“Don’t Trust Civilization”: ‘Soldier of Fortune’ Magazine and the Masculine Myth

Features / August 30, 2019

ROBERTS: It’s certainly not a coincidence that the first issue of Soldier of Fortune: The Journal of Professional Adventurers was published in spring 1975, mere months after the Fall of Saigon. The man behind the magazine, Robert K. Brown, was a U.S. Army veteran who had served in Vietnam as a Green Beret in Special Operations Group (SOG) from 1968 to 1969. Brown wanted to repair the “image of the warrior,” so tarnished in the public eye after Vietnam, and, to a large extent, he did: SOF was a massive success for over a decade, selling more than 180,000 copies a month by 1988.

The cultural injection of militant right-wing media during and especially following the Vietnam War—The Executioner novels and their countless facsimiles, the Dirty Harry franchise, the Death Wish franchise, the Rambo franchise and its Cannon Films progeny—was a direct attempt to treat and/or exploit the festering wound inflicted upon the national psyche by vastly outnumbered and outgunned “third world” communist guerillas. As in the case of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the world’s foremost superpower, victorious against supervillains Hitler and Hirohito 30 years earlier, had been laid low by an enemy so small (and, in the case of Vietnam, so not white) that it was literally unbelievable. If you happen to doubt the unheralded political and social impact of the loss, here’s part of the editorial from SOF‘s first issue:

The disastrous events of the last month in Southeast Asia are not only an appalling human tragedy for the peoples of Cambodia and South Vietnam, they are the most serious defeat of Western Christendom in a generation, and the final requiem of the United States as a great power.

More than perhaps any other example from the time, Soldier of Fortune is symptomatic of a white masculinity crisis that has poisoned the bloodstream of America—a wound untreated leads to sepsis—for almost 50 years.

GRASSO: It is, Kelly, absolutely, but I’m also just going to say it: as horrifying as the political implications of this 1980 issue of Soldier of Fortune are, it was also a hell of a lot of fun to read—perhaps in a “can’t look away from a car crash” kind of way. Seething beneath the surface of every on-the-spot article, every strident editor response to a reader letter, every tossed-off joke about Jimmy Carter, every desperate want ad placed by mercenaries looking for a new duty station, is the unfocused fury of a blind, impotent, idiot revanchism: a sense that an old world is fading away in favor of one unmarked by an eternal war against communism.

In 1980, Soldier of Fortune‘s focus naturally shifted to new hot spots on the globe: away from Southeast Asia (as the Vietnamese regime solidified its power and routed the neighboring Khmer Rouge forces of the eventually-Thatcher-and-Reagan-backed Pol Pot in Cambodia/Kampuchea) and to brushfire actions like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; to Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe’s forces had just ejected the white colonialist leaders of Rhodesia; and of course to Iran, where hostages were still being held by the revolutionary student movement of Ayatollah Khomeini. In short, in 1979 and 1980, it appeared to the typical ultra-conservative rightist-militarist that the Reds were winning everywhere, and the United States after Vietnam was seemingly no longer the staunch leader of a global anti-communist axis. Enter these rare men, the “adventurers” who regularly read Soldier of Fortune, to fill in the gaps left by this loss.

Interestingly, I found that Soldier of Fortune‘s editorial voice largely doesn’t ring out with a clarion call of confidence to defeat the Reds in all these penny-ante conflicts; it’s more of a deflated, defeated yearning for the glory days of a battle where the might of America’s military-industrial-intelligence complex was fully behind the nation’s soldiers. All those ads for fly-by-night mail order companies offering “magnificent brass paperweight” knuckle-dusters ring hollow and slightly pathetic. Not for nothing do the editors fill every blank space they can in this October 1980 issue with the simple message “VOTE”; their guy was running against that pissant peacenik Carter in November and the stakes couldn’t be higher for Soldier of Fortune‘s particular type of forgotten man.

MCKENNA: It is a profoundly strange read, that’s for certain. All those knives! The first question it throws up to me, though, is, if it’s all about being a mercenary, why are there so many articles about the bloody army? All these “mavericks” who want to be be outside the establishment—what’s more establishment than a fucking army? Though it makes sense, I suppose, given that another reason for SOF‘s existence was presumably the ready-made readership of ex-Vietnam personnel who, understandably, often felt that the awful things they’d been put through were being ignored by society, and found themselves with a trauma-embedded toolkit of skills that didn’t have much application in civilian life. Them and the “Walter Mitty types,” as Brown himself called them—the armchair adventurers buying “wooly bully” British army jumpers and pervy-looking German paratrooper boots to indulge their comfortable dreams of excitement and murder.

We get a pretty rapid intro into the mindset with the double splash page for the Military Book Club, with its unexpectedly large number of books on the Nazis. I mean, I realize that if war is your field of interest, then the Nazis are bound to be an important element in that—but it does seem like a lot of books about Nazis. Having said that, am I going to sound like a crypto-fascist myself if I say that, despite the hair-raising subject matter and content, the overall editorial tone is—at least superficially—surprisingly less belligerent than what we’re used to hearing today on pretty much any topic, much less when it’s right-wing nutters wanting to stab loads of people. That’s something I find surprising. And I’m also surprised by the letters page, where the letter blaming “aliens” for the “silent invasion” gets a pretty comprehensive rebuttal from a Mexican serviceman who reminds readers that “the southern United States was, not too long ago, northern Mexico.” Obviously, mentioning even-handedness when discussing a magazine about killing foreigners for money is sort of relative, but it’s odd.

The piece about the SAS intervention that brought the 1980 Iranian Embassy siege to an end is interesting because it marks what I remember as the beginning of a resurgence of military fetishism in the UK, which would be accelerated into turbodrive a few years later by the Falklands War. My own memories of it are that, until around this time, the British society of the day had fetishized the war—as in the Second World War—but perhaps not so much war in general; under the Thatcher government, however, the view of the Army—and especially the Special Forces, with its implicit hint of suave Bond caddery and derring-do—began to take on a touch of glamor. Maybe until that point there were still too many Brits around who remembered how awful war had actually been (like my grandads, who never wanted to speak about it) for the idea to have had much purchase. But around 1980, you started seeing “Join the army, see exotic places, meet interesting people – and kill them” t-shirts around, and, along with them, this weird new interest in military bullshit. We’re just lucky we didn’t have gun shops on every street corner, I suppose.

ROBERTS: Richard points out a peculiar irony here: the SOF man desires action not as a military man but as a paramilitary man, not as a cop but as a vigilante. The paramilitary man, you see, has special dispensation; he is excepted from the rules of engagement that bind lesser warriors; he operates in the shadows of the corruptible body politic and terminates his enemies at will, with extreme prejudice. This was not the attitude after World War II, obviously, when America proved itself once again as the caretaker of freedom and justice, when our troops were unequivocally embraced as heroes and inherited a post-war boom that included the G.I. Bill and on demand housing. The Vietnam vets, on the other hand, were spit on at the airports and left to a fallen nation marked by recession, urban decimation, crime, drugs—and they got in return what amounted to jack shit from the government that sent them to war. To the SOF reader, it was the liberal federal government and the liberal media—all that horrible TV footage, all those appeals to “soft” morality—that lost the war. It was the government and the liberal media that plunged us into the resulting state of anxiety and depletion and emasculation. It was the government and the liberal media that passed the Civil Rights Act, that viewed immigration, referred to in an earlier SOF article as the “brown invasion,” as a welcome diversification of American life.

The emergence of this militant white counterculture, representing a sort of negative image of the hippies and the civil rights movement, is detailed in James William Gibson’s Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America (1994), the only serious study of the subject that I know of. Gibson talks a lot about Soldier of Fortune as a fulcrum for all of the post-Vietnam resentment and pent up “infantile rage” expressed largely by men who “didn’t get the chance” to fight in any war. Gibson attended several SOF conventions during the 1980s, and describes young men dressed in camouflage taking knife-fighting lessons on the grass next to the hotel pool, shooting targets plastered with photos of Jane Fonda, shelling out for “tactical live fire exercises” in the paintball arena, and accusing each other (to Gibson) of being “wanna-bes” and “weekend warriors.”

The consolidation of so many noxious ideologies—made explicit once again over the last four years—emerges in this single 1980 issue, especially the centerpiece, an interview with writer-director John Milius. There’s so much to talk about here, Mike.

GRASSO: Certainly I agree that the centerpiece of this issue for the three of us was the lengthy (and candid) interview with John Milius. You’d have to argue that 1980 was the height of Milius’s Hollywood career—just coming off of writing the epochal 1979 film Apocalypse Now for Francis Ford Coppola and about to write and direct 1982’s Conan the Barbarian. In an interview with Soldier of Fortune, Milius is allowed to be more himself, inviting the Soldier of Fortune editor around to his gun club for shooting and conversation. Given the friendly interlocutor, he presents his conservative-libertarian views calmly, without the volubility or volatility that he’d become known for in Hollywood. As Milius himself notes, “The only place I’ve really suffered from being a political conservative is in interviews and in criticism.” Leaving aside the “suffering” assertion for the time being, without a “liberal” antagonist, Milius does seem to lose a bit of his legendary fire. In his almost wistful after-action report on Apocalypse Now, it’s clear that he’s fond of what he perceives as the film’s message, that Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz in many ways is the piece’s true hero, a man who took a perversely honest, individualistic ethos to its logical extreme, and lived (and died) “free.” What I found even more intriguing than Milius’s militarist primitivism-libertarianism is the fact that his biggest complaint about Hollywood seems to be its hypocrisy, that “a Hollywood liberal has no regrets about the most heinous, fascistic idea, as long as it will sell a lot of tickets. They’ll make movies about anything, if they’ll sell tickets—greed is king here.” Given recent trends in movie-making, I honestly can’t say I disagree with him there.

Of course my specific obsessions when it comes to period publications usually take me deeper into the advertisements and, wow, does this issue of Soldier of Fortune deliver. Whether it’s a conspicuous ad for Mannlicher/Steyr rifles early on (you get the feeling they want to proudly proclaim, à la R. Lee Ermey’s character in Full Metal Jacket, “we’re the rifle that got Kennedy!”), the countless ads for military surplus gadgets and pieces of war memorabilia, or an honest-to-God ad right there out in the open for the fucking Turner Diaries, the margins of Soldier of Fortune are a ticket to gawk at American white supremacy’s deepest darkest id. At the same time, the much-vaunted Classifieds section, where I’d always heard rumored you could get yourself a mysterious “ronin” to take care of your personal problems—perhaps through “terminationwith extreme prejudice“—are a little bit more delightfully weird, full of mysterious offers for ESP training, guides to making moonshine, kits to help you cheat Ma Bell through phone phreaking, cassette recordings of Vietnam War radio transmissions, and an intriguing invitation to send $8 to Berkeley, California (hardly a bulwark of the rising right wing in 1980) for access to a secret government “barrier penetration database” that will provide “techniques for breaking into nuclear and industrial facilities using hand-carried countermeasures.” I wish “Survival Systems” were still in business; I’d love to have a poke around their catalog.

Ultimately, the contemporaneous publication I’d most readily compare early Soldier of Fortune to is—and stay with me here—the early run of High Times. Each publication aims its content at a niche audience whose activities must remain nominally undetected by law enforcement. This audience therefore demands globe-trotting reporting that requires a modicum of quasi-libertarian, “gonzo,” go-anywhere-do-anything journalism. Before the internet, these varied crowds of liminal interest groups needed publications like these—available on any newsstand—to interact and to do business. Amidst being fascinated by the world of Soldier of Fortune, I really don’t mean to trivialize or minimize the role that this kind of magazine fulfilled for the growing militarist white supremacist movement in America in the ’70s and ’80s: it was a central space for these terrorist groups to socially interact and organize in a world that was falteringly beginning to eject them from acceptability in the public sphere. I’d hardly call Soldier of Fortune the “dark web” of the Carter-Reagan years, but it certainly seems in some ways to fulfill a similar function.

MCKENNA: That’s a sobering thought, Mike, especially given that a lot of SOF looks like something deliberately designed to sucker frustrated would-be he-men into spending their dollars on ridiculous toy-shop bullshit: I mean, the “CIA get out of jail free card” on page 86? The “French fighting cane” on page 88? It’s like some nightmare middle-aged steampunk festival with guns, knives, and delusions of grandeur in place of goggles and top hats. Which I suppose was maybe part of the appeal for some people—the idea that you, a nobody, could play a role in deciding the fate of the world. Your point about the parallels between this and High Times is interesting too, in that it hints at something we’ve spoken about before: the way two nominally very different kinds of individualist countercultural mindsets—one shacked up in the woods handcrafting bongs, the other shacked up in the woods of their own paranoid minds handcrafting bombs—in some ways ran parallel to one another as they contributed to producing the bizarre world we live in today. 

You’re both right too that the interview with Milius sort of sums up the whole enterprise. Speaking as someone who loves several of his films—I genuinely think the man is as capable of being perceptive and profound as he is of being embarrassing—the funniest thing about it is the way that he reveals himself to be, predictably, a massive fucking Hollywood snowflake who can’t stop moaning about how hard not being loved is: “The critics take their toll… they’ve attacked my work viciously”—Jesus Christ, really?  You fucking literally live in a mansion in Hollywood and get to write and direct films for a living, for fuck’s sake. It’s amazing how much people who’ve lived fortunate and privileged lives love moaning about how hard done to they are as soon as they get the chance, and especially hilarious when they like nothing more than waffling on about being “warriors.” I mean, getting a bad notice in Variety is hardly combat, is it? With people like Milius, it’s hard to tell just how much of the “warrior” schtick is simply a kind of posturing that comes from a love of the aesthetics that surround this world, though, so I suppose he’s a good avatar for what at least some of the SOF readership was. I’d like to hope, though, that he’d be as horrified as I am by the psychos advertising their services in the classifieds to knock off annoying wives or inconvenient business partners, and the general background hum of emergent psychopathology: “RIGHT-WING NEWSPAPER! Send $1.00 cash only for comprehensive list” and “ARROGANT, sinister, Imperial, rich – a real man‘s America. Details $1.00. The Spengler Group.”

Obviously, I can’t help seeing this from a different perspective from you two: in the UK we didn’t really experience either the awful psychological and social fallout from pointless wars that you lot have repeatedly had—or at least, certainly not on anything like the same scale—nor have we had the growth of the military-industrial complex into one of the defining aspects of public life, and the myth of the rugged individualist survivalist was still a few years off. Plus, we didn’t have loads of fucking guns everywhere. In the UK, this kind of stuff was, I think, genuinely the preserve of sad, deluded bastards, not of a mix of veterans who’d been put through the horrors of war and white power lunatics. To me, Soldier of Fortune just looks like a bizarre curio, which makes it hard to take it seriously, so it’s difficult to reconcile that impression with the awareness of what the strange mixture of veterans, “Walter Mitty types,” and damaged and strange people were evolving into.

ROBERTS: Here’s Milius on Vietnam:

What was philosophically disturbing was, if we’re going into a war to defeat communism, and I accept that, then we must win. Why do we have rules of engagement? Why do we have areas you can bomb and areas you can’t?

This is a central tenet of the hard-right, incarnate in Reagan and his increasingly pathological successors: that the rule of law, that the very edifice of government—of civilization itself!—is tainted by liberalism. Which of course it fucking is, because we can’t go on wearing raccoon hats and pretending to be Daniel Boone in perpetuity. Unless you’re Milius, of course, who “[hasn’t] become completely comfortable with man’s civilized restraints. I don’t know that other people have either. I think they fool themselves.” This is another modern conservative idée fixe, born out in countless Westerns, and eloquently expressed in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes (1912):

He had always held the outward evidences of so-called culture in deep contempt. Civilization meant… a curtailment of freedom in all its aspects…

In civilization Tarzan had found greed and selfishness and cruelty far beyond that which he had known in his familiar, savage jungle…

Burroughs was a huge influence on Texan Robert E. Howard, whose Conan stories of the 1930s served as the basis for Milius’s brilliant Conan the Barbarian, still the finest action-fantasy film ever made. I have seen it many, many times, but only a few years ago did I realize that it is essentially a retelling of Apocalypse Now without the liberal meddling of “master manipulator” Coppola: just as Martin Sheen’s Willard (like Robert K. Brown, a MACV-SOG Captain) infiltrates a North Vietnamese compound to assassinate Marlon Brando’s Kurtz, worshiped as a god by the Montagnard people, so too does Conan infiltrate the temple of cult-leader Thulsa Doom (the brilliant James Earl Jones), who, like Charles Manson, has brainwashed his young flower-children followers to engage in all manner of decadence and violence. The difference is that Conan is never conflicted about his actions; he is not a soldier on a mission, but a warrior on a quest. Conan is Kurtz, removed from the strictures and moral imperatives of civilization, totally free, relying exclusively on his prowess with a sword and a “strict sense of honor.”

I bought into this idea of radical individualism and personal codes early on. I was obsessed with Mack Bolan and Dirty Harry and Rambo and, by junior high, wanted to shoot evildoers (evil is a substance for conservatives, not an accident) for a living. But I was lucky enough to grow up among Vietnam veterans, all of whom were proud of their service, all of whom understood the necessity of the military, none of whom thought that war or violence was the least bit exciting or romantic. And I suppose that is how I grew beyond the macho bullshit of Robert K. Brown and the catastrophic “philosophy” he expressed in a 2018 interview: “As long as you can pull a trigger, you are relevant.”

7 thoughts on ““Don’t Trust Civilization”: ‘Soldier of Fortune’ Magazine and the Masculine Myth

  1. I was a infantryman in the 82nd Airborne during the 1980s and a copy was often found in the barracks. It may have had an occasional interesting article about an obscure conflict by a Gonzo journalist, but generally it was cheesy martial fantasy for those who didn’t know any better, newbies (“cherries”), REMFs, and delusional civilian wannabes.

    • Thanks for your service, Ray, and thanks for the comment. Can I ask you: were there any films/books from the time that ring true from a military/paramilitary standpoint? I was a huge Mack Bolan fan (my dad took me to the ’85 convention in San Francisco) and I recently started re-reading the series from ’69 through the early ‘80s. The author of the original series, Don Pendleton, was a WWII and Korean War vet (Navy), and I think his son served in an LRRP unit in Vietnam. Were those books on rotation? Some of them are quite good.

      • I remember the Mack Bolan paperbacks, along with the Casca series circulating around. Any thing fictional and action oriented, even if written by an actual veteran, needs to be taken with a grain of salt. However, non-fiction memoirs, from Vietnam back to the World Wars, were popular. A science fiction author, and Vietnam Veteran, Joe Haldeman wrote a book called “Forever War” that we read rang true as an allegory for his era. In fact, authors like Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke and the illustrated magazine “Heavy Metal” were ubiquitous as any military themed titles in the barracks. As far as films go, in the 1980s I can’t recall much that had any semblance of reality except for “Platoon”, as Oliver Stone was an infantryman in Vietnam. Even films with the likes of Gene Hackman and Tommy Lee Jones such as 1989s “The Package”, one of the last Cold War movies made during the Cold War, had the usual poor weapon handling, ill fitting uniforms, and no clue how things operate in the real military.

          • I remember hearing that Barry Sadler had a son serving in the U.S. Army at Ft. Bragg around the time he died. I can’t confirm that it was so. It seems that guys who have a penchant for drama, fictional or actual, and an experience that seems thrilling to your average “white bread”, such as a Navy SEAL , the “in” thing now days, often go Hollywood to cash in on the daydreams of fanboys and nutbags. The reality is that the non-fictional military can take activities that look like an exciting ball of fun to a young guy and make it into a monotonous and miserable slog. And that’s just the never ending training cycle, not a real world deployment.

  2. Hi guys, a good discussion on the magazine. You might enjoy this 1984 article on SOF by Fred Reed for Playboy. For a long time it was on Fred’s website, but looks like that’s fallen in disuse this year. But there are still online archived copies.

    “One day I was sitting in the office with Harry, a hulking right-winger who worried a lot about the Trilateralists. Oddly enough, most of the staffers were liberals. Harry was a prop. (I divided the staff into workers and stage props, the latter being those who twitched, usually couldn’t spell, and arrived in the middle of the night. The workers, mostly women, put out the magazine.) A glass wall separated the secretary from Harry’s office, where he spent the day roaring and fuming like a volcano. His office was stuffed with guns, one specifically for fending off the SDS.”

    https://web.archive.org/web/20170702050009/http://www.fredoneverything.net/PlayboySOF.shtml

    • Thanks for this, Leroy. Very insightful.

      “What the magazine sells is a hard-core smell, a dismal significance, a view of life as a jungle where the brutal stand tall against the sunset and the weak perish. SOF may be the only one-hand magazine whose readers hold a surplus-store bayonet in the other hand.”

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