The "Lord of War"

An Arms Trade Analyst's Perspective

By Matt Schroeder, Manager of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project

FAS Public Interest Report, Fall 2005


In "Lord of War," Director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, Truman Show, S1m0ne) shines his cinematic spotlight on the shadowy world of illicit arms trafficking - a global scourge that has claimed millions of lives since the end of the Cold War. It is a slick, stylish film about a slick, stylish crime. Yet despite its Hollywood feel, "Lord of War" is an excellent introduction to the opaque and oft-ignored activities of the merchants of death, or lords of war.

The movie follows arms trafficker Yuri Orlov's meteoric rise to the top of his profession. Yuri, played perfectly by Nicholas Cage, is the ambitious son of Ukranian immigrants whose desire to escape the banality of New York's Little Odessa leads him to the hyper-violent war zones of post-Cold War West Africa - "the edge of Hell," quips Yuri. There, he dodges bullets and Interpol agents while delivering planeloads of weapons to a sociopathic dictator. After each sale, Yuri returns to his multimillion dollar Manhattan condo, his fashion model wife, and their young son. Yuri's transition between the two worlds is seamless, as is the ethical compartmentalization that allows him to exist in both: "Cars and cigarettes kill more people than guns," "I simply give people the means to defend themselves," etc. Slowly the corrosive depravity of Yuri's vocation eats away at this bifurcated morality and he succumbs to the vices that his weapon sales indirectly cultivate - prostitution, drug addiction, and murder.

Niccol's portrayal of international arms trafficking is inspired. At one level, gun running is an activity that lends itself perfectly to the big screen - big guns, lots of money, exotic places, shady characters. But that's only half the story. Less sexy but more important is the dizzyingly complex administrative and bureaucratic arrangements made by traffickers to hide their activities and throw law enforcement officials off the scent. Fraudulent end-user certificates, front companies, false bills of lading - all essential elements of the illicit arms trade but hardly the stuff of an enjoyable Friday night at the movies. Niccol manages to communicate these details while keeping his audience on the edge of their seats with the guns, money and shady characters.

In one particularly riveting (and educational) scene, Yuri and his brother Vitaly (Jerad Leto) are approaching the Colombian coastal city of Cartagena with a boatload of AK-47 assault rifles. Yuri is conversing with his nacro-trafficker client about the "Angel Kings" he is going to deliver. Moments later, he receives a phone call from one of his plants in a Colombian intelligence agency who informs him that Interpol is hot on his trail. Yuri goes to work. He sends one of his crew members over the side of the ship with a can of paint and hasty orders to paint over the large, white "Kristol" (the name of the ship). He then calls another paid spy who gives him the name of a clean Dutch ship, the "Kono," which he barks at the crew member on the hanging scaffold. Vitaly frantically searches their extensive collection of national flags for a Dutch flag, which has gone missing. The camera pans to a rapidly approaching Interpol patrol boat. In the nick of time, Vitaly finds a French flag which, turned on its side, looks like the Dutch flag, and the anonymous crew member finishes repainting the side of the ship.

The Interpol patrol boat pulls up along side the "Kono." Even though the name doesn't match the ship they are looking for, agent Jack Valentine (Ethan Hawke) decides to board the ship anyway. He is greeted by Yuri, who shows him to the cargo hold while a voice-over by Cage explains how he conceals his merchandise: in boxes labeled "farm equipment," in canisters marked "radio active waste," and, his personal favorite, "the combination of week-old potatoes and tropical heat," which is what Valentine finds in the cargo hold.

Real world examples can be found for nearly every reference in the scene. Using code words for weapons (i.e. "Angel Kings" for AK-47s) is a common practice amongst arms traffickers and their clients. In 2000, the Colombian military intercepted a conversation between guerrillas during which they discuss the cost of "pineapples" in terms of "lettuce leaves." The "pineapples" were hand grenades and the "lettuce leaves" were U.S. dollars. Similarly, there are several documented cases of arms traffickers mislabeling weapons shipments as farm machinery. In one particularly notable case, a ship carrying an estimated $100 million in Russian and Czech weaponry, including 30 tanks and 4 million rounds of ammunition, was impounded by British officials because of paperwork problems. The captain told the Brits that he was transporting "agricultural equipment" and, upon providing the proper paperwork, was permitted to continue his journey to Angola, where he delivered his deadly cargo in violation of a United Nations embargo.

Through numerous scenes like the boarding of the Kristol, Niccol constructs a surprisingly nuanced and accurate portrayal of the illicit arms trade. As an arms trade analyst, I have no criticisms, only a point of clarification concerning Niccol's use of arms trade statistics in the closing credits. While private arms dealers continue to thrive, reads his parting shot, the largest arms exporters are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Technically, Niccol is correct; the five permanent members of the Security Council are often the top five global arms exporters in dollar value terms. But the wording of this comment conflates illicit arms trafficking by private brokers with legal, government-to-government sales - two entirely different animals. For example, most of the $18.5 billion in defense articles sold last year by the world's largest arms exporter, the United States, are the so-called "big weapons" - airplanes, tanks, ships and the sophisticated munitions, surveillance and communications equipment that they use - not the assault rifles, machine guns and missile launchers peddled by Yuri. The U.S. does sell military style small arms as well, but most end up in arsenals of responsible governments. That's not to say that all legal sales are harmless. There are plenty of examples of legal, government-to-government arms transfers that have fueled arms races, perpetuated regional wars, and supported repressive regimes. But the two types of arms sales are categorically different, and should be treated that way.

That said, "Lord of War" is an edgy, innovative and darkly humorous film that appeals to lay audiences and policy analysts alike.


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