On parade with wannabe warriors

John Carlin in Las Vegas finds the 'Soldier of Fortune' 20th anniversar y a sad part of the American Dream

Two blondes in green camouflage micro-skirts are standing guard on stiletto heels over a Harley-Davidson motorbike. Each is holding a black plastic assault rifle. Sitting cross-legged on a chair, observing them with little interest, is a large, bearded biker sporting dark glasses, jeans, white shirt, black leather waistcoat, cowboy boots. His hair is in a long black pony tail. A tubby middle-aged man in yellow shirt and pink shorts approaches the biker. They talk. The biker nods. The man smiles and hands over a $10 bill.

The two blondes escort the man to the Harley. He sits on it, side-saddle. The blondes - close inspection indicates they are mother and daughter - pose either side of him. All three smile and stare into a Polaroid camera mounted on a tripod. The biker instructs the man to put his arms around the women's waists and, click, he takes the picture.

The scene is the Sands Hotel Expo Centre, Las Vegas. The event is the annual Soldier of Fortune convention. Vendors at a 100 stalls are selling Magnum revolvers, Bushmaster "Bullpup" carbines, US army-issue night-vision goggles, Green Beret training manuals, Vietnam-tested tomahawks, double- bladed combat knives, pepper-spray canisters, Rhodesian passports and South-West Africa Special Forces desert camouflage uniforms, available for $105 (pounds 70) in medium, large and extra large.

Saturday morning shoppers inspect the hardware, feel the cloth. Husbands and wives - middle-aged, middle American - stroll hand in hand. They carry their paramilitary purchases in white plastic bags. Many of the men are wearing black boots and camouflage uniforms. So are some of the women. And so is a baby in a pram. One woman has smeared her face with earth- coloured paint. No one gives her, or the baby, a second glance.

Soldier of Fortune is a magazine about men and war. It was founded by Colonel Bob Brown, a Vietnam veteran, in 1975. Colonel Brown and his staff engage in what they call "participatory journalism". They fight and write. This month's 20th anniversary issue recalls the derring-do of "SOF" correspondents in Rhodesia, "where we racked 60 terrorist kills", and El Salvador, where "we took on the Marxist FMLN guerrillas".

Working on the premise that war is fun, SOF dispatches its correspondents to hot-spots in the hope that they will get into trouble. The reports combine breathless Boy's Own Paper enthusiasm with the pedantic attention to detail of a military intelligence brief. The reader, sitting in his Minneapolis bedroom cradling a Budweiser, is drawn into the drama by the implied notion that he might be called upon to join Colonel Bob's soldier- journalists on some far-flung field of battle.

The most reliable indicator of Soldier of Fortune's target market is provided by those who advertise in the magazine. Apart from the predictable panoply of knives and rifles, advertisers offer "uncensored gore" photographs of "fatal beatings, mutilations and decapitations"; "Russian ladies who want to meet you"; and "male power packs" which "can elevate testosterone by 200 per cent".

Macho fantasy being Soldier of Fortune's true terrain, it is not coincidental that Colonel Bob - who is in his sixties and partly deaf - should have chosen Las Vegas as the site of his wanna-be warriors' annual pow-wow. Las Vegas is so unapologetically over the top that it is impossible for a visitor to feel self-conscious or foolish. More than Los Angeles or New York, Las Vegas is the extreme expression of the American Dream, a desert mirage of shimmering 21st-century Baroque where every man can become an instant millionaire and entertain the notion of possessing (for in Nevada, alone among the 50 states, prostitution is legal) the woman of his wildest imaginings.

Take Jim French, poor Jim French from Scottsdale, Arizona. Jim was wandering up and down the aisles of the Expo Centre on Saturday in a black beret with flowing ribbon, a brown army T-shirt, green camouflage trousers and calf-length army boots. He was paunchy and pale and wore glasses. His arms were flabby and thin. Back home they'd laugh to see him dressed this way but here he was safe, among friends.

Jim is a substitute teacher who works, sometimes, for the Los Angeles County education department. He struggled to raise the $700 (pounds 450) to pay for his week at the Sands Hotel but it had been worth it. When he got back from Vietnam, where he served in Air Force intelligence 25 years ago, people had viewed him as a leper, he said. "Here we're together. We enjoy mutual respect."

One thing upset him a little, though. While perhaps half of the 600 or so delegates at the convention had served in Vietnam, some hadn't seen any action at all. "There are quite a few phonies around, yeah," he said. "The people who weren't there. Usually they're fairly young. You can spot them. They know too much. They talk too much."

In so far as there was any tension at this happy tribal occasion it sprang, as inevitably it would, from the male instinct to compete. Most of the conventioneers, as they called themselves, were good law-abiding folk: Isuzu dealers from Seattle; police deputies from Orlando. But you could see how a young man, in his eagerness to impress, might cross the mark between illusion and reality and blow a building full of people sky high.

Especially if he made a habit of participating in rituals like the banquet which closed the convention proceedings on Saturday night. Anywhere else in the world you would have called it a fancy dress party. Either that or a battalion of police, backed up by men in white coats, would have been given orders to storm the building.

A thousand diners stood heads bowed, ten to a table, in a darkened hall the size of St Paul's Cathedral. Upon a brightly illuminated podium, against the backdrop of a massive Stars and Stripes, an old man in regimentals offered up a prayer to "Our Lord, God of hosts". Some of the diners ranged before him wore fresh new South-West Africa Special Forces battle uniforms. Others wore "I'd rather be killing Communists" T-shirts bulging with bellies and guns. The women, eager to please, turned up in long dresses cut to the navel or flak jackets over black leather skirts. "Be pleased, Lord," the soldier-preacher intoned, "to grant your armies victory over the powers of darkness."

Whereupon a retired Salvadorean army colonel with a chest full of medals and a pencil moustache stood up to bestow "the Combat Star of El Salvador" upon Colonel Bob and 14 of his brave-hearted men for services rendered on behalf of freedom and democracy. Colonel Bob, the aging veteran of a thousand wars, stood eye to eye with to Colonel Luis Turcios, once the commander of a battalion famed for its brutality in an army whose death squads killed 40,000 people. Colonel Bob saluted and then bowed his head. Colonel Turcios bent over and placed the ribboned medal over his neck. From tightened throats, a thousand roars rose.

Outside the hall, taking a smoke-break, sat Patrick Wills, from Bristol, and Ian Smith, from Liverpool. Patrick, who was 32, had spent five years in the French Foreign Legion and three as a mercenary in Croatia. Ian, who served in the British Army for six years, had spent ten months in Croatia with Patrick.

They were wearing suits and ties. They had come to the convention in the hope of finding work and were disappointed. "We haven't met one serious person here," said Ian. "Ninety-nine per cent of these blokes haven't fired a shot in anger in 20 years."

Patrick nodded, drew on his cigarette. A 20-stone Green Beret lumbered past. What did he make of all this? "Frankly, I haven't got the words to describe it. A game? Movies? Some American cultural thing? I don't know. But I can't help thinking, really, that it's a bit pathetic. A little sad."

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