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My Friend the Mercenary: A Memoir, by James Brabazon

New York: Grove Press, 2012. Pp. 480. Illus. $15.95. ISBN: 0802145736.

Longtime readers of StrategyPage know that the wars that tore apart Liberia and Sierra Leone from the 1990s into the first decade of this century were a mix of horror and absurdity beyond the power of any fiction writer to invent.  Sometimes the truth is so much stranger and larger than real life that one can only record the facts as accurately as possible and let the reader, the audience, and history make what sense of it they can.  In 2002, James Brabazon, a young British journalist, traveled to Liberia to make a documentary on the war being fought there.  Along the way he hired a former special operator from South Africa named Nick du Toit for security.  The two soon became friends.

In Liberia, Brabazon embedded himself with a guerrilla army called the LURD that was fighting to overthrew Liberian President Charles Taylor.  LURD was led by a former used car salesman named Sekou Conneh, and by field commanders with noms de guerre like Cobra and Dragon Master. Brabazon and du Toit faced heat, hunger, leeches, exhaustion, tropical diseases, and poisonous spiders in addition to the Liberian army, and the personal hostility of Charles Taylor, who, unhappy that someone was covering the war from the other side, put a price on Brabazon’s head.  Life with the LURD could be quite dangerous, especially give their utter lack of discipline and training.  Battles frequently consisted of LURD fighters putting their AKs on spray and pray, emptying their bandoliers in minutes, and then fleeing for their lives from Liberian troops who still had ammunition.       

Early on, du Toit began scheming to seize control of a diamond mine, and use the smuggled stones to finance the LURD’s operations, and to pay himself, as Brabazon’s employers were no longer willing to pay du Toit’s wages.  Brabazon never objected to du Toit’s mercenary endeavors on moral grounds, in part because he too was looking to profit out of the war as well, by advancing his career; at one point Brabazon refers to himself as “An accessory to war”.

Nothing came of du Toit’s diamond smuggling plan, and he eventually became involved in a planned coup in Equatorial Guinea, which he thoughtfully invited his friend Brabazon to cover.  A last minute family emergency kept Brabazon from going along, which was extremely fortunate for him.  The Equatorial Guinea operation proved to be a based on a complicated Rube Goldberg plan, that had far too many moving parts and nonexistent operational security.  Du Toit and his fellow mercenaries were arrested and thrown into Black Beach prison, a notorious hellhole where they were brutally tortured, and sentenced to serve long terms under horrific conditions.

The latter part of the book recounts Brabazon’s efforts to help du Toit, and to investigate and understand the abortive coup that had landed his friend in prison.  At times, things can be difficult to follow, but that isn’t Brabazon’s fault.  The cast of characters rivals that of a Russian novel.  Throughout the book, Brabazon tries to understand and explain a complex, shadowy world of arms dealers, mercenaries, spooks, Middle Eastern businessmen, and more besides, most of whom had reasons to lie about or cover up what they were doing, and some of whom were shockingly incompetent.

My Friend the Mercenary is an fascinating look at the Liberian civil war, and at mercenary soldiering. One can only
hope that Hollywood sees the potential in this, and contacts Brabazon about the movie rights.


Reviewer: Burke G Sheppard   

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