Soldiers of fortune, or barmy armies?

As anti-government guerrillas hit the headlines in the US, a battalion of militia magazines is mobilising
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The Independent Online
Robert K Brown is about as subtle as an M16 rifle. His magazine has supported dictators around the world and has been the vehicle for recruiting mercenaries in ugly guerrilla wars from Angola to Nicaragua - his critics claim he is backed by the CIA. But now Brown, the 63-year- old publisher and founder of Soldier of Fortune magazine, is being called something he is not accustomed to - a voice of reason.

In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing last year, and the disastrous government raid in Waco, Texas, the year before, self-styled militias have grown dramatically around the country. Members of one such anti-government group, the Montana Freemen, are still holed up in the ranch from which they have been holding FBI agents at bay for two months. Scores of survivalist, militia-linked magazines have emerged to serve this readership - most of them supplying a relentless diet of conspiracy theories ranging from the steady march toward a single world government to the suggestion that Zionist powerbrokers are stage-managing US politics.

But Robert K Brown, whose readership includes many of the same "survivalist- adventurers" who join the militias, has steadfastly refused to buy into these theories and has, in fact, gone out of his way to discredit them.

"We are very critical of this wild-eyed conspiracy bull," he says. "Our mission is to write objective journalism, and in the process, if we expose these loony-tunes, I feel we've achieved our objective." Indeed, Soldier of Fortune recently sniped at the Spotlight, its conspiracy-obsessed rival, over articles it deemed anti-Semitic and inaccurate. "They've now taken to attacking us," says Brown. "I take that as a badge of honour."

Soldier of Fortune is incongruously based in the laid-back university town of Boulder, Colorado. Headquarters are a warehouse on the outskirts of town, its walls decorated with war-zone photos, many of Brown himself, and covers of every magazine from its first issue in 1975. Soldier of Fortune covers conflicts around the world and highlights home-grown heroes, conservative politics and the latest in firearm technology. Stories celebrating Vietnam veterans have been a staple since day one. "At that time, Vietnam vets were looked down upon in the US," says Brown. "A lot of vets felt their efforts for this country were not being recognised - I wanted to change that."

But the lack of a single overarching US threat such as communism has taken some of the edge off the publication, say its critics. It sells 100,000 and remains profitable, but sales are lower than in the heady days of the Eighties, when the Reaganite cold war was in full swing and covert US operations were being waged in Central America and Afghanistan. "Brown is an ideological anti-communist," says Ward Churchill, a University of Colorado professor of ethnic studies who worked for Soldier of Fortune in the mid-Seventies. "And, frankly, that's a bit passe right now."

At the new vanguard are such arcane publications as the Correspondent, Jubilee, the Spotlight, the 50 States Constitutionalist and the John Birch Society's New American. They are generally small publications with circulations of less than 5,000 and available by subscription only. The largest are the Spotlight, with a circulation of about 100,000, and the New American. Over the past six years, the New American has cleaned up its act; while it is still obsessed with conspiracies, its rhetoric is no longer blatantly racist. With an increasingly polished format, circulation has virtually doubled over the past six years, growing from less than 30,000 to about 60,000 today.

Themes are similar for most, focusing frequently on mysterious and faceless groups that wield untold power. For example, the "Committee of 300" and the "Bilderberger Group" - whose membership is at least partially secret - are said to be part of an international conspiracy to subvert the US constitution and eventually enslave its citizens. Another consistent theme is the erosion of individual rights brought about by a corrupt, morally bankrupt US government.

In a quarterly newsletter, the 50 States Constitutionalist, an Oklahoma- based group, makes the case that Americans should be subject to "God's Laws", not the laws of the US. "The people in power have sold their souls to the Devil," says spokesman Gerry Hinton. "We are out to reclaim this country for God."

Despite many similar fundamental beliefs, Hinton distances his group from the Montana Freemen. On the other hand, he says the Freemen are "doing the right thing" by squaring off with police. "If you don't believe we are having a revolution in this country, you better look again," says Hinton.

The Militia Montana publication, Taking Aim, and another Montana-based newsletter, the Correspondent, have long railed against the Internal Revenue Service and other arms of the US government. In fact, the Correspondent has frequently written about how tax evasion can be successfully challenged in court because, it says, the IRS is an illegitimate and unlawful entity.

Soldier of Fortune's concern with battles outside US borders has put it out of step with these publications as well as most new-right militia members. "With the threat of communism faded into obscurity, the new threat is seen as the enemy within - our own government," says history professor Jeffrey Kaplan of the University of Alaska, a specialist in Doomsday groups. "These days, the magazine is simply not taken that seriously by this new breed." Kaplan likens Brown to Playboy founder Hugh Hefner - his magazine, once believed to be so racy, is now considered tame, even mainstream.

Further, the magazine is seen as downright cosy with the US government, particularly the CIA. In the past, it has barely skirted US law regarding the recruitment of soldiers for foreign armies, accepting advertisements from various overseas fighting units seeking mercenaries. In the Seventies, the Rhodesian army recruited through full-page back-cover advertisements. Brown himself also mailed information packets to Americans interested in fighting for Rhodesia.

Over the years, critics have accused the US Justice Department, which investigated Soldier of Fortune for about five years without laying charges, of looking the other way because the magazine aided covert US operations around the world. Nonsense, says Brown, who claims he'd gladly take a polygraph test to put a rest to persistent rumours of the magazine's CIA ties.

But for scores of guerrilla conflicts over the past 20 years, the magazine has been a vessel for recruitment and military aid. Soldier of Fortune takes sides - in the case of Bosnia, for example, Brown sympathised with the Croats and Bosnian Muslims and organised airlifts of fire-fighting equipment and medical supplies to the conflict.

The magazine has had its share of bad publicity. At least a half dozen of its editorial staff have been killed in battle; many were working as mercenaries. In Angola, editor George Bacon was caught and executed with a group of nine US mercenaries; editor Michael Echanis was killed in Nicaragua while training US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza's elite Special Forces.

Two years ago, it lost a $14m lawsuit to the family of a man murdered by a contract killer hired through one of its classified ads. The damages would have bankrupted the company, but the suit was eventually settled for $200,000. It was the second time the magazine had been sued after a killer had been hired through one of its advertisements. The magazine's reputation took a further hit after the Oklahoma bomb suspect, Timothy McVeigh, was found to have been a long-time reader and subscriber.

Brown himself remains an icon to his readers and he certainly does not shy from attention; photos of "The Colonel" can be found in virtually every issue of the magazine. His idiosyncratic magazine even seems to be gaining increased respectability. In 1993, it won its first major journalism award for coverage of the Waco tragedy. "The magazine is respectable now," Professor Kaplan says. "As they say, yesterday's radicals are today's statesmen."