Among the Potted Plants: A Soldier of Fortune Convention (WashPo Magazine)

The firing range lay in spectacular desert hills rising to a huge sky over Las Vegas, a blue immensity bounded by worn red stumps of rock like shattered molars. Startling pink strata cut through darker layers the color of clotted blood. Scrub vegetation struggled on the dry earth, forming such a wasteland that it was hard to focus on a couple of hundred people in military fatigues and antisocial T-shirts.

“S Troop on the road! Move’m out!” bellowed a man to no one in particular, indicating his community with fighting men everywhere.

The spectators, a convention of drugstore commandos pretending to be mercenary soldiers, sat in wheeled grandstands brought in from nearby Las Vegas. The men tended to fat, with the swarthy complexions of bulldozer operators and, sometimes, tattoos fading with the years. Everywhere was the aggressive T-shirt, loud with threat and bravado. “Happiness Is a Confirmed Kill,” said one. “There Are Few Social Problems That Can’t Be Solved By The Proper Application Of High Explosives,” offered another. A favorite was “Kill Them All And Let God Sort Them Out.”

Officials, some wearing side arms, stalked about while the chungchungchung of a heavy fifty-caliber In front of the stands stood a long table covered with pistols that use 9mm ammunition (more fashionably called nine mike-mike); silencers; a laser-aimed, silenced, fully automatic .22; submachine guns; machine guns (the distinction is that subguns fire pistol ammunition, while machine guns fire rifle ammo). Further out stood paper targets depicting hooded terrorists, generic targets for generic hostility, and permanent metal targets for pistols.

The announcer, in camouflage garb (cammies to those who know) and blue reflecting sunglasses, chatted with the crowd a bit and said, with the assurance of one who knows he is saying the right thing to the right people, “Today….we hope to prove…once again…that bullets speak louder than words.”

Applause. “Amen, brother.” Shoot them suckers. Any suckers.

Every year about 600 of these milk-wagon mercenaries forgather at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas for an annual convention held by Soldier of Fortune magazine, by reputation a dread manual of mercenaries. Though some genuine adventurers appear here, most of the attendees are gun buffs, Marines, Rangers, veterans and grocery clerks with weak egos. Each pays $100 for four days, exclusive of accommodations, to stalk around in camouflage suits, raise the price of brewery stocks, watch obscure guns being fired, and pretend for a brief interval that life isn’t as boring as it in fact seems to be.

Soldier of Fortune itself, circulation more than 150,000, was founded on $10,000 in 1975 by Robert K. Brown, an old rogue formerly of the Special Forces, formerly of…well, formerly of many groups and exploits, most of them not so much unsavory as irrational. More of Bob later.

The magazine bills itself as the Journal of Professional Adventurers, by implication of mercenaries, and sells a sort of warlike swagger and ominous significance, for which there is a bull market. The articles deal in genuine reportage from penny-ante wars, and in hard-eyed hokum about sniping techniques and the strangling of sentries. Some of the classified ads seem aimed at recruiting mercenaries and gunmen.

At the firing range, a wind-burned blond woman in a T-shirt (“D&B Sniper Rifles, The Next Best Thing To Being There”) watched two small children in camouflage. She applauded, as did the children, upon hearing that bullets speak louder than words. The patter may have been bloodthirsty, but it was purely atmospheric. The combined police records of this crew would be a boring collection of speeding tickets.

The announcer explained that for the next few hours the reps of gun manufacturers would model on the runways, so to speak, the latest in fall gun fashions from the collections of the better designers.

Next to professional golf, there is nothing so tedious as a fire power demonstration. Blap-clang-clang, blap-clang, babababaclangalang. The noise is not loud in the vastness, and nothing of interest happens. Blap-clang. The etiquette at these things is that when an automatic weapon is fired, one listens in silence, as though contemplating an ad-lib from a jazz combo, and then applauds furiously, the degree of fury depending on the length of the burst.

The sun was fierce, and after some idiot swung a loaded Uzi over his head on its sling, so that it pointed at the crowd in its arc, I decamped to meditate behind a concrete pole. Guns should not be used as, or by, yo-yos.

Reporters trickled in. Guns lying on the table pointed at the press, I noticed. So did they. Blap-clang, blap-clang. Oh, God, another gun, and it’s going to say blapclang.

Finally, a fellow walked out with, why, just an innocent briefcase! Hey, what was he, some kind of lawyer or something? Then, blapblapblapblap!-it fired! It was a disguised subgun, whooooeee! Just the thing when those international terrorists try to grab you right there in Turtle Junction, Nebraska. The audience was charmed. What could be more useful? The fellow reloaded and did it again to repeated applause.

There seemed nothing more productive to do than wander around and sample the Zeitgeist. For a moment I watched a fellow with a T-shirt (“Southeast Asian War Games, Second Place”) trying a pair of binoculars. “These have a hell of an optical presence,” he said knowledgeably. The clicking chatter of a silenced subgun came from the range. “Vietnam, Ours Was a Noble Cause,” read a T-shirt. Another of the bystanders, evidently a cop, told of beating up a suspect with sap gloves, a nifty item of apparel having lead sewn into the knuckles. Doubtless the manufacturer sells them only for defense against terrorists, or perhaps for playing Liszt. “They don’t leave a mark,” the cop said. “Not at all.” A T-shirt strolled by, “To Err Is Human, to Forgive Divine, Neither of Which is Marine Corps Policy.”

The culmination of the firepower demonstration was the firing of about a dozen machine guns simultaneously, including a .50-caliber, a wicked thing suitable for dawning airplanes. All these guns are legal to own if you have the right license. Far downrange against dry brown hills stood an abandoned bus wired by one of the staff to explode. “Just imagine,” shouted the announcer, “that out there in that field is an attacking horde of Contras accompanied by a CBS crew, and we’re going to get them.”

Huh? Wait. I could see puzzlement spread over the faces of the reporters. Aren’t the Contras the good guys? Then, what….? The announcer knew perfectly well who the Contras were, having spent a lot of time in Central America. But his distaste for the press was so great that he momentarily forgot who the real enemy was. Much of the audience didn’t notice.

The guns opened, brrt, whirrrp, chungchungchung, and the bus exploded in a flash of C4 and gasoline. Wowee, death to transit.

The bar back at the hotel was dark, packed with cammy-clad hardware clerks enjoying the camaraderie of men who have been through hell, but probably not through a war. The number of Vietnam vets at these martial clambakes is falling. The vets are getting older, acquiring obligations, families, habits and judgment. From time to time someone shouted, “Incoming!” or “Dinks in the wire!”

“Sweet gun,” somebody said. “You can take out a point man at 600 meters.”

The conventioneers, not quite resigned to lives of quiet respiration, were ardent for some desperate glory. Surely, they hoped, there must be more to life than stocking spark plugs at the local NAPA outlet. The solution was the T-shirt: “Join the Air Force, Go to Exciting Countries, Meet Interesting People, and Kill Them.”

“Check six! Check six!” said someone urgently. To a pilot this means look straight behind, which is where he doesn’t want an enemy airplane to be. It is a very military thing to say. The threatening aircraft in this case was a cocktail waitress.


Colonel Robert Brown himself wandered in, tight-coupled and fit in his early fifties, white of hair, greeting old friends. He has a shrapnel-pocked face and a conspiratorial tone hinting of many secrets, some of which he knows, and a hard glint in his eyes that, if you didn’t know he was play-acting, might persuade you that he was a dangerous man indeed. This is nonsense. One of Brown’s many travails is that he is not sure whether he is a mercenary or an over-grown kid imitating a mercenary. He suspects, though.

Bob is everybody’s friend but few are Bob’s friends, a distinction he does not encourage people to make. “Hey, Fred, you old deleted, how the deleted are you? Wife? Kids okay?” Checking his six, he whispered, “We gotta have a drink later.” He said it in the tone in which one would say, “The place is wired to blow, get out fast.”

Every Disneyland needs a terry-cloth mouse with big ears to set the tone for the clientele. Soldier of Fortune is no exception, so Brown trails behind him a retinue of spooks, Huns, and blade artists who seem to be peering deep into your carotids.

I once worked for Soldier of Fortune for a year, hoping to write a book about it (without success: “This is great stuff, Fred,” said the publishers, “but we know you’re making it up.” I wasn’t.). On staff, one sees how wonderfully screwy the whole enterprise is. There aren’t any mercenaries to speak of today. Every weedy little country with vague boundaries and a vaguer colonel has an army that, no matter how ragtag, is still too powerful to be overthrown by a few neurotic brigands. Mercs don’t make much money, there being an oversupply of bored ex-soldiers. Brown, who has a memory like a sieve, couldn’t be a mercenary if he tried, being insufficiently organized to get to the airport without the help of a large staff.

From a marketing standpoint, however, the magazine was a stroke of genius, appealing to some dark and sodden instinct thriving on grave mold and histrionics.

Upon starting Soldier of Fortune, Brown displayed a flair for…precisely what isn’t easy to say, but he certainly had a flair for it. The cover of the first issue was a moody moonlit shot of a bush-hatted merc sitting with his rifle behind barbed wire, and inside the magazine was a photo, now famous in certain circles, of an African who had been shot an inch above the eyes with a 12-gauge shotgun. It was a trifle grotesque, but the greatest attention-getter since Larry Flint discovered gynecology. Never mind that the issue appeared to have been put together by the inmates of a vocational-training school for lunatics.

The eccentric colonel and his magazine immediately won the riveted, horrified attention of the national media, which began carrying on like school girls who have discovered a snake. In the presence of cameras, Brown invariably adopted the expression of a man who spends his evenings pulling the legs off spiders. His voice, a sardonic abrasive gargle, seemed at home saying shocking things like, “I’d rather be killing Communists,” with an even more shocking sincerity.

The networks quickly detected fascism in Soldier of Fortune, a diagnosis correct perhaps of many of the readers but not at all of the staff-well, most of the staff-who are either amused liberals or grown-up kids playing in a paramilitary sand box. Brown improved his reputation by parading around with every known sort of exotic weapon, running ads apparently intended to recruit mercenaries, and spitting tobacco juice like an unruly camel. To make matters worse, multiple murderers and pinchbeck mercenaries over the years have tended to be subscribers. For example, Daniel Gearhart, the would-be mercenary from Kensington, Md., who was executed in Angola in 1976, got his job through an ad in Soldier of Fortune.

Believing the magazine to be dangerous, the media responded by making it successful. They savaged it. Unfortunately, the magazine appeals to people who detest the media, so that, commercially speaking, a denunciation by Phil Donahue was invaluable. Brown worked the media like a hand-crank, got his denunciations, got rich, and spent the money sneaking into Laos, Burma and Afghanistan for kicks. The magazine’s pages were filled with photographs of Brown waving an AK-47 on camelback somewhere outside of Kandahar, or Uncle Bob (with his staff) grinning from the camps of the Lao resistance. His writers regularly filed from deep within every war zone from the Spanish Sahara to Central America.

The old rogue holds his conventions chiefly to bask in the splendid good fortune of being Bob. He is a self-made man with an artist’s pride in his work, surrounding himself with admirers who swagger around in fatigues, talk just like soldiers, and generally maintain the requisite illusions.

Going up the escalator of the Sahara Hotel from the casino, I came to what was perhaps appropriately called the Space Room, filled with the exhibits for the Soldier of Fortune convention. Almost 9,000 people, not including conventioneers, paid $4 to see them. Once inside, I spent a few minutes chatting with the magazine’s female staff, acquaintances from years back. The women are by a long margin the most competent of the staff, although the men have a small edge in military experience. Both the men and women, by the way, are nice people, although for commercial reasons they try to suppress this information.

Someone gave me a brochure from “School Division, Shadow Protectorate International,” which offered to educate the earnest student in such things as “Sentry Removal-Hasty and Deliberate,” or “Expediential Death-The Quick Kill” (the latter being particularly attractive, I suppose, to the harried executive who barely has time for lunch).

Inching through the green mass, I found a bulletin board hyping a sort of endurance course in which one navigates across country collecting “heads” consisting of sandbags. The notice said: “Do you want to become a member of the most elite group going today? Would you like to earn the coveted Headhunter patch and thereby command the awe and respect of other conventioneers?” No, actually.

The hall was packed with cammied people moving among booths offering such useful things as ammunition and fighting knives; demolition manuals (“Improvised Explosives–How to Make Your Own”); T-shirts of crafted pugnacity, some having a lyrical and poetic nature (“Eat Lead, You Lousy Red” and “Kill a Commy for Mommy”); Army field manuals (“The Effects of Nuclear Weapons,” and “Tank, Combat, Full-Tracked, 105mm Gun, M1, 2350-061-2445 General Abrams”); and curiosities (“Spando-Flage-Deadly Deception” and “World’s Largest Manufacturer of Blowguns and Mold-Injected Darts”). There were stickers for your door (“Is There Life After Death? Trespass Here and Find Out” and “Never Mind the Dog-Beware of Owner”), for your bumper (“Poland Has Gun Control”), for study by your psychiatrist (“The Only Way They’ll Get My Gun Is to Pry It From My Cold Dead Fingers”).

Just inside the door was the booth of Heckler & Koch, a German gun manufacturer. A heavyset fellow in the booth’s machine-gun emplacement grinned-he looked like a biker-and rolled up his sleeve. He said, “The right to bare arms.”

A group called the Female Commandos, in cammy Jan-of-the-Jungle clothes, sold photos of themselves reclining languorously on tree branches.

An announcement revealed that a young couple intended to plight their troth, through good times and bad, in sickness and in health, in front of the Heckler & Koch booth. Las Vegas is noted for quicky-wedding chapels, but few of them contain machine gun emplacements. At the appointed time the bride appeared, a pretty blond Army sergeant, accompanied by her to-be, both dressed in cammies. They stood in front of the sandbags, under the logo, “In a World of Compromise, Some Men Don’t.” She held a bouquet. A large, approving, and green audience surrounded them. The pair seemed very much in love and were clearly having a hell of a good time. The bystanders spontaneously formed a bridal arch of crossed assault rifles, these being available in various calibers and rates of fire from surrounding booths. The newly joined negotiated the arch, and Brown made a short speech wishing them well with a minimum of suggestive allusions.

The crowd in the Space Room had a strong tendency to swagger, which didn’t bother me at all because sensible people love to show off. Nor did the heavy-duty masculinity. Washington’s tastes in codpieces run to Maseratis, press cards, uplift bras and good tables at trendy restaurants, but they are just another form of Smith & Wesson. And glorification of war is understandable in those who haven’t seen one.

But the romanticizing of death did bother me. Too many people here were dwelling on the grotesque and murderous, on the peculiar satisfactions of killing a guard with piano wire. There was a T-shirt showing a rat gnawing a skull, that read: “Rats Get Fat While Good Men Die.” Another, showing a skeleton in cammies pointing an AK straight at you, read: “I was Killing…When Killing Wasn’t Cool.” Twice I heard someone recount the story of the peacenik woman who approached a soldier just back from Vietnam and said, “How can you shoot women and children?” “Easy,” he said. “Lead ’em a little, and don’t jerk the trigger.”

The final banquet, presumably the high point of the convention, was held on a parking lot. Night having come, the cammied figures became vague shapes lit by signs advertising tasteless shows. At a long row of raised tables, brightly lighted, sat Brown and his friend John Donovan, a 300-pound all-muscle former Special Forces captain who works as an industrial demolitions expert. Behind them was a huge American flag, flanked by the Soldier of Fortune banner, a white field with red beret and crossed stilettos over the legend “Death to Tyrants.” The tyrants seemed incidental, but perhaps a flag saying simply “Death” would have been excessively candid.

I gnawed cold ribs, idly wondering whether the cow had been garroted, and watched the crowd. Many were just having a good time. A few believed themselves to be at a convention of mercenaries. Finally, Donovan stood and told the Marine color guard to do whatever it is that color guards do. Everybody rose with a great surge and rustle and wondered whether to salute, slouch in resentment at the imposition, or recite the pledge of allegiance. A retired colonel said a benediction of sorts without evoking much response.

The speeches began, tedious as those at any convention but interesting for the reaction of the audience. In particular, an Afghan spoke, struggling with English. I wondered where he thought he was. The crowd roared approval of the Afghan cause, applauding the hopes of the brave freedom fighters for victory over godless communism.

I repressed the suspicion that many of the roarers weren’t quite sure just where Afghanistan might be, and were not in fact deeply concerned over its form of misgovernment. Those who hate communism most seem to be those who can’t spell it, or have lived under it.

Donovan, who has a voice like a train coming through a tunnel, rose to lead the congregation in “America the Beautiful.” Unfortunately, he apparently couldn’t remember the words, falling silent for long periods and waving his hands in the manner of Lawrence Welk pretending to conduct an orchestra. The audience soughed on like the wind through the trees.

I left, barbecued-out, reflecting that theirs had indeed been a noble cause, in which they killed them all that God might do the sorting. Rats no doubt fattened while good men died, but one must expect some casualties while killing Commies for mommy.

The next day I ended up having a drink with Brown in the bar by the pool. When Brown drops his twin roles of mercenary chieftain and anti-Communist Robin Hood, both useful to him in different ways, he is a bright and engaging fellow with a fine sense of humor and not a trace of the morose murderousness of some of his followers. Some readers may find this rude of him: A mercenary ought to have the grace to be decently awful.

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The damage Brown does in the world results from inattention to consequences, from regarding wars as tree houses to be played in by his bandido gang, from a narcissism that is simultaneously without a trace of meanness yet not much interested in who gets hurt. His outlook is essentially tribal: He cares about a small group of close friends, and will go to great lengths to help them, but outlanders don’t concern him. Now, he is being sued because a professional hit man allegedly used Soldier of Fortune to place ads for his services.

Brown’s friends drifted by, chatted, laughed, remembered old times. They were not drugstore commandos. An attractive thirtyish woman with an accent and wide experience in Africa chuckled about the difficulty of judging altitude while free-falling through clouds. This led a fellow to tell of sky-diving into the frigid air at 35,000 feet (with oxygen) and how miserably hot he got a lower altitudes. “It was really quite awful. I was throwing gloves and things right and left.” A young man who had spent nearly a year inside Afghanistan told of lying just outside the perimeter of the Soviet airfield at Bagram and listening to the tires squeal as the MiGs touched down.

A heated discussion arose on the virtues of the A1 Skyraider fighter-bomber for close air support. A man who had been supported by them in the CIA’s war in Laos expressed approval. Then came discussion of means of evacuating wounded mujahedin from Paktia.

An intense young fellow, a born warrior, said, “You worry too much about the wounded. That’s a fixation of Western democracies. In places like Afghanistan, you accept casualties. They don’t matter, unless they get to the point of jeopardizing the mission.” Nods of agreement came from along the bar.

Monday morning in the casino of the Sahara Hotel: The early shift of gamblers hypnotically cranked quarters into the blinking machines. The casino was largely deserted. Several gamblers sat around a sort of slot-machine terrarium in which plastic horses jiggled along in slots. They yelled encouragement at their polyethylene nags while hooves electronically pounded. A remaining green-camouflaged conventioneer walked by, the Last Soldier, on his way to catch a plane. His T-shirt, thank God, said nothing.

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