I FRAUGHT IN A WAR
Originally written April 4, 2014 for vice.com. Isn’t it crazy to think there was a time when ISIS could reasonably be called an “al Qaeda rip-off?”
As of today I have spent roughly an hour and 20 minutes in war, and you know what? That’s it. That’s all the war I’m doing. Don’t care if you start waging the noblest, most legitimate war imaginable — you could be battling literal Nazis in defense of my mother’s house. I’d still tell you, “I’m out.”
Right now, the Kurds in Syria have one of the best wars going. (The Kurds, in case Wikipedia’s down, are a group of very pleasant mountain folk who live in the overlap between Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, and want this horrible piece of real estate to be its own country called Kurdistan.) They are fighting al Qaeda for women’s rights. I’m simplifying a bit, and technically al Qaeda is fighting the Kurds because they hate women’s rights, but still, how good is that? If you had to pick a current war, this is the one you’d want to go with. I would have, too — shit, I did go with this war. This is the exact war I was at when I realized war is not my thing.
I was with a film crew in Qamishli, which is a big dusty city smooshed right up against the Turkish border, like a Syrian Tijuana. Even though Qamishli is under Kurdish control, the Kurds allow the Assad regime to keep a thinly staffed party headquarters there and run unarmed patrols a couple times a day. So basically, every morning and afternoon four Syrian soldiers without guns have to drive a truck flying the Assad flag around this city that hates Assad, like they’ve been given the worst frat dare of all time.
The reason the Kurds treat Assad’s soldiers with such weird gloves is that they’ve more or less been able to sit out the Syrian Civil War simply by not picking a side. They’ve got no love for the Assad government, which refused the Kurds basic civil rights while it was in power and would arrest them for teaching or carrying out business in Kurdish. But they’re also not sold on all the rebel militias lumped together as the Free Syrian Army, especially since they’ve shown a tendency to turn into fundamentalist al Qaeda affiliates who hate cigarettes, whiskey, and women and turn on anyone who likes them the second they’re done fighting Assad. So when the two started duking it out in 2011, the Kurds just shrugged a little, brought a bunch of their gun-toting cousins down from Turkey and Iran to shore up their border against the rest of Syria, and focused on making Syrian Kurdistan a peaceful little oasis of niceness in the most fucked-up country of the Middle East.
Which they did! The Kurdish territories are downright quaint. They’ve got ice cream stands and regular electricity and little kids running around. It doesn’t just feel like they didn’t have a war there — it barely feels like they had a Syria. The only drawback to the Kurds’ whole semi-neutral tack is that their good living has led Syrian al Qaeda rip-offs like ISIS and the al Nusra Front to declare fatwas against all Kurds for indulging in such vices as holding elections, not enforcing Sharia law, and letting women walk around with their hair out. So that’s their war. Jihadi-ing with those creeps.
We drove from Qamishli out west, past Ras al Ayn, to a little farming village that had just been reclaimed by Kurdish soldiers from ISIS a couple days earlier and looked like a set from Three Kings. Bullet holes, chewed-up walls, distant smoke, the works. As our truck pulled up, the Kurdish commander who’d taken us to the front lines and was supposed to be our chaperone bounced off somewhere and left us to our druthers. Inspired by his relaxed attitude, we started tooling around the battlefield like Joker and Rafterman filming stray cats and turkeys and the like, just chill as pickles, until we found a little clutch of soldiers taking a soda break by a foxhole.
The soldiers were kind of hunkered down around their two-liter behind a stand of trees, which they explained provided shelter against ISIS snipers across the way. When we asked them where the rest of their unit was, they tossed their cups and started leading us down the treeline to a big concrete building surrounded by a little wall. Then the trees stopped, and they all sprinted across a completely open field for the wall.
The first step I took as I started running for cover behind them was also the last time I thought anything remotely positive about war, which was something to the effect of “Ha, dodging sniper fire, classic war stuff.” By the second step my brain had turned into a schizophrenic choir of black-metal vocalists screeching, “RUNFASTERWHATTHEFUCKAREYOUDOINGTHISIS WHEREYOUDIEAREYOUAFUCKINGMORONYOUWILLGETSHOTINTHENECKANDDIESPURTINGBLOODWHYTHEFUCKDIDYOUCOMEHEREBLOOOOOOOD!”
I know I’m not stepping out on a major limb by saying “nope a la guerra,” but when Culture Club declared that “war is stupid” and Edwin Starr called it a good for nothing, they each left out the part where war is also the scariest fucking thing on Mother Earth. Not just scary in an abstract, “What if that happened here?” sense. Physically scary. You know that half second of chest-constricting terror that happens when you see the demon’s faces for the first time in The Devil’s Advocate? That’s apparently how war feels, constantly.
Obviously, I hadn’t gone into an active combat zone without considering the possibility of fear. As someone who startles often, and with embarrassing volume and tremolo, I fully assumed I would at some point have the living shit scared out of me, most likely via loud noise. What I did not anticipate was that this startle would prolong itself indefinitely, like an infernal gong at the base of my crotch that crashes with Bonhamesque fury and keeps on reverberating until each next peal.
As we continued filming around the bombed-out village, I tried to swallow back the fear and comport myself like someone whose insides weren’t screaming to get out. Every time I got it down to a nice baseline level of mild panic, however, something would happen to tip it back into the red. A dog barking, a stray bullet whizzing past, a car being turned on, a car being turned off, my memory of the sound a gun makes, someone firing up the anti-aircraft cannon for a lark — each of these things had the power to produce an instantaneous cascade of sweat from my forehead and armpits. The other guys I was with seemed to be doing all right, speaking without yips and vocal cracks, walking without breaking into an agitated Chaplin shuffle. By “guys” I don’t just mean “guys,” mind you. The Kurds are a fully gender-equal fighting force, and the female soldiers at the front were every bit as eerily laid-back as their male counterparts. Just a-traipsing between peeking holes in the wall like they were at the grocery store.
After we’d finally beaten a path back to town, it took me about five hours to get my wits back together. That’s definitely an easy recovery in the scheme of things, but remember, I was only there for an hour and change. Is that five hours a flat rate? Or does a one-year tour of duty equal a five-year bout of nerves? I kept thinking about how chilled out everyone was at the front and how much mental yoga it must have taken to get there from sheer, immediate terror.
One thing I considered is that maybe the chill ones are just all adrenaline junkies, and maybe adrenaline junkies, like regular junkies, level out after a while and can take in a massive dose of fear while still feeling normal. But what happens when that dose drops back to zero? There are people — not reputable people, but people — who dispute the existence of PTSD in the better part of our soldiery. Having spent a pube’s length of time not even really in a war, but sort of around it, I don’t know how everyone doesn’t return from war with full-blown shell shock.
How can anybody touch that part of his or her brain for so long without coming back at least a little fucked?
This is frightening enough to consider when we limit it to a few guys we let carry guns and refuse permission to attend their mothers’ funerals back here, but what about those poor schmucks guarding the Kurdish border from al Qaeda? They’re basically stuck being sniped at by Islamists until they get tired of it or Turkey stops granting them safe passage across the border. If my ratio holds at scale, what’s going to happen when they’ve built up 15 to 20 years of waking nightmare?
When we were in Qamishli the night before, I accidentally tripped over a former commander in one of the Kurds’ guerrilla armies who was sleeping fully clothed, shoes on, on the floor next to an empty bed. I asked our translator what his deal was, and he told me it looked like Gabar syndrome, which is a Kurdish version of PTSD named for a Turkish mountain that Kurdish guerrillas have been fighting over for decades. Choosing to sleep on the ground over a bed (when I asked the old commander why he did this, he said “Beds feel like a trap”) is just one symptom in a whole suite of maladjustments to regular life whose overall gist is that you’ve mentally never left the battlefield. But how fitting of a national disease is that going to be for the Kurds? A whole generation of sleepless permasoldiers. No thank you.
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