Ostensibly westernized Muslims pour into Syria and Iraq intent on joining the ranks of ISIS. Each news cycle brings another story of British, Canadian, Australian, or American youths fleeing their nation to fight in support of a cause that is repugnant to their fellow citizens. Young men, and increasingly women, from largely middle-class backgrounds are trading in their Xboxes, lattes, and shopping malls for Kalashnikovs, hand grenades, and suicide vests.
The young part I understand. As a child, who did not daydream of an adventurous, exciting, and danger-filled life? No child dreams of being an accountant when he grows up. Most aspire to careers that involve a degree of danger; soldier, cop, pilot, EMT, fireman, construction worker, college intern for Joe Biden.
One of the benefits of youth, besides the welcoming of adventure, is the general sense of invulnerability. Neither the Grim Reaper, his younger brother, Medically Induced Coma, not their second-cousin, Two Years Physical Therapy, will ever pay a visit to a teenager. Combine that perception with a couple decades chaffing under parental control and longing to strike out to make one’s mark on the world, then stealing away from the family farm to participate in a war that isn’t any of the youngster’s concern seems perfectly reasonable.
The summer I graduated high school, I took a trip to Europe; fifteen days divided between Rome, Paris, and London. Of course, counting time spent traveling, it was closer to four days in each country, but who cared? I was finally getting to go someplace “as an adult,” more or less, and I wasn’t quite old enough to vote.
Even though we had chaperones, they were a couple of hippy, dippy women who didn’t believe in keeping kids on a short leash. That was their first mistake.
I still smile when I drag up the fragmented memories our last night in Rome. I was straddling the window sill of my third story hotel room, piss drunk on Peroni lager, and giggling like a fool every time an electric streetcar sent a shower of sparks to the ground from the overhead power lines that provided electricity to propel it. I had decided to give up the ghost when I realized I wouldn’t be getting past second base with the chaperone’s daughter, and what better way celebrate than experimental binge drinking.
I’ve always enjoyed a good risk. If there is a way to do something dangerously, I’ll figure it out.
My wife is in possession of the photos of seventeen-year-old Carlos, in varying degrees of consciousness, sprawled out on the bathroom floor of a Roman hotel room. Photos that were courtesy of the effort and forethought of my hotel-mate Mike. Hopefully, my wife will never show those photos to any of my children. I probably should have destroyed them a long time ago, but seeing as Mike was a no-shit professional cameraman working at our local news station at the tender ago of twenty, these are the best photos ever taken of me, and I can’t bring myself to toss them.
Mike and I had volunteered to bunk together since the girls we were playing touch-feely with in the back row of the shuttle bus were BFFs (or whatever teenage girls call their obnoxiously close, borderline homoerotic friendships) and we were both quick to pick up on the unfolding situation.
I took some quiet satisfaction the next day when Mike came to the same “no nookie for you” realization on the Rome-to-Paris train. After he and the two girls passed the wee hours taunting and cajoling me like an orangutan in a zoo, I finally struck just the right pose to memorialize my youthful degeneracy. Luckily for Mike, I recalled virtually none of it the next morning. Hell, I don’t recall how we got up the mountain to Tivoli the next morning for a spaghetti breakfast overlooking Rome.
I say “luckily for Mike” because immediately prior to launching my one-man bacchanal, I chanced to make the acquaintance of two flaxen haired, corn-fed Iowa farm girls who divided their extracurricular activities between cheerleading and gymnastics. I can only suppose they had never met a couple of olive-skinned guys who were fluent in Romance Languages.
Despite the lack of bodily fluid exchange, they were far more fun than the two that came over on the plane with us. Most likely because their mother wasn’t on the trip with them.
As an aside, I have to talk about my classmate Steve. That son-of-a-bitch I caught having sex in the bushes of Hyde Park with some London woman about the right age to be his mother. Had I known then what I know now about what the English call “Dogging,” I would have discretely made my presence known and waited for her husband to point out the end of the cue.
A part of me still resents how that goofy, gap-toothed, gangly, hook-nosed Portage was able to come in under the radar like that. But really, the joke was on Steve. He spend the next few weeks running back and forth to the doctor absolutely convinced he had a case of herpagonasyphilaids.
So having once been young and idealistic (but always reckless and self-destructive), I understand the lure of adventure and possible fame associated with the big war of your generation. Hemingway fled the farm to drive ambulances in Italy during the First World War and returned to Europe two decades later to report on the Spanish Civil War. Those two little adventures produced A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, much of the short story collection Men Without Women, and several others. Despite its destructive nature, the paradox is that war can serve as a wellspring for massive amounts of creativity.
Twenty years before Hemingway, a bored and equally restless Jack London, who always followed the advice of “write what you know,” tired of writing about life in a cannery plant and nights spent pirating oyster beds. London hopped a sailing vessel headed for Alaska where he promptly abandoned ship and worked his way to the Yukon gold fields. Along the way, he collected the backdrop, characters, and scenes for The Sea Wolf, Call of the Wild, White Fang, To Build a Fire, etc., etc., etc.
Winston Churchill reported on the Boer War for The Morning Post before entering politics. George Orwell fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. J.D. Salinger, Norman Mailer, and Kurt Vonnegut saw combat in the Second World War. Richard Hornberger (writing the novel MASH as Richard Hooker) served in the Korean War. And the list goes on up until the present day. At the tender age of “not needing to shave regularly,” many a writer has struck out to put himself in the direct path of danger, and likely scared his mother nearly to death in the process.
In the spirit of the adventurous writers who had gone before us, Steve and I developed a reasonably sophisticated and only mildly harebrained plan to ditch our tour group and make our way to the fighting that had recently broken out in the Balkans. We had grown up in the time of Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II pushing back the Soviets and destroying the Evil Empire. That was great for the world, but personally, Steve and I were at a loss.
What dragon would our generation have available to slay? In what crucible would we forge our manhood now that the Berlin Wall had been reduced to public monuments and souvenirs for tourists? Like the rest of the world, Steve and I had no notion of what lay in store a decade into the future.
We put our plan into motion visiting an ATM every day to withdraw as much of our after-school job savings as each of us could. This was before the days of common currency and open borders in Europe, so we planned to trade our Pounds for Francs, our Frances for Liar, and so on down the line. We bought train maps of our intended route and the cities we would likely pass through on our odyssey to literary inspiration. We put together a list of hostels, in the event we had to deviate from Plan A of riding EuroRail all the way and sleeping on the train. Even looking back now, the plan seemed reasonably solid; especially for a couple of dumb kids.
Another part of the plan where we were not complete idiots was understanding that no commander in his right mind would allow a couple of war zone tourists without any combat experience and looking to launch writing careers to join his ranks. We figured to hook up with the Red Cross or some other humanitarian-type group willing to take on people dumb enough to enter an active war zone unarmed. We imagined being ambulance drivers or litter bearers or some such protected non-combatant. This was a time before ISIS was turning non-combatants into human Pez dispensers, so being unarmed didn’t carry as much danger as it does now.
Having the experience of age, I realize the person who really decides whether you’re a non-combatant isn’t in Geneva, part of NATO, or employed by the Red Cross; it’s the guy pointing his gun at you who makes that decision.
The plan was coming together as smoothly as Johnny Cash’s scheme to pilfer his way to a new Cadillac until our penultimate night in London, from where we intended to give our travel group the slip and strike out on our grand adventure.
I’ve always harbored a suspicion that Steve got cold feet as D-day loomed and H-hour approached. Maybe Steve came to his senses enough to realize returning to live in the room he grew up in and commuting to San Jose State was the less potentially lethal of his two options. My parents were on the verge of divorce and had casually announced two days before my departure that I would have to pay my own way through college. Lacking much of anything to go home to, running off to a faraway land seemed like a perfectly reasonable option.
My suspicions of Steve being a snitch were cemented when our chaperone (who was also our Spanish teacher) dropped by my room while Steve was there. This was the only time either chaperone had come by my room or anyone else’s that I knew of. Even when I was trying my level best to have sex with the other chaperone’s daughter, both of the adults supervising us kids were too busy boozing it up to pay their charges much attention. It was like being chaperoned by Kathie Lee and Hoda.
She eyed the new pair of hiking boots resting on the dresser, the maps laid out across the bed, and the freshly purchased backpack into which I was stuffing essentials. Being rather cagey and astute, the evidence before her confirmed what she likely assumed was a wild-ass story Steve had told.
Despite her being half in the bag since boarding the plane in California (and rather keen on taking us all on a day-trip to a nude beach), our chaperone knew returning with fewer students than she departed with would be the end of the discounted trips. She snatched our passports (although, I later saw Steve in possession of his), threatened to tell our parents, and kept a close, bloodshot eye on her potential mavericks for the next forty-eight hours.
My chaperone’s husband was an ethnic Croat who had fled what was then Yugoslavia after the Second World War. He had seen, and no doubt relayed to his wife, the particularly nasty nature of armed conflict in the Balkans. Whatever the probability of success for the plan to gather experiences worth writing about, it had been thwarted by a snitchy friend and a chronically Chardonnay-besotted, middle-aged Spanish teacher. As an adult, I would not have let such a small setback dissuade me from my purpose, but as a kid, small obstacles quickly dampen enthusiasm and extinguish the flame of ambition. Or maybe my heart just wasn’t in it.
The trio of English girls and the pair of Australian brothers (and scores more young adults) who are intercepted in route to ISIS battle lines are probably as marginally committed to their endeavor as I was. Getting rolled up by The Man before the fun even starts isn’t terribly different from my version of adventure frustrated. The difference is in the mindset.
Admittedly, I wanted to go gallivanting off to war for purely selfish reasons. I dreamed of kick starting a writing career. These Jihadi Wannabes that keep emerging leave a trail of clues that their goal was assimilation into the caliphate.
I just wanted to experience (as Winston Churchill would describe) the “exhilaration of being shot at without effect,” and get some writing material.
Advice to new writers has always included, “Write what you know.” This probably explains why the work from my youth was terrible. Not that it’s much better, now. Fortunately, I knew it was wretched and have committed probably half a million words to the fireplace rather than rape my readers’ eyes with my early efforts. I will give the Jihadi Janes credit for getting further along in their scheme than I did. Bravo! But where exactly did they think they would be able to use the makeup, hair curlers, and electronic devices they took with them? Those devout Muslim warriors to whom their hands were pledged in marriage might be a tad bit less permissive than their Westernized parents. The parents and grandparents of those girls who fled the exact same craziness not so long ago; much like my grandfather who looked around and said to himself, “This place sucks. I’m so outta here.”
Peaceful and prosperous childhoods lull their beneficiaries into believing annoyances such as an incorrect, overly complicated coffee order are harbingers of doom.
Try waking up to an incoming rocket attack and tell me if that doesn’t put a few things in perspective.
The futures of these novice Holy Warriors are not terribly bright. Considering the Taliban and Al-Qaeda long ago distanced themselves from ISIS for being too radical, I don’t think any of these Western kids heading over to fight will find much opportunity to use their social media accounts. And increasingly, their countries of origin are stripping citizenship of people known to have gone over to fight and arresting those whom return home. The good old days of being able to inject oneself into a war you neither have a stake in nor with which politics you are intimately familiar are gone forever.
They will learn the hard way that ISIS has no place for them in the Caliphate. There are multiple open-source accounts of Westerners recruited to ISIS who find the reality on the ground starkly different from promises the recruiter made.
Imagine that. The Muslim utopia differs from a Western teenager’s idea of utopia.
The realities of life are rarely as fun, exciting, or carefree as we imagine them. I suspect the fate of all these foreign fighters will be the same as foreign fighters throughout history. They are rarely assimilated into any of the combatant societies. Rather, they are typically shown the door with varying degrees of force. That is assuming they survive to see the cessation of hostilities and are not killed outright the same way excess roosters are culled from the flock. The last thing any of these ISIS racists want is a foreigner, especially one from the corrupt and decadent West, consuming resources past their immediate usefulness in establishing the Caliphate.
These dumb kids will be lucky to escape with their lives and a book deal.