“You know, it’s weird, man. It’s like everybody’s real cordial with each other. But, at the end of the day, we’re, like, buying weapons to destroy each other. I don’t want to, like, sound liberal or anything. But it’s really not glamorous. This shit fucking kills people.” Shockingly, the guy who said this wasn’t some antiwar hippie who had just dropped acid. He was a 6'4" Marine Corps Force Recon sergeant who had recently returned from two tours in Afghanistan.
We (VICE and the sergeant) were both attendees at the 2010 Special Operations Force Exhibition (SOFEX) in Jordan. His booming reaction was prompted by the trade-show floor - a sea of displays and kiosks from weapons companies hawking missiles, machine guns, tanks, and bombs like they were next year’s luxury sedans. Even more unsettling, the expo’s biggest sponsor was the USA.
On arriving at SOFEX, I was reminded of when I was a punk kid and it was fashionable to say things like, “The military-industrial complex is taking over the world.” At the time, I didn’t know what “military-industrial complex” meant, but the conference rapidly provided me with a very literal definition of the term.
SOFEX takes place every two years in Amman, and is largely the brainchild of Jordan’s king, Abdullah II, who has a penchant for special operations and massive displays of artillery. Over the course of a week, more than 12,000 attendees tromped around 30-odd tents staked across the desert, hosting approximately 300 vendors. The atmosphere was insidious but open, an organized free-for-all in which American companies like Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and General Dynamics sold weapons to almost anyone who could afford them.
The Ultimate Warrior Competition is sponsored by KASOTC, a “counterterrorism training facility” in Jordan founded by King Abdullah.
I’ve been to hundreds of depressing media trade shows, and SOFEX’s salespeople are no different from the rest, except that their wares are designed to destroy things and kill people. I witnessed representatives from almost every nation spending millions of dollars on heavy munitions; I was wondering if the transactions were padded by foreign aid from the US and other countries. I heard high-ranking soldiers say things like, “When I retire I’m going to be on the other side of the table—ha ha ha ha.”
What this means is that it’s not uncommon for generals with government-controlled salaries around $100,000 a year to spend the twilight of their careers purchasing billions worth of munitions from arms companies who, in turn, offer these same senior officers state-side “consulting” gigs with multimillion-dollar salaries. It’s blatant payola, the whole thing so corrupt it borders on absurd. Absurdity, as it turned out, was a running theme of the conference.
Every SOFEX commences with a “show of force” arranged by King Abdullah. This time it consisted of elite military training exercises focused on antipiracy special ops. I watched as mock combatants fell from the sky with purple smoke coming out of their asses as they overtook a “boat” made of a bunch of shipping containers, marooned in the middle of the desert. I thought, “What the f*ck is happening here?” No one seemed to have a grasp on reality.
When the conference opened each day the scene resembled a free booze party on the Lower East Side, but instead of hipsters crowding the bar to get free vodka, generals stood five deep trying to place their orders for laser-guided weapons and truck-mounted rocket launchers, both of which were the stars of the show.
Just like at any other trade show, product demonstrations and live tests are the norm at SOFEX. This helicopter-rapelling demonstration was part of King Abullah’s “show of force,” a smorgasbord of special-ops exercises that preceded the sales portion of the conference.
Generals from every tin-pot army in the world were in attendance, and they came dressed to the nines; it was like Dr. Evil decided to host a fashion show. The sharpest were the African generalissimos, with their gold-braided mauve outfits and huge hats. The scariest were the guys from the ex-Soviet republics who looked like cold-blooded killers and mafiosi. They were right out of central casting—the evil bastards that James Bond or Rambo, against all odds, has to terminate. But the weapons they were selling were all too real and really, really crazy. One vendor peddling Javelin missiles said, “[They’ve] been incredibly successful not only for US troops, but also for other forces as well.”
I took this to mean that American soldiers and their enemies could potentially be using the same weapons to blow each other to smithereens—meaning straight-up profits for the companies selling them.
It was readily apparent that SOFEX’s conceit is a thinly veiled excuse to sell US arms to any military with the means. American armament companies are theoretically prohibited from selling to rogue regimes, but there’s a loophole that says it’s OK for “nations friendly to Jordan” to buy their weapons.
I spoke with another ex-Marine and Iraq war vet who identified for me some of the weapons for sale at SOFEX that had been used against him and his comrades during his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan (one of the worst offenders was China’s Norinco, whose missiles are widely used by insurgents in Iraq). It was shocking to discover that just about any country could purchase surface-to-air missiles specifically designed to knock planes out of the sky. There were also “dual purpose” configurations; it’s illegal for some countries to purchase all-inclusive murderous vehicles ready for combat, but perfectly kosher to acquire one company’s vehicle and another’s armaments—then put them together like a set of killer Legos to create a superkiller Airwolf. Not-so-friendly places like North Korea and Libya have already mastered this kind of Frankensteining.
Surprisingly, everyone at SOFEX was clamoring to talk to me, because they assumed I worked for Jane’s—the premier military and arms trade publication. It was the equivalent of being from GQ or Vanity Fair during Paris Fashion Week. The region’s economy relies on exploiting terrorism, fear, paranoia, and counterterrorism, and I can see how people get caught up in the brouhaha. It’s undeniably fun to fire RPGs at old tanks, watch Gatling guns cut a house in half like butter, and launch rockets into the night sky. Then you turn around and there’s a steely-eyed war veteran who sobers you right up: “This shit has one purpose. It kills people.”
Oh yeah, right.
Watch VICE's full video on SOFEX here.