Sunday, 10 May 2020

Book review: Outlaws Inc, Matt Potter (2011)

I bought the book for $19.99 sometime in or soon after April 2012; I see the bookseller’s sticker on the back cover. Ever since then it has sat, unread, in one or more of my bookcases. In the meantime, Australian journalist Anthony Loewenstein published (in 2016, though I’ve not read it) a book titled ‘Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing out of Catastrophe’.

Potter charts the same space. His work of journalism has a cover that makes it look like pulp fiction, a spy thriller. The title is equally impressive. Then there’re the stock images used for the cover illustration and the quote from someone named Andy Ross – about whom, online, I could find no mention (nor, for that matter, could I find much about “America Now” where, presumably, Ross worked at one time). “It’s Jason Bourne meets James Bond, only it’s really happening, and it’s happening now.”

The hints, sleight-of-hand, and suggestions combine to form an introduction, both misleading and accurate, to what turns out to be a shadowy world. To draw you in, the book uses spicy syntax and pungent style, but it is always credible in terms of sourcing and referencing and reads much more like investigative journalism than an action novel. It represents serious work and the packaging was, presumably, chosen on the basis that, rather than to be educated, people want the thrill of dodgy personal contacts, clandestine meetings, aliases, fake passports, and cash payments. (Everything they don’t have in their own lives.) At the beginning of each new section, the narrative is anchored in an anecdote illustrating Potter’s life in the sky or in one or another of the world’s trouble-spots, where he has gone, following the money.

But ‘Outlaws Inc’ offers a better way to spend your time than a fiction because – while there is plenty of speculation as Potter tries to pin down what, where, when, why, and how – he retails in facts. Potter’s (or the publisher’s) choice of packaging is mirrored by slightly breathless prose that is by turns jaunty and complex, as this sample from chapter 21 (on page 339) demonstrates:
The breeze is picking up, carrying whirls of sand and grass-husks on its warm jets. And on the foggy, overgrown hook-end of this disused upcountry air base, deep in the West African bush, among rusting helicopters and a cement-mixer graveyard, the vast iron bird is popping and blinking as it cools down. Night sounds drift in through the plane’s metal skin: motorbikes, wire-mesh gates being clanked, a rifle firing, dogs. Somewhere further off, a televised football match and the unsettling human-voice-in-distress cries of the night birds wander in and out with the direction of the wind. A fuel truck backs up in the distance, and once or twice another plane crosses the sky.
Compare the poetry of the above passage with the more functional tone of the following extract, from page 337, in the previous chapter:
Mark Galeotti believes this ability to slip seamlessly off the radar and into different roles and identities, goes deeper for Mickey, Tatyana, even Bout, than a calculated wish to deceive. 
‘It’s not actually a situational thing,’ he says. ‘It’s a reflex. You’ve got to remember that this is one of the glories of the old Soviet system. On paper, it was hierarchical, ordered, rational and everything had its place. In practice, it was everything but. And if Russians have a genius, it’s to screw over those people who try to rule them, and at every occasion.’
The following extract is from page 340, and demonstrates a preference for impressionism as the author granulates characteristics to form portraits of those whose exploits he chronicles, in this case a Russian flyboy he names “Mickey”:
They say nothing’s certain in life but death and taxes. And with his cash business at least, Mickey’s got tax pretty well licked. But the older he gets, the more I fear for him. The planes are ageing, the loads creeping up and beyond even the physics-defying abilities of men like him. Still, spectacular escapes and close shaves always stick in the mind longer than the bodies by the road, and like all of them, Mickey is convinced he’s lucky. Part of him has started to believe the myth, I think. That larger-than-life creation, the schizoid comic-book caricature that jumps from the pages of the trafficking reports and the mouths of other bush-jockey pilots is so dazzling – a sort of Bond villain-Scarlet Pimpernel combo – it’s pretty much all that I saw at first, back in Belgrade, and wherever else I looked. Until I met Mickey. Then, when you peel away layers, you’re left with a bunch of blue-collar guys and the muggy, canvas-packed shadows inside an Ilyushin-76 at night, and things look different. Less glamorous.
How you view these stories might depend on your politics, or on where you live, but Potter does actually evince the kind of gravitas needed to achieve his aim of informing and entertaining his readers. He worked at different times for a London magazine that published articles about the defence industry, and also as a freelance journalist in the ex-Yugoslavia during the time of the civil war. Due to these experiences he developed contacts giving him access to the airborne smugglers whose exploits he covers. Fifteen years were needed to gather material for the book. The Berlin Wall coming down in 1989 set off a cascading sequence of events, including the dissolution of the USSR, resulting in a huge number of Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian defence personnel becoming unemployed. Keen to support themselves and their families, they took advantage of an official dispensation allowing for the sale of equipment from the country’s arsenal. Many also quickly took to flying old Ilyushin and Antonov aircraft on commission, carrying freight from one place to another.

The book makes you work and challenges you to keep track of people and places as your focus shifts from one object to another. There’s a primary set of characters – some names have been changed to protect reputations – but on the other hand a wide range of settings – from Eastern Europe and Russia to the Middle East and Central Asia, from Africa to South America – softens the impact of any one story.

As well as challenging it’s fun, and while there is concrete evidence for the kind of racketeering suggested by the title and apportioned by the author to key players, a lot of what is described happens in a grey zone. You are never quite sure how you should be judging these people. Are they entrepreneurs or criminals? Whose side do you want to be on? That of the authorities or that of the operatives who fly the planes on often dangerous missions from one place to another? What about the middlemen, or indeed the governments who receive or sell equipment, drugs, or other types of contraband?

After 9/11 when the world’s attention turned to Afghanistan, the pilots headed to the Middle East. In one chapter, Potter likens them to Han Solo and Chewbacca, and the planes they flew (are still flying) to the Millennium Falcon. I was also reminded of Ignacio Serricchio’s ship mechanic Don West, who flirts with Judy Robinson, a doctor, on Netflix’s ‘Lost in Space’. West smuggles liquor in his ship, and Judy lambastes him but, when you are on the frontier, lines easily blur and it’s hard to make up your mind who wears the white hat and who the black. And if you make the rules so tight that you take out the outlaws, Potter says, then you also cripple the legitimate operators who are helping you to achieve your political goals.

Does the book describe the normal process of supplying a market, or is it about profiting off human misery? Was the chaos always going to happen once the ball was set rolling? Is disaster capitalism just normal functioning in a market where the people involved come from backgrounds that are unlike people found in the cities and towns of a country like the USA?

While Potter tries to answer such questions, there’s another message in this book full of evocative prose. It’s that you cannot predict the future. Once something large is in motion it can crush smaller things that it comes across in its path. But it can also come crashing down to the earth. Flying these Ilyushins and Antonovs is dangerous due to the age of the craft, their state of repair, and the temptation, at all times, to get that extra ton of goods onboard. While people caught up in the fighting that happened (and is still happening) in such countries as the Democratic Republic of Congo led (leads) to innocent civilians suffering violence, the casualties stemming from the trade of contraband included people who were shipping it across borders.

But a market has its own logic, and always tends to command supply. “You like grey?” Potter seems to be saying, “Check out Mickey’s flight suit!” Here’s a different take on Capital, one for the records.

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