If you grew up with a martial mindset in the late 70s and early 80s, it was impossible not to be aware of the magazine “Soldier of Fortune.” A quick perusal of the subject matter revealed a fixation on military weapons and tactics at the unit level, and opportunities to be had the world over – there was always trouble brewing somewhere. That was during the Cold War of course, when wars were fought by proxy. If anything, things got more chaotic after the Berlin Wall came down.
It wasn’t quite my cup of tea: Blowing bubbles in the mud at a couple hundred dollars a month while rounds snapped overhead in the service of one or another otherwise indistinguishable foreign autocrat warmed no cockles in my patriotic heart. And the classified ads in the back spoke of sociopaths looking for work to wet. I found it off-putting myself, but each to his own says I, and every man must find beauty where he can.
Rob Krott, a Pennsylvania hill boy and a veteran of US Army infantry tours in Korea and elsewhere, found his beauty fighting foreign wars with an AK-47 in his hand.
He was, as he freely admits, a mercenary.
We should probably choose another word: “Mercenary”sounds so, well. Mercenary. But Krott makes clear that there’s little more than survival rations fighting in the seams of wars the rest of the world would rather not think about. Having next to nothing, his Croat patrons couldn’t pay much. The best money Krott made was as a contractor for the US government in hopeless Somalia.
The word has a pejorative connotation over here, always has. The otherwise neutral Swiss have earned something of a reputation for themselves out of doors in the old country, while the Hessians fought over here for pay, making no friends along the way. We’ve a decided preference for citizen soldiers, muskets and back yards. We resent going afield, do it only when we think we have to for the sake of the Republic and scamper home as soon as ever we might.
But some of us are not all of us, and for a professional soldier concluding his work in a peacetime army, sometimes the lure of adventure beckons. Some men fight not because their country is threatened, but because that is all they know. They’re made for it.
It has to be adventure, or a desire to put one’s skills to the active test: For $100 per month, the only people who’d choose to sign on in Other People’s Wars are those who 1) aren’t welcome at home, or 2) are never happier than with a full magazine, load bearing equipment and someone to shoot at that shoots back. For an adrenaline junkie, it is the most dangerous game.
You get introduced to the lot of adrenaline junkies in Krott’s book. It’s a peek inside a world that few know but many wonder about. A pull no punches novel that reads like an extended conversation over endless bottles of beer. There’s a feeling of stubbled beards, stubbed cigarettes and lurking danger.
Krott starts out in the Balkans, and ends there too, with a brief interlude in Somalia. Other climes are hinted at – other books promised – but the story is clear enough: In the late 20th century’s wars of suddenly liberated sectarians, any fight will do. It’s only a matter of making your way over, clearing customs, picking the side that most needs your help and telling a compelling story. When you’re on the side of the hard pressed – the Serbs alone had armor – almost any story would apparently do.
Krott has good words for most he fought for, and a few for those he fought alongside to go with his unmasked contempt for many – the wannabe’s who’d bluff and bluster but never show up. He reserves his worst condemnation for a few of those that do. The psychopaths, mental deficients and serial liars who drop in, draw weapons and then scamper home, whether that be to a tavern behind the lines or all the way back to Germany, France, Britain or America. Intermixed with these are examples of real heroism, even grace. It’s a picture that never quite coalesces, a canvas that remains maddeningly impenetrable.
Just as those who haven’t served under arms in their country’s defense will never really understand those who have, so too will the rest of us – even those who have had the opportunity to be shot at and shoot back - never really understand what it means to sleep off a hangover in Tomislava before setting off on a combat patrol against irregular Serbian militias in the contested hamlets of a disintegrating country. Krott’s book brings you close to understanding the players, if not the game.