Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Booknote: Arms and the Dudes

Guy Lawson, Arms and the Dudes: How Three Stoners from Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015. ISBN: 9781451667592. 

Genre: Nonfiction
Subgenre: politics, military, current affairs, arms trade
Format: e-book galley
Source: Provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

"Greed was the dark truth at the heart of the arms-dealing world" (200).

I have to say this is an excellent book on many levels. How Diveroli and his stoner friends managed to become arms dealers and get multi-million dollars defense contracts is amazing in the combination of genius, sheer luck, and stupidity. How the U.S. Army and the Pentagon enabled this in their pursuit of getting the cheapest weapons possible in the quickest way possible just exposes the shoddy workings of the military. If you needed more proof that the G.W. Bush administration ran the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the most incompetent and corrupt way possible, often at the expense of troops and local soldiers, this book is it. We get a blend of greed, blind luck, corruption, incompetence, overreach, abuse of power, and more in a true story that reads like a piece of thrilling fiction. I would not be surprised if this book gets made into a movie soon (turns out there is a movie coming out soon).

As I mentioned, the book reads like a novel. It has a fast pace, and the many intrigues and plots draw you in. I found it hard to put this book down. The book gives you a good insight of how the world of arms dealers works. It also give you insights into the outright hypocrisy of governments like the United States that often condemn shady arms trading while engaging in shady arms trading. It could be seen as funny the way one U.S. government agency bypasses the law to arm the Afghan army while another branch of that same government is trying to enforce that same law. It could be funny were it not for the corruption, greed, and both the ruining of lives and putting lives and risk parts. In the end, Diveroli and his pals paid for their bravado and naiveté. Thus they became scapegoats for the U.S. government because the government did not appreciate the press exposing the government's corrupt dealings. And then it was over. 

Readers who have enjoyed works like Pileggi's Wiseguys (the basis for the movie Good Fellas) or the book Charlie Wilson's War (also basis for a film) will probably enjoy this tale as well. If you are interested in how the Pentagon and the U.S. government conduct wars abroad, this is a book for you as well. Also for appeal factors, I would add Rachel Maddow's Drift, which is about American military power. Overall, Arms and the Dudes is a book I highly recommend. 

Giving it 5 out of 5 stars. 

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Additional reading notes:  

The U.S. needed to bolster Afghan forces: 

"In desperation, the United States decided it needed to provide greater strategic support to the Afghanistan military and police--and it needed to do so quickly" (17).

It needed to do it quickly and cheaply. In addition, the U.S. had to work with the fact that armed forces over there use Soviet-style weapons like the AK-47. However, the U.S. was more than happy to supply the locals with the cheapest stuff possible. After all, we are not talking American troops here.

Questions that The New York Times article (mentioned in the book) brought up, and the book goes on to answer:  

"How could three so obviously unqualified kids be trusted with such a massive defense contract? How had they fooled so many people for so long? Was the contract typical of the way the world's lone superpower was fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? What did the debacle say about America's ability to triumph in the war on terror?" (18). 

However, though the dudes were the scapegoats, the U.S. and the Pentagon must bear most of the blame given they are the ones running things: 

"I discovered that during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the government of the United States had turned itself into the biggest gunrunning organization on the planet, with virtually no oversight from Congress, law enforcement, or the press. As the Pentagon desperately tried to stand up new armies in Kabul and Baghdad, paying private contractors billions to acquire a vast array of weapons from formerly Communist Bloc countries, it had made little attempt to vet its business partners and turned a blind eye to rampant fraud--sometimes with murderous consequences" (21).

Naturally this goes back to Bush and the Republican ideology that privatizing everything is a good thing. Turns out it is not; yet still many Americans buy into the idea: 

"To fight simultaneous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush Administration has decided to outsource virtually every facet of America's military operations, from building and staffing Army bases to hiring mercenaries to provide private security for diplomats abroad. The Bush administration's heavy reliance on private contractors was part of a broader ideological struggle to bring the efficiencies of private enterprise to government" (33). 

That worked out real well in this story. Everyone who could got in on the action, and the Americans just allowed it for the sake of getting things done quickly and cheaply, even if things did not turn out to be quick nor cheap: 

"An Iraqi who'd previously worked as a used-car salesman while exiled in Poland for decades was put in charge, given a budget of $600 million to spend by the end of the year, and let loose to enrich his cronies through no bid contracts for shoddy, overpriced arms that often weren't even delivered" (35). 

And what was delivered, in Iraq at least, was indeed shoddy:

"The benighted Iraqis got ancient Serbian AK-47s, Polish tanks that didn't start, and the cheapest, nastiest surplus ammo that private contractors like AEY could find in dank bunkers in Eastern Europe" (40).

And what training did the dudes have? Well, they could read contracts really, really well. How did they acquire this skill?

"'Reading the Talmud as Orthodox Jewish kids had prepared us for this kind of work,' Packouz recalled" (51). 

So in the end, how bad was the corruption? 

"According to later investigations, as much as 30 percent of the $50 billion spend on defense contracts in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2011 involved corruption" (165). 

In the end, the U.S. pretty much would be losing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and much of it, besides lack of focus, was just tripping itself between circumventing its own laws and trying to enforce those same laws. And even the U.S. press failed to see the real picture. The press was obsessed with getting a sensational headline. Chivers is the NYT writer who broke the story, and as you can see, he missed the real story: 

"Chivers focused on making the government look incompetent, instead of realizing that the government had made a calculated decision to get the cheapest possible ammo to the Afghans as quickly as possible" (208). 

The result was that the U.S. government rushed to shift blame, bury any evidence it could, and pretend they were ignorant. In the end, 

"The greatest peril to Afghanistan security forces wasn't AEY, as the government claimed. It was the US government itself" (217). 

And thus the dudes, one time favored contractors, became scapegoats. The mess was exposed by the NYT, and someone had to pay. 

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The book qualifies for the following 2015 Reading Challenges: 

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