Just before I went off to Korea, I went to see Lord of War at the cinema.
Nicholas Cage stars as Yuri Orlov, a Ukrainian-American from a poor family in
New Brighton Brighton Beach who becomes an international arms dealer. The film follows Orlov from the beginning of his career to him becoming the world’s most prolific gun runner busting sanctions wherever they get in his way, and being chased by the authorities in the form of Ethan Hawke along the way. The character of Orlov is a composite of five real arms dealers, one of whom is almost certainly Victor Bout, and the film had several gun runners advising on the set (who were rumoured to be more helpful and efficent that the film crews themselves).
The film itself is highly entertaining, and Cage plays the part well, offering as good an insight as any into the way an international arms dealer would work. There is plenty of humour, albeit mainly of the sort which portrays Ukrainians as drunkards and bandits (I watched it with a Russian, who found it highly amusing), and the camera work is in places very impressive. The story is gripping, and makes some very good points, one of which is also made here:
Since the end of the Second World War, tens of millions of people have been killed by conventional weapons, mostly small arms such as rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Sales of advanced weaponry — fighter jets and high-tech electronics, sophisticated long-range artillery and warships, and “weapons of mass destruction” — tend to receive the most press coverage. But these costly, sophisticated weapons have not proved as deadly as ordinary guns and grenades that are easy to buy, easy to ship and easy to use.
Low-tech, handheld weapons and explosives do the vast majority of the killing today. There are more than 550 million small arms currently in circulation, many of them fueling bloody civil strife in countries from Sri Lanka to Sierra Leone.
Which is a point worth remembering. Next time you see pictures of a massacre in Africa or Asia, take note of what kind of weapons were used to carry out the killings. Any money you like it was small arms and mortars. Which was why I was somewhat dissapointed to see that Lord of War, somewhat contradictorily, makes a further point towards the end of the film that the US sells more arms than anyone else, which in terms of sales figures, it does. And this is the charge that the opponents of the US like to hold up with glee whenever there is talk of arms sales into dodgy regimes. They may have a point that the US should not sell arms of any kind to dodgy regimes, but they might like to look at what sort of arms are being sold by whom, and which ones are doing most of the killings.
The US sales figures are largely made up of the high-tech equipment such as fighter jets mentioned in the excerpt above. You generally don’t see US-made rifles, mortars, and landmines scattered willy-nilly around warring African tribes. What you do see is Russian made rifles, mortars, and landmines scattered amongst anyone anywhere who is willing to have a fight, and right behind them you see the Chinese knock-offs of the same. (It always struck me as odd that the US supposedly armed Saddam Hussein yet his army had not a single American piece of kit and an awful lot of Russian stuff, until I realised that it was not the US that armed Saddam but the Soviet Union).
It is the Russian and Chinese weaponery that is has caused and is still causing the deaths of tens of millions of people the world over, not the US high-tech kit. Yet oddly, Russia and China are seldom vilified by the peace activists and do-gooders in the West for flogging millions of rifles and grenades to anyone who wants them, whilst at the same time protesting voiciforously when the US or Britain sells an air traffic control system to Tanzania or India. Were they to actually take into account which weapons were actually causing the mountain of misery in places like Sudan and Sierra Leone, they’d be surprised to see that it is Russian and Chinese kit doing the killing. But then again, these are the same groups who insist that the US armed Saddam Hussein with Mig aircraft, T-72 tanks, and AK-47 assault rifles so it is little wonder they’ve not got their facts straight, and even less wonder that western governments ignore them.
But back to the film, it is well worth seeing, for a number of reasons which I have listed above. And it is hard to get away from the political message in the film, which contrary to most films containing political messages is in all likelihood true: that the proliferation of small arms around the world is causing misery of biblical proportions. The film ends by pointing out that the world’s largest suppliers of arms: US, UK, France, Russia, and China are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, hinting at the irony that those in charge of ensuring peace in the world are the same as those who sell the tools which fuel the conflicts. I think the film missed the main point, and there is no irony in the statement. The truth is, those five nations are the permanent members of the UN Security Council precisely because they have a near monopoly on the arms trade, not despite it. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.