Magazine Bazaar

Interview with Lt. Col. Robert K. Brown, founder, editor, and publisher of Soldier of Fortune

Approaching its thirty-fifth anniversary, Soldier of Fortune is one of a dwindling number of independent investigative magazines. How has the magazine been impacted by the recession and the shift from print to the internet?

Readership has changed a lot over the last fifteen years. One, the Cold War is over. Nobody is particularly interested in Mozambique or Angola or Central America anymore. They’ve sunk back into the same position that they were in before the conflicts there, into obscurity. Many of the regions we covered back in those days hold no interest anymore. And as you know, print magazines have taken a heavy hit recently. We have downsized over the years because of that. We no longer have the budget to send reporters to various arcane locations throughout the world.

But you continue to publish investigative work, such as the recent exposé of four million dollars in unlawful perks to ATF personnel in Iraq. And you still provide extensive coverage of issues, open-seas piracy, and military quagmires like the narco wars in Colombia, before the mainstream media does. How do you manage that?

Over the last thirty-five years, we have developed an extensive network of contacts who provide us with material like the story on corruption in the ATF. These vary from former government officials and military personnel to anti-communists from foreign countries to contractors and freelance journalists.

When you did have the money to send reporters around the world, what were the magazine’s most ambitious missions — both in terms of the conflict and what the reporters were tasked with doing, beyond reporting.

In a large number of cases, we sent reporters over on what we called “participatory journalism” assignments. We’d carry guns. If we were shot at, we shot back. We didn’t hide behind a log. And in many cases we were involved in training various and sundry troops, from ethnic minorities in Burma to the Christian militias in Lebanon to the Contras. I’ve had several of my reporters killed in the course of pursuing their vocation, working primarily as writers but also giving advice and training to these groups. One that comes to mind is the story of Lance Motley, a West Point graduate who left the army after five years because he was bored, even though he had some good assignments. He started working with us, traveling to conflict zones all over the world. He ended up with the Karens in eastern Burma, where he caught a shrapnel round to the skull. He bled to death before we could get him back over the border to Thailand.

A New York Times article about the magazine in 2000 quoted a professor of media studies as saying “Soldier of Fortune has become an oxymoron. There was once a fortune to be made in being a soldier. There is no place where those folks can go and fight the good fight and make some money.” Clearly, that’s no longer true. Has interest in the magazine shifted with the proliferation of private contractors working in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other conflict zones? And do you see those companies — and their employees — as having some affinity with the ethos of your magazine? Or are you wary of the corporate consolidation of the soldier profession?

We have no demographic studies, but it’s obvious to us that many contractors read SoF. Lt. Col. Ollie North, now a correspondent for Fox News, stated that SoF is more read by the troops overseas than any other magazine. I do think that one can make a reasonable case that SoF were the first modern “contractors,” as we provided combat-experienced military personnel — former Marine Recon, SEALs, Special Forces, Rangers, etc. — to assist the US in both El Salvador and against the Sandinistas. In fact, one former Marine Recon advised the Salvadoran Army for seven years.

Long after Soldier of Fortune was forced to close its classified pages because of lawsuits alleging that you were responsible for people who advertised in the magazine and were hired to perform hits in the US, companies like Xe and Triple Canopy are basically replicating that system on a massive scale.

Well, we served a function in Salvador, just like contractors serve a function to the US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan — supplementing their forces. Congress had restricted the number of people you could have there as trainers, so we went in; this is pretty much what the army is doing now in Iraq and Afghanistan. But this isn’t new; the scale of it now is just different.

You fought in Vietnam, and for much of SoF’s history the magazine acted as one of the country’s most prominent advocates for veterans and POWs and MIAs. Have you found that, because of this history, the magazine has developed — or been expected to develop — a similar relationship with veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? I see that many of the videos on the SoF site are contributed by active-duty soldiers, which provides reporting on the war, in addition to some experience of what it’s like to be fighting it — an update of SoF’s brand of participatory journalism.

Young troops identify with SoF just like their predecessors a generation ago. One of the main things SoF covered in the old days was the Vietnam veteran. And those veterans are older now, and more mellow — unfortunately, there are fewer of them, too. When they came back from the war, they were spit on. We wanted to give their troubles exposure, and give space to the stories that occurred in Vietnam. We wanted to say, “Here’s what we did, and we’re proud of it.” We still carry stories on Vietnam, but we now feel a responsibility to tell the stories of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, too, which explains why the magazine is so widely read by military in those countries.

Soldier of Fortune once solicited funds for the anti-government forces in Afghanistan during its conflict with the Soviets. Do you regret that? Are there conflicts in which you feel like, retrospectively, Soldier of Fortune was on the wrong side?

To be brutally candid, certainly an Afghanistan controlled by a surrogate regime of the Soviets would have presented less of a challenge to the United States and Western civilization than the nutso Islamic fascist terrorists who threaten to seize Afghanistan and try to force it into the confines of seventh-century stupidity as well as use the country as a safe area for all Islamic terrorists. I was in Afghanistan three times and got in firefights three times. Based on the information I had at the time, I made the right decision. And, of course, we were working with a moderate muj group. If you could be reporting about and fighting from one place now — the conflict whose story tells us the most about the nature of war and of our own military and society today — what would it be, and what would you want to write about it? As far as reporting about and fighting for a cause that I believe in, I would choose assisting the ethnic minorities in eastern Burma, primarily the Karens. I have great empathy for the remaining Hmong in the highlands of Laos but feel nothing can be done to help them. I had a reporter killed by the Burmese thugs in 1987 and have been to Burma — illegally, of course — three times. We have sent trainers and medical teams to the area over the years, as well as giving the conflict more public exposure than any other media outlet. Probably the most significant thing we did in the last couple years was convincing Sylvester Stallone to focus the theme of his latest Rambo movie on the Burmese oppression of the Karens. When the movie was released, it caused quite a stir, resulting in demonstrations in many cities throughout the world and articles that would never have been published had not the Rambo movie been released.

How has conflict reporting changed since the decline of the kind of participatory journalism that SoF has supported for so long?

There are more and more reporters who have no experience covering war, much less participating in it. The quintessential example is Sarajevo. I can’t blame the reporters for being naive. I blame the editors for sending them over in the first place. They had no point of reference. Are you going to send someone with a BA in literature to interview the mechanic at a nuclear power plant, when they don’t know a piece of wood from a piece of coal? It’s the same thing with conflict reporting. Some of these kids are just dumber than dog shit.

You’re on the board of the NRA, and Soldier of Fortune has always been a fierce supporter of the right to bear arms. What do you make of the increasing number of domestic militias in the US, and the seeming anxiety about the government denying people their constitutional rights? Are people overstating the threat the government poses to their liberties?

The bottom line is that the rationale for the right to bear arms is the same as it was prior to the Revolutionary War. Look at the battles of Concord and Lexington. Why did they happen? Because King George’s soldiers were trying to confiscate the colonists’ arms, and they revolted. If the government becomes tyrannical, it’s the right of the people to resist. This is why the Jews ran into such problems in Europe; if people are disarmed, they can’t respond to government oppression. People say it could never happen here, but you can’t predict what the future holds. If I had gone into the Officers’ Club at Pearl Harbor on December 6 and said the Japanese are going to launch a sneak attack, I would have been laughed at. But that’s what happened.

I know you don’t partake in firefights so much these days, but you’re still running Soldier of Fortune. I imagine you plan to keep doing so until the day you die.

I’m working on memoirs as time allows, and I do take vacations — if you have nothing more exciting to do, join me for a spot of lion hunting in Africa this season. But I will certainly continue at SoF until they plant me in the ground. What else am I supposed to do? Sell the magazine, buy a ranch, and chew Skoal on the front porch as I watch the cows go by? My motto, which will be scripted on my tombstone, will read: “Slay dragons, do noble deeds, and never, never, never, never give up.”