FILM & BOOK REVIEW: “War Dogs” is a terrible adaptation of an okay book

FILM & BOOK REVIEW: “War Dogs” is a terrible adaptation of an okay book
By Nicholas Watson in Prague September 12, 2016

“Arms and the Dudes” is a book that grew out of a Rolling Stone article by journalist Guy Lawson, which tells the story of how two perpetually adolescent “dudes” from Miami Beach managed to end up making a mockery of the attempt by George W. Bush’s administration to rely on private contractors to service the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan. The driving force behind the US administration’s effort was either ideological or a naked bid to enrich Republican donors and other associates, take your pick, but it predictably ended up a complete shambles, with the case of Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz winning a $300mn contract to supply ammunition to the Afghan military being perhaps the most notable of a long list of disasters, not least because it’s now been made into a film with Jonah Hill. More on that later; first the book.

Lawson certainly has got a hell of a yarn to spin: the tale involves arms dealers, Balkan gangsters, murders, explosions and stunning incompetence on the part of the authorities, stretching from the US, to France, to Albania, to Iraq – it really is a wonder to behold. What a pity, then, that Lawson tells it in a singularly annoying, glib way.

I’m not sure if it’s deliberate, but his writing apes the style of speaking, lexicon and verbal tics of the generation of greedy, amoral narcissists that he’s writing about – those man-childs who still think Kevin Smith movies are funny and whose main putdowns inevitably involve homo-erotic references to “your ass” etc. At one point, he remarks that, “Diveroli was younger than the other dudes in their posse…” Posse? Do people still talk like that? Apparently, it’s quite common amongst a certain substrata of Jewish dope-smoking 20-somethings.

The tone of the book is set on Page 5 of the book when Diveroli apparently finishes off a call with Packouz by saying, “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to f**king this hooker.” I suppose that counts for ‘colour’ these days; in fact, Lawson is so enamoured of the line that he feels the need to repeat it 140 pages later.

As such we have precious little sympathy with any of the protagonists, even though they do end up being scapegoated for all that was wrong with the Bush administration’s war machine. Diveroli comes across as an annoying weed, a sociopath prone to using phrases from the characters in “Lord of War”, a Nicholas Cage vehicle about an arms dealer in the post-Cold War period, as well as other movies that appeal to a certain type of adolescent male. It’s no surprise people like Diveroli inhabit a world that is mostly informed by these shallow, unconvincing slices of entertainment, which lack the social and political complexity that is a hallmark of the real world.

And by Page 30 you’re desperate for them to come a cropper as their arms-dealing business – run through the Federal Business Opportunities website, basically “ebay for war” – starts to take off, helped in no small part by new rules from the Bush administration seeking to give more federal government procurement opportunities to small businesses. Gladly they do, and here Lawson makes a much better fist of telling it.

Each misfortune in the world is an opportunity for Diveroli and his AEY company, which is winning up to $50mn contracts for supplying “Soviet Bloc nonstandard weapons”, much of it sourced from the Balkans, to the US government. The fight against the FARC rebels in Colombia, civil unrest in Nepal, the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – Diveroli “didn’t care about politics or human rights”, intones Lawson, perhaps by now a bit redundantly. “If he kept going with Diveroli, Packouz could easily wind up involved in something illegal, morally repugnant, or both.” Which – surprise surprise – of course they do.

By the second half of the 2000s, the US government’s focus had moved on to training and equipping foreign forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, which the Pentagon pursued under a law passed by Congress that began with the legal loophole: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law...” Armed with this, the Pentagon could “deal indirectly with even the most corrupt warlords and gunrunners... [and] set up a parallel system for buying arms that bypassed State’s protocols and watch lists designed to avoid the US government doing business with – and enriching – illegal arms dealers".

“The army knew it couldn’t send jarheads in to the Balkans to buy AK-47s from Serbia and Croatian and Albanian gunrunners,” Lawson writes. But it could send people like Diveroli.

So when a huge contract to supply ammunition to the Afghan military and police comes up in 2007, the dudes’ company AEY wins it with a bid of $298,004,398, despite Diveroli being on a State Department watch list, the fact he was only 21 years old, and that his company had a patchy record when it came to filling orders that it had won in Iraq. It also helped that the Russians had been excluded at the last minute from the tender, a fact which was to come back and haunt AEY as it tried to transport the ammo to Afghanistan through Central Asia.

Problems, both administrative and logistical, with fulfilling the contract unsurprisingly began almost immediately, necessitating a trip down to Albania to oversee the transport of the 100mn rounds of AK-47 ammo sitting in caves in Albania, which was to be followed by stops in Bulgaria (grenades) and Hungary (more AK-47 ammo). Once down there, problems piled on more problems, not least that the old Albanian ammo turned out to have actually been supplied decades before by China – a country from which American companies could not legally source supplies – while the Russians had a hand in preventing the ammo from leaving Kyrgyzstan where it was transiting on its way to Afghanistan.

Without spoiling the ending, the resulting mess ensnares the hapless Americans in the murder of a former business partner, the death of 26 people, a New York Times expose, and federal and Congressional investigations. Just the kind of subject matter, in fact, for a movie starring Jonah Hill – an actor who is making a name for himself playing greedy, hedonistic, egotistical characters like Efraim Diveroli.

“War Dogs”, the Todd Phillips-directed adaptation of Lawson’s “Arms and the Dudes”, has virtually none of the redeeming features of the book. While Lawson uses the fiasco over the “dudes” to tell a wider story about “the disorder and desperation of the [US military’s] procurement system AEY was dealing with”, where lax oversight in both Iraq and Afghanistan caused billions of dollars to be lost to fraud, waste and abuse, Phillips doesn’t appear interested in anything other than getting his audience to marvel at how easy it is for American guys who take a lot of drugs and can act cool to become what the American media would call “adventurers”, but the rest of the world just regards as tossers. There’s a few of them “covering” the war in Ukraine right now.

The movie is devoid of any real political, ethical or moral context, but instead fills the screen time with lots of slow-motion montages of Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and Pakouz (Miles Teller) walking in various hotspots of the world accompanied by loud rock and rap music. And a lot of what transpires in the film didn’t actually even take place.

Phillips, who made his name with “The Hangover” series of movies, appears with this latest to want to move into the same territory as Martin Scorsese with his “The Wolf of Wall Street”, in which Jonah Hill played a similar kind of character to Diveroli – or at least one he played similarly. Phillips will have to do a lot better than “War Dogs” if that’s his aim.

By all means buy the book. But watch the movie of the book? “Absofu**inglutely not”, as the dudes would say.

“Arms and the Dudes”,  later renamed “War Dogs”, by Guy Lawson, Simon & Schuster (2015).