Saturday, 9 May 2009

Book Review: Merchant of Death, by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun (2007)

As long as there is war, there are arms merchants. Viktor Bout is a modern-day arms merchant, emerging from Russia in the post cold-war era of the early 1990's and assembling and operating a large fleet of aging and rickety Russian aircraft to supply weapons to whoever was willing to pay for his services.

Tin-pot dictators, Marxist revolutionaries, Islamic militants, and the United States government; Bout did not really care who was using his services and for what purposes -- he just delivered, and often to both sides in the same conflict.

Creating a dizzying number of air cargo companies with ever-changing names, operating from out-of-the-way airports and rudimentary landing strips in the middle-east, central Europe, and darkest Africa, and mastering the art of aircraft concealment and fake documentation, Bout stayed out of the spotlight but very much in the middle of the action.

He helped to feed the endless need for weapons and ammunition in the brutal wars of Sierra Leone, Congo, Angola, Afghanistan, and finally, and ironically, shipping weapons and supplies for the US Army in Iraq. His services to the US government were flourishing at the same time as US government efforts were supposedly being ratcheted up to close down his operations.

Journalists Farah (formerly with the Washington Post) and Braun (Los Angeles Times) take on the always difficult task of writing about an uncooperative subject. They do an admirable job of collecting all the facts and figures and presenting them in a somewhat readable form, but they fail miserably on a couple of fronts: they never find a human centre to the book, and they never properly tackle the strategic aspects of the international trade in weapons, to provide perspective.

Without any emotional core, the book is unfortunately a dry, witless line-up of facts, completely lacking a narrative thread or interesting arch. It represents the effort of journalists who are far removed from having any book-writing talent.

The book is not helped by the introduction of an endless assortment of United States and European government and security officials and researchers who tried over the years to track and put a stop to Bout's activities. None are presented with any human dimension, and they remain interchangeable names that poke their heads in and out of the thick bushel of facts.

The book would have been helped enormously had it provided as background and context the strategic reality of global arms trading. The five members of the United Nations Security Council are by far the world's largest manufacturers of weapons. Significant sectors of their economies are dependent on maintaining a fire under global conflicts in order to continuously profit from selling weapons.

The large economies of the world need men like Viktor Bout to do the dirty work of trading with the men who have blood on their hands. In breathlessly lamenting the lack of global action against Bout over the past 20 years, Farah and Braun appear naively oblivious to the larger realities of the world in which weapons technology and manufacturing are actively promoted and endlessly funded by the supposed guardians of global law and order.

Bout himself is irrelevant and replaceable. His function is not, and that is what matters to the world's superpowers.

Sub-titled: Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible
Paperback published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

261 pages, plus Notes and Index.

Ace Black Blog Book Review No. 19.

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