Pocket, 1989, 304 pages, C$4.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-20215-9
Anyone remotely familiar with the circulation figures and overall tone of such magazines as Soldier of Fortune knows that there is a substantial reservoir of untapped bloodthirst in America. Quiet suburban males who wouldn’t otherwise even raise their voices vicariously live off other people’s heroism. Hey, I should know; I’m one of them.
So, predictably, a whole industry has sprung up to answer this demand. Military thrillers aren’t strong enough; now we’ve got first-person accounts of dangerous paramilitary operation, mercenary memoirs, real-life secret service exposés and such.
Frank Camper has produced his share of such books, but Merc: The Professional is pretty much an autobiography describing his “moments in action” from 1968 to 1987. In the first chapter, Camper repeatedly escapes US military forces; in the last, he’s thrown in jail for terrorism.
In-between, he get a rather impressive account of an interesting life. After a tour in Vietnam, an administrative error that led to his disenchantment with the military, several escapes and apprehensions from various military prisons and some time spent as a US Ranger, Camper quits the force and decides to go freelance. He will spend some time training local terrorists (while working for the FBI), being a pro car racing mechanic (they win the 24-hour Daytona) and working/fighting in the middle-east (making regular reports to the Mossad). In 1980, he establishes a Mercenary school near Birmingham, with a predictable amount of concern from authorities.
After that, Camper’s life history becomes even more fantastic. Beyond the fascinating operational details about Merc school, he makes contacts and is asked to conduct missions in just about every single hot spot around the world. From Miami to El Salvador, Belize, Guatemala, Lebanon, Panama, Nicaragua and Mexico, Camper travels widely and, if you believe him, has a minor role in everything from Sikh terrorist plots to assassinate Indira Gandhi to the Irangate itself. (But never fear; he always inform the official US authorities if what he is asked to do is suspicious. Naturally, that’s never quite as simple as having friends in high places.)
All of this will eventually catch up to him, and in 1987, he gets thrown in jail, unfairly isolated, disavowed by the government and all that good stuff. You can’t imagine anything better. It’s written in a dense but eminently readable style, with plenty of slam-bang action and cool little details that demonstrate a good understanding of what he’s writing about. The events described strike by their excitement and their mundane nature, establishing a perfectly realistic tone of real-life stories.
That is, if you want to believe him.
Oh, there is no doubt that Camper has done most of the things he did; he reprints newspaper articles, makes generally verifiable claims and doesn’t seem to contradict himself or make technical errors. He has since become a reasonably prolific author, with now half a dozen books to his credit. He’s making loads of money with his security consulting firm. He’s appeared on 60 Minutes.
But he’s also in the business to sell; himself, his adventures and his books. Frank Camper is frequently mentioned in conspiracy theory circles, being the author of a book, The MK/Ultra Secret, in which he suggests that Lee Harvey Oswald might have been brainwashed by CIA mind control techniques and… Well, you get the picture.
As usual, these types of gung-ho tell-all autobiographies are rather enjoyable provided they’re taken with a large spoonful of salt (also see Richard Marcinko’s Rogue Warrior). The style, stories and overall dramatic arc of the book makes it worthwhile reading if nothing else. As for the veracity of it all, well, it’s an ideal way to practice your investigative journalism skills…
[June 2003 note: This review generated two messages this month, with an interesting impact on the above review. The first message asked me if I knew of Frank Camper’s whereabout. After admitting that I didn’t know (I’m just a chump who bought the book at a charity sale, after all), I searched for Camper on the web and found out that the man essentially disappeared from view in 1997. This made me rather less skeptical of Camper’s claims and far more interested in what happened to him. Then, as if to confirm my lessening skepticism, I received a message from a graduate of Frank Camper’s Mercenary School who established to my satisfaction that the school was indeed what Camper claimed it to be. If you know of Camper’s current location or if you want to know more about the school, please head over to The Mercenary School Graduates Website! As for me, well, I’ll eat a little crow.]
[April 2004 note: Over the past few years, several other people have written to me about Frank Camper, and all of them have one point in common: They assure me that the book is the real story. Further corroborative evidence and updates also suggests that Camper was, indeed, all that he claimed to be. Now I’m just a chump who doesn’t know much about these things, but I’m happy to admit that my initial impression was wrong, and that Merc: The Professional is well worth reading… as a pure documentary.]
[August 2006 note: A pseudonymous correspondent contacted me to let me know that Frank Camper is alive and well and living in Alabama. I wish him the best of luck!]
[August 2007 note: A correspondent sent me very interesting information regarding the positive impact that Frank Camper’s training camp had on US police forces tactics against armed gangs. Most impressive.]