Graeme Wood

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A Bout of Moral Ambiguity

The American (online)

Review of Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible by Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun.

Two journalists, in their new book, profile a key figure in the global arms trade.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of two Soviet technological triumphs: The maiden flight of the Antonov-12 transport plane in March 1957, and Sputnik’s launch the following October. Sputnik burned up in the atmosphere three months after its launch, but Antonovs—in many cases now patched with duct-tape and scrap metal—are still flying today. As one of the workhorses of the Soviet fleet, the An-12 has carried untold tons of cargo to remote airstrips where a daintier plane would have crunched its landing gear or smashed a propeller. Its wide loading-deck and rear door make it a favorite for carrying cars, passengers, and irregular cargo. But its most notorious payloads have been guns.

Though not considered much at the time, the An-12’s geopolitical impact seems poised to exceed that of the beeping, short-lived Sputnik. Two American reporters, Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, have compiled an exhaustive dossier on the most famous operator of these ex-Soviet cargo planes, the Russian logistics entrepreneur Viktor Bout. A shady figure with sharp business acumen and seemingly infinite moral flexibility, Bout has for years commanded a huge private fleet of Antonovs and Ilyushins, though the current extent of his business is unclear. His planes have carried lucrative legitimate freight such as frozen chickens and gladiolas, as well as vast arsenals of small arms destined for Africa, Central Asia, South America, and Europe. His clients, who have included Liberian warlord Charles Taylor, the Taliban, Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, and the United States, share no unifying political sympathy whatsoever.

Bout began appearing in U.S. intelligence briefings — suddenly and fully-formed, the authors quote an intelligence official saying, “like Jesus” — in the mid-1990s. For years he flew out of the Emirate of Sharjah, a member of the United Arab Emirates whose airport served as a free-trade zone. Sharjah outlawed money laundering only in 2002.

Bout acquired not only huge numbers of ex-Soviet planes but also many of the former Soviet air force pilots who flew them, and who were willing to forgo the Russian winter to earn a thousand bucks a month in the African and Arabian sun. The authors say that by 1998, Bout had amassed at least $5 million, according to intelligence reports and US Treasury department officials. Since then he has made enormous sums — roughly $100 million—by arming the Taliban and flying cargo into Iraq for U.S. government contractors, including KBR and FedEx. Bout’s genius, the authors say, was to join his entrepreneurial spirit with an intimate knowledge of the decaying Soviet system, whose physical and human capital he exploited vigorously.

Farah and Braun examine Bout’s life and business in minute detail; their work reflects painstaking excavation of an industry that prefers the shadows, and it consolidates interview material and intelligence reports not only from arms-control experts and intelligence professionals, but from Bout’s own associates. (Much of their sourcing is, however, anonymous.)

Yet basic facts remain obscure. Bout’s associates whisper rumors of links to the Soviet intelligence services. Bout had a personal security detail of highly trained Russian intelligence agents during his time in Liberia. Farah and Braun trace his astonishing start in aviation—not a cheap industry to enter—to his purchase of three Antonovs in 1992, when he was only 25. But the source of his seed money is still mysterious, and Bout’s partners claim it was furnished by elements of Russian intelligence.

As a person too, Bout is a cipher. He did not give the authors access—he tried to kill Farah—and so the narrative lacks a distinct and intimate sense of the man himself. Second-hand accounts leave Viktor Bout the man sounding like a curious and even comical muddle of contradictions. Some say he has a sense of humor, and others find him utterly charmless. A previous account—the result of a multi-day in-person interview with Bout in 2003—says Bout is an animal lover and a vegetarian, but this book suggests he enjoys hunting endangered Marco Polo sheep from helicopter gunships in Afghanistan. Bout sponsored a cyclist on a world “ethical ecological” tour, but his ethics and ecology somehow also allow him to put Kalashnikovs in the hands of child soldiers. Bout now lives comfortably in Moscow. (His former associate in Sharjah, Richard Chichakli, works as a CPA in Texas. He maintains an unhinged Web site defending himself against allegations of criminal gun-running and advertising his talents as an arranger of fruit plates.)

Merchant of Death skirts this moral dimension. Bout and his associates offer justifications of his trade, and while their excuses are certainly tortured, they are not as easily dismissed as the authors suggest. In essence, the arms traffickers say, their cargo is no one’s business but the shipper’s and the consignee’s. Aircraft take off and land from airfields, which are meant to come equipped with customs agents and police. To demand that the owners of planes shoulder the full ethical burden of their cargo is like asking taxi drivers to vet their fares.

Bout did, after all, fly humanitarian and UN missions as well as military ones. (Like everyone else, the UN hires the lowest bidder.) Moreover, UN arms embargoes do very little good—to date only one person, a Dutch partner of Charles Taylor, has faced prosecution for violating them—and may in fact do some harm. Unenforceable rules weaken enforceable ones by undermining public respect for rules generally. And embargoes have kept vulnerable populations from exercising legitimate defense. In the case of the Bosnian war of the 1990s, the authors note, the arms ban on ex-Yugoslav countries lent an advantage to the Serbs, since they enjoyed a robust arsenal from before the ban. The U.S., recognizing this unfairness, backed the embargo in public statements but in practice allowed the Bosnians to arm themselves. Among those who supplied the weapons was Viktor Bout, whose efforts U.S. officials silently cheered.

In this sense Bout operates like a Swiss bank, a service that profits everyone involved and maintains a useful indifference to its clientele. To end his operation would make arming dictators more difficult, but it would also hinder tsunami relief, and U.S. and UN operations, not to mention markets for frozen chicken. Nevertheless, Bout almost certainly knew who would be firing the guns he delivered, and he must have known what they intended to do with them. Charles Taylor, the international miscreant who led an army of boy-soldiers, called Bout his “pepper bush,” a term of endearment. If Taylor is a war criminal, then Bout is almost certainly his accomplice or accessory.

Then again, he is not the only one. The pedigree of culpability does not end with the delivery man. Upstream in the logistical flow, someone built the weapons, and someone loaded them onto the planes. It’s unclear that Bout deserves more or less blame than these others.

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