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Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible Paperback – Apr 1 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
While there's no shortage of books on international terrorism, drug cartels and genocide, the international weapons trade has received less attention. Journalists Farah and Braun center their absorbing exposé of this source of global misery on its most successful practitioner, the Russian dealer Victor Bout. Throughout the Cold War, they show, the Kremlin supplied arms to oppressive regimes and insurgent groups, keeping close tabs on customers; after the U.S.S.R. collapsed, the floodgates opened in the 1990s. With weapons factories starved for customers, Soviet-era air transports lying idle and rusting, and dictators, warlords and insurgents throughout the world clamoring for arms, entrepreneurs and organized criminals saw fortunes to be made. The authors paint a depressing picture of an avalanche of war-making material pouring into poor, violence-wracked nations despite well-publicized U.N. embargoes. America denounces this trade, but turns a blind eye if recipients proclaim they are fighting terrorism, they say. Ruthless people who shun publicity make poor biographical subjects, and Bout is no exception. The authors' energetic research reveals that rivals dislike him, colleagues admire him, enemies condemn him, and Bout describes himself as a much-maligned but honest businessman. Although an unsatisfactory portrait, the book surrounds it with an engrossing, detailed description of this wildly destructive traffic. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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We all know that arms merchants, legal or otherwise, are big global players (the Nicholas Cage flick, "Lord of War," publicized the industry). But what may be less known is that many of them, with Bout at the top of the list, operate with the at least implicit complicity of governments around the world. So long as Bout markets his stuff as "weapons in the war against terrorism," so long as he sells to thugs whom governments approve, he seems to have lots of friends in high places who shield him from international police warrants and criminal prosecution.
So one of the more chilling subtexts of Farah and Braun's book is that creeps like Bout aren't really outlaws so much as allies of governments. He's like one of those slightly embarrassing cousins that you don't especially want at family reunions, but which everyone in the family secretly turns to when they need something. The Bouts of the world come and go. But their perennial presence in our midst is guaranteed by oceans of surplus weapons built by past and present superpowers, and the willingness of the remaining superpowers to turn a blind eye so long as those weapons are sold to the right people. Dirty hands all the way around.
Contents: The Delivery Man; Planes, Guns, and Money; A Dangerous Business; Continental Collapse; At a Crossroads; The Chase Begins; The Taliban Connection; Black Charters; Gunships and Titanium; "Get Me a Warrant"; Now or Never; "We Are Very Limited in What We Can Do"; Welcome to Baghdad; Blacklisted and Still Flying; Epilogue; Notes; Index
Farah and Braun dig into the history and background of one Viktor Bout, a Russian who has built an empire in transporting cargo. Using old Soviet-era planes, often barely airworthy, he flies anything and everything into global hotspots related to war and combat. While many of the loads do involve legal items like appliances and food, quite often the trips are much more clandestine and involve massive amounts of weapons. This can be anything from crates of AK-47s to full attack helicopters. And he's not terribly selective in who he sides with. On a number of occasions, he's actually supplied the weapons for both sides of the conflict. So long as someone will pay, he'll deliver the goods. Using global shell companies and partnerships, he can change plane registrations, launder money, and operate in violation of numerous UN sanctions and restrictions. Based on the research here, it doesn't look like any of the resolutions and embargoes have had much effect on his operations. He's well-known to many governments that pay lip service to stopping him, but few have actually done anything other than posture and talk.
The interesting part of the book is towards the end, when the authors start dealing with the Iraq war and the supply of US troops. A number of the contractors who fly in supplies will subcontract with others who actually own and fly the planes. And guess who owns a number of the subcontractors? Bout. Again, it's a matter of the government knowing that this is going on, but not wanting to do anything about it as it would limit the supply line into Iraq. The US government also will not put pressure on the Russian government to shut him down, as they don't want to create waves in other areas. This is a classic example of where right and wrong is clear, but expediency and politics turn it all grey.
The only issue I have with the book is that it becomes a bit repetitive at times. The research is thorough, but after awhile it seems like an endless litany of companies, corrupt leaders, and operations in various countries. Still, it's hard not to be dismayed that people and operations like this are allowed to exist, and that it's nearly impossible for international sanctions to be effective...
Don't get me wrong, this was a fascinating and interesting read. The mountain of data the authors have collected is amazing. The story this data weaves is engaging and scary all at once.
For a dry, VERY non-fiction book, it's still a very easy read.
Read this book for a fascinating look at black market arms trafficking from Russia to the tip of Africa and the "business" of one amoral opportunist -- but don't expect engaging prose or a creative and well-structured story; the book reads like a 250+ page news article.