She Soldiers On

After chronicling and glorifying the mercenary ethos for nearly half a century, Soldier of Fortune founder Robert K. Brown has handed command over to longtime contributor Susan Katz Keating, the first woman to ever write for the magazine

The first thing you’ll want to know about Soldier of Fortune is where all the gun-for-hire classifieds in “the journal for professional adventurers” went. At its peak in the mid-’80s, the magazine had a staff of 50 and a circulation of 150,000, but it also had growing legal troubles. As the premier American magazine dedicated to the mercenary lifestyle, it provided fodder for violence-minded daydreamers as well as a venue for professional killers to advertise their services, “all jobs considered.” As a result, the publication was linked with more than a half-dozen contract murders in a ten-year span.

In Texas in 1985, Robert Black paid John Wayne Hearn, a former Marine who he’d found through a classified ad, $10,000 to shoot his wife, Sandra. When the victim’s family sued Soldier of Fortune, a jury awarded them $9.4 million, but an appellate court overturned that decision. In August of that same year, Bruce Gastwirth paid Michael Savage, who claimed to be a Vietnam veteran in his Soldier of Fortune ad, to murder his business partner Richard Braun. Savage shot Braun and his son as they pulled out of their driveway outside of Atlanta on a Monday. As Braun tried to escape the car, Savage shot him twice more in the back of the head. Braun’s family sued Soldier of Fortune for its role in facilitating the hit, resulting in a judgment against the magazine of $4.3 million in damages which later was reduced to a $200,000 settlement. The magazine about mercenaries stopped running mercenary ads soon after, but the gun-for-hire ethos remained.

To a great extent, throughout its history and no matter how large its staff got, Soldier of Fortune was a reflection of its founder, Robert K. Brown, a former Green Beret lieutenant colonel who launched it in 1975. In a 1988 Mother Jones article, a former employee described Brown as “an anti-communist Peter Pan … [in] Colonel Kangaroo’s Paramilitary theme park.” That is, until this spring: On May 6, Brown announced that he was handing the reins of Soldier of Fortune to Susan Katz Keating, an erstwhile military and crime correspondent for People magazine, and after becoming the first woman to write for the magazine, a longtime contributor.

Keating had had to convince Brown to accept this line of succession. “I had dinner with Bob a couple of years ago — he’ll be 90 this year, and he is a very intelligent, educated, spunky guy, but he’s also 90 — and I asked, ‘What will you do when you can’t do this anymore? What will you do with the magazine?’” Keating told The Fine Print. “He said, ‘Well, I don’t know, right?’ And I said, ‘Well, would you think of selling it to me?’ He just said he wasn’t interested at all in selling.” She kept asking. Early this year, Brown gave in. Keating declined to outline the terms since they have a non-disclosure agreement, but she said that the magazine’s mission will remain the same under her leadership.

Susan Katz Keating

Susan Katz Keating

Soldier of Fortune has always had a few unshakeable tenets — gun rights are paramount and private killers are cool — but like the malleable morality of the purported heroes inhabiting the dream world they conjured for their readers, the magazine and its founder have also been surprisingly politically flexible. Brown got his first taste of revolution trying to run guns for Fidel Castro and his communist rebels in the 1950s. In his 2013 memoir, I Am Soldier of Fortune, he’d spin this as the logical outcome of a simple mercenary equation: “Machine guns + Cuban revolutionaries = money for Brown.” At the time, there seemed to be an inkling of ideological sympathy. “Most of the U.S. media reports, including flattering pieces authored by Herbert Matthews of The New York Times and Andrew St. George in the now-defunct magazine Coronet, hailed Castro as a good-guy type Social Democrat who just wanted to overthrow strongman Batista,” he’d write in his memoir. He added a mea culpa: “I was bamboozled.”

By the time Brown launched his magazine, however, the Cold War was feverish, and he was ready to throw in his lot with just about any faction that claimed to be fighting communists. The explicitly white supremacist Rhodesian War is the conflict that Soldier of Fortune most associated itself with in its earliest years. Brown would spell out the racist aspect of the war in his memoir — “The Brits wanted one man, one vote. Ian Smith, the governor of Rhodesia and leader of the Rhodesia Front, would have none of that because, of course, that would mean blacks would get into power. It would devolve into a case of ‘one man, one vote, once.’ How right he was!” — but he’d never back down from the claim that the real enemy of the white Rhodesian government was communism.

The FBI investigated Soldier of Fortune for helping to recruit mercenaries to join the white Rhodesian cause, though Brown always claimed he was only spreading information. As the years rolled by, Brown would develop his own take on “participatory journalism,” sending teams of correspondents into war zones all over the world, choosing a side. “We’d carry guns. If we were shot at, we shot back. We didn’t hide behind a log. And in many cases, we were involved in training various and sundry troops, from ethnic minorities in Burma to the Christian militias in Lebanon to the Contras,” he’d brag in a Bidoun interview conducted in the leadup to the magazine’s 35th anniversary. “I can make the case that we were the first private military ‘contractors,’ as we trained and fought with the Salvadoran Army,” he claimed, ahistorically, in his memoir. By 2016, six of his correspondents had died on the job.

The Cold War’s end unmoored Soldier of Fortune. By 1992, subscriptions were down to 90,000. In 1994, it launched a Russian edition, which lasted until 2009. By 2000, the subscriber base had dropped to a self-reported 20,000. That same year, Activision released a computer game licensed from the magazine’s name, which authorities in British Columbia restricted as an adult motion picture because of its violence. Brown and his correspondents continued covering conflicts worldwide, but as perpetual wars intentionally faded from focus and mercenary contracting companies corporatized, their valorization of violence came to seem like a relic of the brash, expendable ’80s.

As the American right-wing moved on from its single-minded focus on ardent anti-communism, Brown’s views fit in in some ways — he served on the board of the NRA — but in 2016, he dissented from the Republican Party’s drift. “Trump is a fucking nightmare, and I think it’ll be terrible if he slips in,” he told a reporter for Maxim. “I just fear he is going to pull a Ross Perot on us and run as a third-party candidate, which will just hand it to [Hillary] Clinton. That would give me a fucking stroke.” Over the next few years, however, Soldier of Fortune found plenty of common ground with the right’s new tendencies, propagating Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s vaccine skepticism, diving into the controversies around Hunter Biden, and tagging along with border militias.

Part of the promise of Brown’s kingdom of violence was its persistence. Mercenaries have been around long enough for both Sun Tzu and Machiavelli to cast doubts on their utility, and the magazine about them was guaranteed to last as least as long as Brown was around to run it. “I will certainly continue at SoF until they plant me in the ground,” he told Bidoun around 2010. “What else am I supposed to do? Sell the magazine, buy a ranch, and chew Skoal on the front porch as I watch the cows go by?” By 2016, it had become clear that many of his original readers hadn’t been so persistent, and they weren’t being replaced rapidly enough by a new generation of blood-curdling daydreamers. The magazine’s circulation had dropped further and its ad revenue had declined, so Brown discontinued the print publication, leaving a vestigial web presence. That year he told Maxim that he’d been negotiating to bring in younger partners or sell the publication. Now that Keating’s taking over, she’s taking on responsibility for reinvigorating the husk of the colossus while also satisfying the remaining readers who cherish its legacy.

Blame the Boers. It’s been a while since anyone’s blamed the Boers for anything, but blame the Dutch-descended South Africans and the war they fought against The British Empire from 1899 to 1902 for sparking Keating’s fascination with mercenaries. Keating grew up in Southern California. After her father died when she was a teenager, she moved to Dublin to live with her mother’s family. “There was a very old British Army General I befriended, who had fought in the Boer War,” she recalled. “He talked to me a lot about the foreign legions and the types of foreign militaries that joined in the Boer War.” She’d been primed throughout her childhood to be interested in conflict — listening to family tales of the Irish nationalist Wolfe Tone rebellion, imbibing her father’s fixation with war after his Korean service, translating war histories and The Aeneid from Latin — but the general’s stories of foreign fighters who supported the Boers were the vehicle by which the mercenary phenomena imprinted itself on her consciousness.

Keating had moved back to California when she first used Soldier of Fortune to plumb the mercenary world around 1980. She was living in Davis, where she attended college and edited her college paper when she placed a very concise ad in that legendary classified section. “Are you a mercenary?” she wrote and appended her first initial, last name, and apartment address. “I wanted to write about them,” she explained. “I had not thought that people would read the ad in different ways. I didn’t realize that people might think I was actually trying to hire mercenaries.” She saw first-hand just how robust those classifieds were. “I got a huge written response, but then I also got visits from some federal types,” she said.

She called Brown to offer the story of the strange response to her ad, but it wasn’t so odd to him. “He just said, ‘Well, send me something I can use,’” she recalled. The connections she made with the mercenaries who wrote to her did come in handy down the line. “Those contacts that came in as a response from that ad were the foundation for my military journalism career,” she said.

After spending three years as the editor of The Dixon Tribune, which she calls “a little farm town newspaper,” Keating moved to D.C. to work as a security reporter for The Washington Times, which is where she met Brown. He was in the paper’s lobby when she first saw him. “He was a very spunky, grizzled veteran dude,” she recalled. “He had a lot of energy and was really smart.” Her colleague had been test-driving a sports car, and they were going into town, so they offered Brown a ride. “We literally stuffed him in the hatchback of this sports car, to the point where his head was over the gears, almost,” Keating said. “While we had him trapped, I kept saying, ‘Hey, I want to write for you.’ And he said, ‘We’ve never had a woman write for us.’ And I said, ‘I want to write for you.’ And he said, ‘Well, okay, I’ll give you a chance.’” That night Brown invited her along to a Soldier of Fortune gathering. “There were a bunch of Miskito rebels from Nicaragua present, and very interesting types,” she said. “From there, I connected with these people and started to write about them.”

Her contributions were more strait-laced than some of what Brown published. “It was very traditional, standard fact-checking and confirming your sources, doing your research and getting documents,” she said. But, as Keating understood it, those standards were applied in the aftermath of even the wildest antics. “They did do a lot of participatory journalism. They would go looking for POWs from Vietnam — they actually went on a hunt looking for them — and Jim Coyne brought back samples of Yellow Rain. They also later brought back first looks of weapons of Soviet origin that were being used by other militaries,” she said. “They were not your standard Washington, D.C. journalists at all. But, they had the fact-checking and confirmation standard. It was, I thought, very professionally done.”

Soon after Keating took over Soldier of Fortune this spring, she ran a survey to better understand her readers. “As I expected, it came back as predominantly male. It was, I think, 91 percent male,” she said. Unsurprisingly, Facebook has become a major platform for the publication — a major crisis early in Keating’s tenure involved somebody hacking her Facebook and appointing themself the administrator of the publication’s page, which has more than 860,000 followers, locking her out for about two weeks — so that’s where Keating took a question for that nine percent of readers who don’t identify as male. “I put a post up saying, ‘Hey, who are my nine percenters? Why are you here? And what do you get out of it?’” she said.

“A whole lot of women responded, saying, ‘This is where I felt like I could get the truth about what was going on in the war,’ or ‘You covered my unit,’ or ‘My dad, my husband, my brother introduced me,’ or ‘I really am keenly interested in war, in history and weapons.’” The publication has not had much concern for women’s interests in its history, and Keating’s not planning on changing much to bring in new women readers. “The one thing I’m going to do is I’m going to do a review of concealed carry clothing designed for women,” she said. “So if you’re in a concealed carry state, or you just want to be able to keep your weapon in a safe place and you’re a woman, here’s how you do it. That’s one thing I’ll do.”

The other thing that’s not changing is that Soldier of Fortune will still publish on-the-ground reporting from war zones, though its large-scale “participatory journalism” days are long gone. “Instead of doing stories based on phone calls, your typical corporate media method of you call experts to find out what’s happening, I want to have people who are actually on the scene,” Keating said. “I don’t have a huge staff and I don’t have a massive budget, but right now, we’ve got someone who’s covering border issues from the perspective of what the cartels are doing, I’ve got Owen Thorne in Ukraine, and then I’ve got a couple guys in Africa.”

She’s doing all the editing herself from Tampa, where she moved from D.C. last year. “The headquarters of SOCOM and CENTCOM are here, so there’s a big informal network of people who are affiliated with special operations and Central Command operations,” she said. “I’m not over there all the time trying to connect with them, but it’s an easier milieu for me. I also like being next to the beach.”

The only major change that Keating’s announced so far is a new section two weeks ago called The Fire Pit. It’s for offbeat stuff like book reviews, lore, and astrology. One of the first pieces she published with the section in mind was an astrology reading of Vladimir Putin’s star chart (he’s a Libra) to determine the outcomes of his invasion of Ukraine. “That was offbeat, but fun, and it got quite a few clicks,” Keating said. Though the astrologer was an odd addition to the mix, he fit right in at least one way. Keating’s correspondents, so far, are all men. She hasn’t found a younger version of herself to join the crew, though if she does, the difference is that the newcomer won’t have to trap Keating in a sports car to get her chance to write for the magazine. “If she’s out there, I’d love to have her,” she said. “I haven’t actively looked and no one has approached me, but I’d love to have her.”