Grim Business at the Newsstand

I used to have a teacher who loved to tell how he won the Silver Star fighting the Nazis in
By George K. Sweetnam

I used to have a teacher who loved to tell how he won the Silver Star fighting the Nazis in the Big One. But he was no die-hard old soldier. When people realized that we were killing innocent people in Vietnam, he was there in the forefront with the best of them, his grey hair growing long and a massive peace symbol hanging prominently around his neck.

Hipness notwithstanding, he liked to talk about the time some Germans pinned him and his squad in a village in France, and how he kept his cool while the men under his command lost it, and how he killed those Germans in the face of horrible odds. He would not have fought for America right or wrong, but he revelled in the one time in his life when America was clearly right and there was a definite enemy, a dominator of foreign soil, a threat to himself and his buddies.

I could never blame him. Sometimes I wish I had grown up in another world, where enemies were not grey and you did not have to fight them with grey matter. Where there was a clear and present evil that I could lay into without pulling punches. But absolutely evil characters only exist in Middle Earth and James Bond movies, so I went to school.

Vietnam veterans don't sound like my teacher. They tell cynical stories of an arbitrary war. They tell of buddies killed in the jungle by an anonymous trap or an accidental bombing. They learned to kill to save a corrupt government, and they learned to accept death as a pointless inevitability.

They seem to be the kind of reader Soldier of Fortune magazine aims at, the ones who listen when the magazine says where the fighting is. Soldier of Fortune bills itself as "the journal of professional adventurers"--read mercenaries. It features gory pictures and special articles on the latest weaponery, and carries the latest rumors on who is paying men for "adventures" in what country.

But, and you can read this as either a relief or a tragedy, the supply of eager fighters seems to outstrip the demand. The back pages of the winter '77 issue are filled with classified ads like "Vietnam vet, experienced, seeks high-risk, high-pay work anywhere in the world." The seekers are the sad legacy of Vietnam. They know how to fight, but not what to fight for--unless the draft or a soldier's salary is a good basis for killing people. The ads do not read, "Good soldier seeks just and true cause to support."

In more paranoid terms: they've learned how to kill and they don't want to stop. Whether it is Rhodesia, Angola or Lebanon, they want someone to pay them and point them. The bizarre rock star David Bowie put words in their mouths in a frightening ditty in 1972: "It seems the peacefuls stopped the war/Left generals squashed and stifled/But I'll slip about again tonight/'Cause they haven't taken back my rifle."

So now they have a mass media publication to follow. You can step into a Harvard Square newsstand (close enough to home?) pick up a copy and find out that mercenaries are being recruited to fight with the Christian forces in Lebanon at $600 a week. You can find out where to send for an illustrated catalogue of machine guns, silencers, and special weapons.

Then again, you might get scared that there are people reading the magazine seriously. You might get nauseous when you see a picture of a man's head caved in. You might also worry that people are actually sending for the advertised posters of naked women fondling submachine guns.

It seems to be their editorial stance that too much literacy is a sign of weakness. One caption says that the U.S. had won the Vietnam war but "lost it during the Paris Peace Conference and with the help of gutless Congress." Most of the articles carry the reader along with violence or sensationalism. Features on weapons are geared to lure gun fanatics the way Motor Trend courts auto freaks. They go into exquisite detail. One review of a new pistol notes that "the front strap is serrated, a big help when the gun hand is wet sweaty or bloody." What? Me obsessed with destruction?

This magazine is the real obscene stuff. Pictures of naked women lying on bearskin rugs with upthrust breasts may be sexist and demeaning, but pictures of women with khaki shirts opened and cartridge belts across their breasts are perverse. And the photo of a woman whose lip was cut off "with a rusty bayonet," run with an article on war in Rhodesia, belongs in a medical journal or a hysterical editorial to end all war. The mercenaries' stance is that war is grim business but somebody's got to do it, and this picture is hideous, but somebody's got to see it, so it might as well be the pros. Their stance is lunacy. Nobody has got to do it, and the pros see too much of it. When it comes to killing people, it is time to stop the business approach and get emotional.

Sure, it was a thrill and a high for my old teacher to stand up on a French hillside with his rifle sight pressed tight against his eye and pit his life against another. And when he told his story, he always added in a low voice that he was very much afraid.

Soldier of Fortune features mayhem and violence for its own sake. For them, killing is pure technique. But technique begs application. It's scary. It's just plain scary.