Soldier of Fortune

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  • Soldier Boy

    NRA Board Member Robert Brown Is Still Making A Killing

    Blog ››› ››› DAVID HOLTHOUSE
    Robert K. Brown at the NRA's
    2011 annual meeting.

    When I was in sixth grade my parents took away my collection of Soldier of Fortune magazines. This was in the mid-1980s, the Rambo-era heyday of the "journal of the professional adventurer." The seizure was preceded by a parent-teacher conference at which exhibit A was a recent two-page essay I'd written about wanting to be a mercenary when I grew up. Or a ninja.

    I remember Soldier of Fortune articles in those days being a macho-to-the-max amalgam of firearms reviews, anti-gun control rants, Vietnam POW conspiracy theories and gory first-hand reporting on Cold War proxy wars, military coups and revolutions in Second and Third World nations. But what made Soldier of Fortune so enticing in my 11-year-old mind was less its editorial content than its infamous advertising.

    Along with ads for mail-order brides, bounty hunter training manuals, surveillance electronics, Secrets of the Ninja lessons (including "mind clouding" and "sentry removal"), Nazi memorabilia, machine guns, silencers, and sniper rifles, Soldier of Fortune advertised the services of guns for hire.

    "It's directed at professional mercenaries -- men who will fight for pay and those who want to hire them," wrote Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko in March 1984. "But since mercenaries represent only a tiny portion of the reading population, the magazine tries to broaden its appeal to include those who might be called war fans, weapon-lovers, fanatic anti-commies and Walter Mitty types who enjoy the vicarious thrill of reading about blood and guts."

    Royko left out elementary school D&D geeks. For my Dungeons & Dragons buddies and I, reading Soldier of Fortune was like perusing a Dungeon Master's Guide or Monster Manual. It was a portal to a fantasy world. We talked about killing commies the same way we talked about slaying orcs. Then we grew out of it.

    Robert K. Brown never did. Brown, the founder and publisher of Soldier of Fortune, has long rocked "Kill a Commie for Mommie" t-shirts with no sense of irony. But unlike a dungeon master, Brown invited his readers to live out their armchair warrior daydreams in places where people died for real.

    For several years after Brown founded Soldier of Fortune in 1975, the magazine ran full-page recruiting ads for the Rhodesian Army, which employed foreign mercenaries to defend the apartheid-style regime of prime minister Ian Smith.

    This recruiting poster for the
    Rhodesian Army often appeared in
    Soldier of Fortune in the 1970s.

    The January 1976 issue of Soldier of Fortune included a classified ad placed by Daniel Gearhart, a 34-year-old Vietnam veteran with money trouble. It read, "Wanted: Employment as mercenary on full-time or job contract basis. Preferably in South or Central America, but anywhere in the world if you pay transportation."

    Seven months later, Gearhart was executed by firing squad in Angola. Advertising his services in Soldier of Fortunehad led to his being hired by the losing faction in a civil war. The People's Revolutionary Tribunal judge who sentenced Gearhart and three other foreign mercenaries to death (nine others received long prison terms) called them "dogs of war with bloodstained muzzles who left a trail of rape, murder and pillage across the face of our nation." (Gearhart was arrested less than a week after setting foot in Angola. He denied ever firing a shot there, let alone raping and pillaging.)

    Since the mid-to-late 1970s era of promoting mercenary work in African bush wars, Soldier of Fortune has distributed what CBS' 60 Minutes called a "political warfare journal," published classified ads that resulted in no fewer than five murders-for-hire on American soil, and helped to equip paramilitary border vigilantes who terrorized Latino immigrants.