In 2015/16 I spent a year in northern Syria and Iraq, in the ranks of Kurdish-led forces fighting against Islamic State (Daesh). We swept from east to west across the territory, routing Daesh from their positions and liberating towns and villages from their reign. Unsurprisingly, I’ve been asked a number of questions about my time there, by various interested parties. The most common one is: Why did you go?
That used to slightly baffle me at first. To me the cause seemed to speak for itself, as did the urgency of the situation. Daesh’s rampant bloodlust and abuse of women and girls were universally known, as was the collective sense of helplessness and despair at the relative inaction of the world police in stamping them out. Some people may have forgotten this already, but back in late 2014, as I was making my last-minute preparations, Daesh’s fantasy notions of a nightmare-state seemed to be nudging up against reality before our eyes.
Everyone was concerned about it. But not enough to actually go there – and really, it seems that I’m charged with explaining my decision to take action in the context of others’ inaction. Which is quite a tough sell.
If you’re Kurdish, your reasons for fighting are straightforward. But what about the international volunteers?
I can’t speak for anyone else. And you got all sorts. Some went for their political convictions, attracted as much by the grassroots, secular, gender-balanced society being built by the Kurds in the vacuum of the Syrian civil war, as by the humanitarian urgency of the situation and the recognition that only force could stem the bloodletting. Others, usually ex-military types, went to fight Islamic extremism; perhaps seeing it as a continuation of wars fought elsewhere. Others went just to fight; to experience combat. And some (only a few thankfully) for darker motives.
But what did it have to do with a forty-year-old English teacher and sometime anti-war protester, with no particular ties to that struggle? The question was not so much why, but why you?
In the past I’d engaged in various forms of human rights activism, in places like Palestine, Lebanon and elsewhere. I went to Rojava (northern Syria) from a similar compulsion: A humanitarian catastrophe was unfolding, and I wanted to help. As a former soldier I had skills that were practically, directly useful. I might make a small difference. To me it was almost simple – I should go.
It’s not an answer that satisfies everyone.
I’ve never said I was 100% sure of my decision at the time, and my own personal uncertainties and revisions regarding my experiences there will probably continue for the rest of my life. But is absolute certainty a requirement - even a good thing - in the context of violence and killing? (Let’s not mince our words).
In January 2015, full of deliberations and second-thoughts, I took the plunge. As I wrote in my book, Fighting Monsters, you can hash reasons around in your head forever, because your mind changes all the time while the choice facing you is a binary one: go or don’t go. Either I was going to board that plane or I wasn’t. Kosta Scurfield, a comrade of mine and the first British volunteer killed in action there, once said: ‘my reasons for being here change all the time’.
I’d expected something along familiar military lines: rough and ready, perhaps, but a basic army. What I found was a reality at once alien, and all-absorbing.
Friendship and cameraderie was paramount. Discipline less so. When they weren’t fighting the comrades were singing and dancing, threading beads onto headscarves, relaxing in a static position with the enemy 100 metres away. Calm in the middle of the chaos.
Weapons and kit were a lucky dip. Old, battered rifles that jammed. Old, battered vehicles that broke down at awkward moments, like the middle of a firefight, rocket attack or mortar bombardment. Young, idealistic comrades whose training and tactics were rudimentary at best, who didn’t expect to live or seem to care; who scorned first-aid measures and celebrated the martyr. It was a world upside-down.
For me the misgivings and moments of self-doubt seemed to come in the periods of languishing, of frustration and torpor. Never when crouching in a mortar pit while bombs rained down around us, or when firing shot after desperate shot at an up-armoured suicide truck racing out of nowhere towards our position.
We took lives, and we lost many on our side. So many people I fought, laughed and joked with are now names written on walls, printed on sehid (martyr) posters, names marked out in spot-weld on the hulls and shield-plates of armoured fighting vehicles.
I hope I’ve made the point that in such a reality, a bit of uncertainty and self-doubt can actually be a good thing.
What I’m in no doubt about, however, is of having made the right decision to go. I have never regretted it – despite the routine chaos, the agonising moral quandaries, the violence, the degraded conditions and daily frustrations. Despite the personal crucible of three years of British state scrutiny, restricted movements, and a failed prosecution under the Terrorism Act.
Most of the people asking me why don’t know what it’s like to overlook an enemy town, moments before charging on into it, knowing you stand a good chance of being killed or wounded – and to feel so completely focused that fear couldn’t be further away. To feel – momentarily – so subsumed into something larger and greater than yourself, that the ‘self’ all but disappears. You absorb a bit of the pervasive, collective spirit of the comrades, which insists that martyrs never die and that the individual is only important as part of the whole.
That can’t be fully conveyed either, I suspect; not in words. Better than me have tried. Perhaps western minds could more readily accept the more familiar idea that one experiences life at its fullest when closest to death.
Either way, the onlooker demanding to to fully grasp the why may always be disappointed.
I don’t claim to fully understand it either. But having lived it, I came out anything but disappointed.
Jim Matthews is a former soldier and author of Fighting Monsters