By 1975, Robert K. Brown had 1) ridden the rodeo, 2) been a Golden Gloves boxer, 3) raised money for and tried to run guns to Fidel Castro’s guerrillas while they were still in the jungle, 4) broken with Castro after he came to power and joined multiple abortive plots to overthrow him, 5) been targeted by assassins sent by Rafael Trujillo, then dictator of the Dominican Republic, 6) served two tours as a combat officer in Vietnam, and 7) parachuted into the Peruvian mountains to provide disaster relief after the 1970 Ancash Earthquake (the worst in Peru’s history, 75,000 dead), among other things. Then he started Soldier of Fortune Magazine and began serious adventuring.
Serious adventuring — Brown calls it “participatory journalism” — included everything from firing mortar rounds at Russian forts in Afghanistan, hanging with mercenaries in Rhodesia and anti- Communist guerrillas in Laos, rolling into Kuwait City behind the lead tank at the end of the Gulf War, dodging Serb snipers in Sarajevo, and searching for an extinct cow on the Ho Chi Minh Trail — and a lot more.
Now, 39 years later, Brown has published his memoirs, I am Soldier of Fortune, Dancing With Devils. They are a rollicking 400-page romp through more than four decades of wild adventures and misadventures all over the world.
Soldier of Fortune (SOF) started in Boulder and is still being published in Boulder (from an undisclosed location in the heart of one of Boulder’s most liberal-voting precincts, amusingly enough).
How did it all begin?
Somewhere under the flagstone façade of the University of Colorado Chemistry Building, across the Dalton Trumbo Free Speech Area from the UMC, is a sign white-washed on the underlying concrete blocks in three-foot high letters reading “VIVA CASTRO.” It was painted at o-dark-thirty one night by Brown, a 1954 CU grad who had returned for graduate school after a three-year stint in the Army. He had gotten interested in the Cuban revolution and was raising money for Castro. Brown’s approach to student activism lacked subtlety. He would set up a 20 mm anti-tank gun with a long, menacing barrel on a table behind the UMC with a donation jar in front of it. People gave.
After Castro rolled into Havana at the end of 1958, Brown went down to Cuba several times. It didn’t take him long to figure out that Castro was a Communist, and the revolution he had supported was turning hard left and anti-American in a hurry. So he connected with anti-Castro elements in Miami, some of whom were soldiers of fortune and soldier of fortune wannabes. Nothing came of their plots.
When the Vietnam War started, Brown returned to the Army and served two tours in the Vietnam boonies, picking up a Purple Heart in the process. After he got out, he started doing freelance journalism, and a chain of events and contracts landed him in Rhodesia, where he met some British mercenaries who were fighting insurgents for the Rhodesian government. Over drinks, one of them told Brown that when their contract with the Rhodesian government was up, they were thinking of going to work for the Sultan of Oman, who was fighting multiple insurgencies of his own. Brown sent off for information about how to sign up. A couple weeks later he got back a 40-page information packet and sign-up forms. He didn’t sign up. But he took the packet, reproduced it, and bought a 1-by-4 inch ad in Shotgun News, which read “Be a Mercenary in the Middle East! All necessary info including pay and benefits. Forty pages. Send five dollars to ….”
Orders poured in from all over the U.S. Having realized that the audience was out there, Brown decided to go from selling packets to starting a magazine.
He put ads for the magazine in various gun publications — subscriptions one year for $8. In no time, he reached his goal of 4,400 subscriptions, which gave him $35,200, enough to publish four issues. That was the point at which he cashed the checks and started Soldier of Fortune — and never looked back.
Soldier of Fortune is detested by liberals and leftists for any number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that the magazine writes sympathetically about, well, soldiers of fortune.
Mercenaries have had a bad name in this country ever since the Hessian army was rented out to George III for counter-insurgency duty in North America.
This is mean-spirited on our part, especially since we had soldiers of fortune fighting on our side as well — most notably the Baron Von Steuben (who, despite his inflated credentials, trained the American Army), the Marquis de La Lafayette, Casimir Pulaski and any number of other European romantics, adventurers, dreamers and dissidents. The difference was that the Hessians were a state-conscripted rent-an-army, while our guys were independent contractors (and consenting adults).
My favorite Brown story remains one from the Gulf War in 1991, when Brown told a Wall Street Journal reporter: “I thought I’d be riding the lead tank into Baghdad by now. Instead, I’m stuck in a briefing room with the biggest bunch of boobs and dorks I’ve ever met.”
The quote appeared on the Journal’s front page.
Baghdad wasn’t to be, but three weeks later, darned if he wasn’t in the column behind the lead tank rolling into Kuwait City.
For the story of how he did it, you’ll have to read the book. It’s in chapter 29.
It’s a great read. I stayed up past my bedtime reading it, and I go to bed at o-dark-thirty.
[Full disclosure: I first met Brown in April 1961 when I was a freshman reporter on the Colorado Daily. He was one of the first people I interviewed for the paper. In 1987-88 I was on the Soldier of Fortune staff. My name still appears on the masthead as “Gun Rights Editor.”]
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.