de Corps proved itself as a key player in military affairs.

“We were the lightning rod for all that stuff,” says Taylor of the Somalia inquiry. “They knew we were dangerous, because we knew what was going on.”

“He’s earned some credibility,” says Mackenzie. “I’d hate to see it go, because it would mean people probably ganged up on him.”

Taylor began to write books as a way to make money to support the magazine, but his books, including Tarnished Brass and Tested Mettle, are very good sellers on their own.

Brian Nolan, another Ottawa-based military expert, co-authored the books.

“He’s difficult,” says Nolan of Taylor as a working partner. “He’s very demanding and kind of confrontational.”

Nolan also describes Taylor as “the most informed journalist in the country on the state of the Canadian military.” He says having a demanding partner is worth it for the sake of a better book.

Despite his criticism, Taylor maintains a deep-rooted love of the military.

“The people who work for the magazine love the military a hell of a lot more than the people who defend it,” he says. “They’d be the first ones to think we’re attacking the system. No: trying to carve out a cancer doesn’t make the doctor a criminal.”

Taylor’s point of view changed drastically when he made the transition from the military to the outside.

“Seeing Yugoslavia and what is referred to as ‘collateral damage,’ ” he begins, describing his reporting work with the magazine. “It changed my whole perspective on warfare.”

He goes on to describe a bombed-out shelter he visited in Baghdad.

“We saw video of the bombing. One bomb explodes, then a second goes right inside and blows up. Nobody saw what the impact was.”

He recalls haunting details from that trip.

“Little kids were all kept in a nursery area. Once the fire started to burn, you could see where the kids had climbed out of bed and you could see their hand prints, still. Their hand marks are burned into the concrete.”

Esprit de Corps ran into its worst financial trouble ever in 1996. The Taylors sent the two employees they had left on vacation for two weeks, with the understanding that if they didn’t get things straightened out in that time, it would be the end of the magazine.

Taylor travelled to Toronto to meet with a group representing Conrad Black, hoping to strike a deal. It didn’t happen. But a story in the Globe and Mail attracted enough attention to get the ball rolling again.

“A volunteer came in and ran the office for three days while I was away,” says Taylor. “I didn’t even meet her until I got back.”

During that time, a rally of lifetime subscriptions, donations and forgiven debt from creditors started to change things for the better. Within two weeks, the magazine was back on its feet.

“It was at the height of the Somalia stuff,” says Taylor. “People thought we’d be gloating, but we were dying.”

Now, thanks to book sales and other work, Esprit de Corps is closer to being free from debt than it has been in a decade. But while things seem stable now, Taylor isn’t taking anything for granted.

Advertising revenue, once $30,000 per issue, has dropped to about $4,000. The money covers printing costs for the 10,000 copies distributed, but all other funding comes from Taylor’s book sales, freelance work for newspapers and sales of a Canadian military encyclopedia he and Katherine produced.

Donations kept the magazine afloat at times.

“They kept us going when we most needed it,” he says. “There are some great Canadians out there.”