Review: “Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man who makes War Possible” – Stephen Braun and Douglas Farah

“Merchant of Death” by Stephen Braun and Douglas Farah is the story of Viktor Bout, the Tajik-born Russian arms dealer who was the inspiration behind the 2005 film Lord of War starring Nicholas Cage. According to Braun and Farah, Bout’s arms smuggling operation was gargantuan. Bout owned a fleet of massive Soviet cargo planes, such as 40-60 Ilyushin II-76, with a payload capacity of 40 tonnes, which he used to supply arms to warlords, dictators, and militants throughout Africa and Asia. Through numerous front companies based in Belgium, Liechtenstein, the UAE, Equatorial Guinea, the Central African Republic, and elsewhere, Bout supplied assault weapons, millions of rounds of ammunition, helicopter gunships, food and uniforms, and other supplies to any willing buyer. Some of Bout’s customers included: Charles Taylor, the warlord turned president of Liberia, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone, Jean-Pierre Bemba’s rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA rebels in Angola, both the Afghan government of Rabbani and the Taliban simultaneously, the Rwandan and Ugandan occupation forces in the DRC, Bosnian separatists in Yugoslavia, the FARC in Colombia, and even the US, which paid Bout’s organization $60 million to airlift supplies for US forces in Iraq. According to Braun and Farah, Bout was the only man that could deliver the supplies needed by such a diverse range of armed factions. Nobody else had access to the weapons and the delivery capabilities to airlift tonnes of arms in dense African jungles on impromptu landing strips. Everyone tolerated his duplicity and harsh temperament because he was indispensable to them.

Braun and Farah offer a fascinating portrait of a ‘Merchant of Death.’ However, the book is written like the mass-produced, poorly edited, and poorly fact-checked newspaper article that it is. The fact that Peter Bergen provides one of the recommendations of the book printed on the back testifies to this. This is not a scholarly work on the arms trade or the conditions that enabled a man like Bout to flourish in the post-Cold War era. On the contrary, this is a low-budget and sloppy Whodunit masquerading as a legitimate biography or analysis. (Perhaps that is slightly harsh, but I really have little tolerance for the dumb-down nonsense that is mass-produced for an ignorant populace to make a quick buck. Rant over.)

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