War. What is it good for?

Soldier of Fortune magazine for a start. It enjoys sales increases every time US troops are involved in combat, writes Andrew Gumbel
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The Independent Online

As far as Soldier of Fortune magazine is concerned, the war in Afghanistan is refreshingly simple. "It's payback time, and payback will be a bitch," says Robert Brown, the retired Vietnam veteran who founded the American monthly in 1975 and runs it out of the Rocky mountain town of Boulder, Colorado.

Subtlety never was going to be the strong point of a magazine whose main interests are mercenary warfare, military hardware – especially guns – and the vigorous support of any and every US defence initiative. Curiously, now that we have been told that the world will never be the same and that global conflict is, once again, on the geopolitical agenda, Soldier of Fortune is enjoying a surge in readership.

Immediately after 11 September, there was a rush on news-stand copies, even though the issue in question had come out well before the destruction of the World Trade Centre. New subscriptions have shot up from around three per day to 20 per day. "Whenever there are American troops involved in combat – Panama, Grenada, Desert Storm – we see a significant spike in our sales. We're having a similar experience in the light of this catastrophe, and it's going to go on for a significant period," said Mr Brown, or Bob, as he prefers to be known.

And so a whole new slew of readers is being introduced to SOF's strange, macho world of features and advertisements that sing the praises of pistols or outdoor surveillance kits that pick up the sound of a twig snapping under a boot. There are tales of military derring-do from some of the darkest corners of the earth and profiles of men with dirty jobs, such as the Israeli border police.

For all that, the magazine is more interesting than it might at first appear. It truly cares about events outside the borders of the US, which makes it a rarity. Even before 11 September, it ran a monthly update on world trouble spots. Unlike the mainstream media, it has also been unafraid to question US government institutions. "Our correspondents are for the most part combat veterans or have extensive military experience," Mr Brown explains, which is certainly the magazine's greatest strength as well as – because of the limited vantage-point – its greatest weakness.

In the December issue, SOF offers a broad range of features on Afghanistan, a country it covered exhaustively during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and also looks at France's use of torture during the Algerian war, to see if it might be a desirable tool in the current crisis.

SOF also hosts a reasonably wide range of opinion. Thus we have one columnist, Jack Wheeler of the Freedom Research Foundation, urging the rapid deployment of President Bush's beloved "Star Wars" missile defence shield. But we also have another, David Hackworth, dismissing the whole missile-shield idea as fantasy.

SOF has an interesting history. After Vietnam, where Bob Brown won "a Purple Heart and some other crap" in the US special forces, he found himself in Oman in 1974, helping the sultan to fight what he calls a "low-grade Marxist insurgency". Part of his job was to advertise for mercenaries. The informa tion packets he devised became so popular that the next year, he decided to use the subscriber base he had built up to launch a magazine.

In October 1979, he attended an arms fair in Washington and heard about a new Russian assault rifle, the AK47, that the Pentagon was interested in. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan two months later, Mr Brown sent a reporter in with the mujahedin and recovered some of the rifles on the US government's behalf. The relationship lasted for a year or two, with SOF given exceptional access to the front lines in exchange for its intelligence-gathering work on Soviet weaponry.

Now SOF is back in Afghanistan, with one reporter on the Northern Alliance's front lines and another in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan. Whether it can learn more than its rivals remains to be seen, since the war is being waged under an extraordinary veil of secrecy. But one thing is certain, Bob Brown says: "You won't see much from us saying we should roll over and let these people have their way with us."