Judith Sullivan is a financial journalist who lives in Leeds but hails from Baltimore. She is working on a crime series set in Paris.
Truth is not just stranger than fiction – it is more distressing, more ridiculous and a darn sight more surreal.
And it was never more so than in the (true) story behind War Dogs. Guy Lawson’s book not only reads like a Hollywood movie but has been made into one, soon to be released in the UK. The basic facts would be comical if the implications had not proven so dire. Two dudes in Florida (Bill and Ted in the early noughties with guns, if you will) smoke a lot of pot and win multimillion dollar Pentagon contracts. The duo Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz do not wear suits, they do not make nice, nor do they manage the power-lunch. They use the internet and their guile to persuade faceless bureaucrats they are best placed to supply ammo, guns and other military materiel to support US efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq during the second Bush administration.
In the beginning, they do well. But when they get in over their heads, they flounder and flounder and bring lots of other people underwater with them. The contract that brought down their gun-running empire seemed like a dream come true [a $ 300 M contract to supply guns and ammo to the Pentagon for deployment to US and Afghani forces in Afghanistan].
It doesn’ttake tea-leaves to predict this story won’t conclude well. It was never going to end well, even if the Pentagon had done due diligence, members of Congress exercised proper oversight, or the boys’ parents or friends had spoken up.
The kind of power in the hands of one young man who turned 21 and drank his first legal cocktail, and another who started each day with a bong hit, was never going to be a power for good.
The guys wanted money, more money and then even more money. They lacked a moral compass and they also lacked a sense of what the money might do for them. As one character says ‘…..there comes a point when you have made millions where you no longer want money for a purpose, but for the sake of it…...’
The mechanics of the ammunition delivery involving Albanian gangsters, Mormon associates and greedy officials throughout Eastern Europe and Eurasia are at times comical. The scenes depicting the manual packing, unpacking and repacking of the shells are as surreal, as they are hilarious.
Despite the comic turns, the consequences of the boys’ hubris, incompetence and inexperience are often very dark. Civilian lives are lost in Albania, government corruption is fed by the naïve and millions of US taxpayer dollars effectively thrown away are a few of the unintended consequences by this duo.
Nobody emerges smelling sweet – the dudes are convicted felons, Pentagon, State department and other officials look at best bumbling, at worst downright delusional and at least one Diveroli / Packouz associate dead under very mysterious circumstances.
The punchline to this sorry tale – that the Pentagon may still procure weapons notwithstanding from other provisions of the law – is devastating. It would be naïve to believe some arms dealers are actually really nice people who happen to do a nasty job. Even “legal” arms dealers will of course have a lower morality threshold than most of us, but the incompetent? Who Knew?
What is so terrifying and so beautifully illustrated in War Dogs is how much help arms dealers can secure - legally. How “shady” deals will always be part and parcel of the commerce of warmongering. How otherwise diligent government executives convince themselves they’ve done nothing wrong because they have not broken a written law. How slow the legislative branch can be to respond to scandal and waste or fraud. All these themes are explored, make one shake ones’ head at the sadly surreal world of the arms dealer and the Governments involved in procurement.
Packouz is quoted in the epilogue as saying he and his buddies were living the American Dream. To misquote the famous song – that dream ran away real fast, so any heroes in this story were very much broken ones.
Editor’s Note :
The full UK / Ireland title is War Dogs: The True Story of How Three Stoners from Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History
The full US / Canada title is Arms and the Dudes : The True Story of How Three Stoners from Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History