In The Book of Merlyn, TH White’s beautiful, affecting coda to his masterpiece The Once and Future King, his aged King Arthur listens as a council of advisers tells him about humanity. The council is headed by his old tutor, Merlyn the magician, and its views on humanity are perhaps sharpened by the fact that the council members themselves are animals – an owl, a hedgehog, a snake, a goat, a badger and a dog. The question is what to call mankind, since the council has decided that homo sapiens is obviously inaccurate, and the label of homo ferox is suggested. When Arthur protests that surely man is not as ferocious as a tiger, he’s reminded: “Why, there is not a humble animal in England that does not flee from the shadow of man, as a burnt soul from purgatory.” Merlyn assures him, “It takes something, believe me, to be dreaded in all the elements there are.”
Andrew Feinstein’s new book, The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade, is one long natural history of homo ferox; it would drive White’s King Arthur to tears, and it would make a believer out of him. It’s as profoundly depressing a book as you will read all year, for it’s not primarily about the pretty idea of evil but rather about something below it: the moneygrubbing sharks who supply evil with the tools it needs to do its work. Feinstein has done a great amount of investigation to bring the full details of this story to print, and we must thank him for it just as we thank the housing inspector who points out exactly where the rot has set in.
This is unpleasant but necessary reading, and it starts off as ferociously as possible. On January 6, 1999, forces of the Revolutionary United Front in civil war-torn Sierra Leone moved into Freetown intent on rape, plunder and murder (in accordance with their mission’s name, Operation No Living Thing). “What followed,” Feinstein writes, “was a two-day apocalyptic horror. Thousands of armed teenage soldiers, almost all of them wearing thick bandages on the side of the head where incisions had been made to pack crack cocaine under their skin, swarmed the city.” In less than two weeks of this apocalypse, hundreds of thousands of people were dispossessed, tens of thousands were maimed or abducted, and six thousand were murdered. Before striking, the RUF had waited for the arrival of extra arms and equipment from neighboring Liberia. “The arms trade did not cause this barbarism,” Feinstein allows, “but it facilitated and fuelled it.”
It’s too nice a point, and Feinstein must be aware that his own book doesn’t support it. Consider the impatient waiting the RUF did; hard-eyed men pacing on warehouse loading docks, ready to hand out foreign-made rifles to bored soldiers of death – that waiting has been done by countless such militia in countless countries in every century of the modern era. In every one of those instances, violence, rape and murder waited on the delivery schedules of the arms trade. That “shadow world” is guilty of a lot more than facilitation.
As Feinstein explains, his use of the term “shadow world” is meant to apply to the so-called grey market of covert arms dealing and the black market of illegal arms dealing; he admits that the open and above-board arms market between nations has always been in some measure a legitimate thing. The focus of his years of research and his thousands of pages of notes is rather the illegitimate side of the issue, the countries and agencies trafficking in arms without any legal mandate, or in defiance of international agreements. All countries and governments need arms to defend themselves and their citizens, we’re assured, but there are channels and procedures for the buying and trading of such arms – there’s an industry that can and should be regulated. By contrast, the villains in this scenario are the governments and government agents who make illegal arms deals (usually for staggering amounts of money), indifferent to the vast amounts of human suffering that always results from such deals.