Skip to main content

It is a story so bizarre, blood-curdling and emblematic about money and profit, that it beggars belief. And it's true. It needs to be seen, so that we learn about corporate interests and what motivation fuels those interests.

The story is told in Frontline: Firestone and the Warlord (PBS, 10 p.m.), a 90-minute documentary investigation (made by Frontline and ProPublica, the "independent, non-profit newsroom") of the secret relationship between the American tire company Firestone and the infamous Liberian warlord Charles Taylor. Look up Taylor online and one of the first things you find is a New York Times reference to Taylor unleashing, "a tsunami of rape, murder, torture and dismemberment." And that's only in reference to his involvement in Sierra Leone. Before that, there was Liberia itsel

So the story begins in Liberia in the 1980s. We're told that freed American slaves founded the country in the 19th century and proceeded to replicate the society they had left in the U.S. There were plantations, slaves and a rigid hierarchy. By the 1980s, Firestone was the largest employer in Liberia. It owned the largest rubber plantation in the world there, and footage of it is an impressive sight. There were more than eight million rubber trees, all in neat rows. It was "a beautiful forest," says a former Firestone executive.

Those American executives who ran the plantation in Liberia lived lives of splendid isolation. They had their own compound with a golf course, a lake and mansions to live in. A former Firestone manager who lived there says: "You didn't feel danger. A few rogues might try to break into your house while you were in town. That was all."

On Christmas Eve in 1989, a man named Charles Taylor appeared "in the jungle," we're told, and declared that a revolution was under way. One former Firestone executive says of Taylor: "He was not the kind of person you'd buy a used car from." A journalist who covered events in Liberia calls him, "an evil, venal sociopath who was charming."

Taylor went to war against Liberian president Samuel Doe and began to win. Meanwhile, Firestone carried on, regardless. BBC correspondent Elizabeth Blunt, who was in Liberia for much of the period, recalls being invited to spend time at the Firestone compound as the country descended into a horrific civil war. "It was lovely, normal," she says. "They were hoping it would go away."

It didn't. Taylor's forces seized the compound, murdering many of the employees who could not flee. The Firestone managers eventually left Liberia. What happened in the country then is beyond our imagination. Taylor's armies of boy soldiers – often dressed in outlandish costumes, wearing wigs and fright masks – murdered, looted and raped. Month after month, village after village. We see them, these strange-looking monsters, high on some drug or other. We see the dead bodies, we see dogs feeding on dead bodies. Eventually, Taylor controlled most of the country and declared himself president.

And then – and here is the point, in all its ghastly logic – Firestone went back to Liberia. As is pointed out, 40 per cent of the latex used in the United States was coming from Liberia before the war. Firestone's board was worried about the future. There was profit to be made. Besides, the company bosses in Akron, Ohio, realized, "Whoever was going to run Liberia needed Firestone."

A former Firestone staffer describes the return and says that in driving the road to the plantation, they were, literally, driving over the bones of the dead. American diplomats discouraged Firestone from returning, knowing the company would have to do business with Taylor. The company ignored the warnings. Today, some say the company was committed to its workers there, to stabilizing and improving the lives of employees. Others scoff and a Liberian who lived through it all, says, "Profit, profit, profit."

We learn about senior Firestone executives making obsequious overtones to Taylor and meeting him. The program's climax is the revelation of documents, previously unreported diplomatic cables, court papers and Firestone memos. They illustrate the system of payments made by Firestone to Taylor. The money, of course, paid for Taylor's "tsunami of rape, murder, torture and dismemberment."

Near the end of this extraordinary program, the former controller of Firestone says Taylor was "a gentleman." He is unmoved by other views. Taylor, he points out, was articulate and always acted "like a gentleman" with him and other Firestone management.

In 2003, a United Nations tribunal indicted Taylor on 17 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was tried in The Hague in 2007 and the trial lasted almost six years. In 2012, Charles Taylor was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Firestone continued on with its business and, last week, by its own account, "Firestone Liberia Inc. is making progress in its efforts to contain the spread of the Ebola virus at its Liberian plantation."

Extrapolate what you want from the story. But for many people, of all that is told in this Frontline, the pivotal moment is when someone talks about, "profit, profit, profit."