The news that soldiers of fortune from Britain and America are now active in Syria fighting ISIS in alliance with the Kurds was the lead story on Channel Four News last night.
It also was a lead story on the Observer’s website, where it was announced as a “revelation”.
I use the term ‘soldiers of fortune’ because it seems both more accurate and less loaded than the term ‘mercenaries’. There is something of a tradition of men from this country and America going to foreign climes to join struggles that are not their own. The French too have this tradition and have institutionalised it in their Foreign Legion. That the men named have joined the fight against ISIS is not altogether surprising, given this history, though one is left wondering at their motives. Are they ideological? Or are they in Syria because they are simply men who love combat situations?
One thing is surprising: Britain now has citizens fighting for ISIS and against ISIS. So holders of British passports are represented on both sides of the conflict. We do not know how many are fighting for the Kurds. It is estimated that some 500 are fighting for ISIS, though some claim it is as much as 2,000.
This is not the first time that British soldiers have gone abroad to fight unofficially, and done so on opposing sides of the same conflict. The most recent example of the was the Spanish Civil War. Then, many Brits took up arms on the side of the Republic in the International Brigades, the most famous of whom was George Orwell, and a few (though a few more from Ireland) took up arms to defend the Church and fought for Franco. Going back even further, in the 1860s quite a few foreigners (among them some English) fought with Garibaldi to secure Italian Unification, and quite a few foreign volunteers, particularly from France, Ireland and Poland, fought to preserve the Papal State and the freedom of Blessed Pius IX. And so it goes on: the Thirty Years War is another example.
What we are seeing in Syria and Iraq is an internationalisation of the conflict. Back in the thirties, Britain was a divided country when it came to Spain. Though public opinion was heavily in favour of the Republic, there were some who had misgivings about the Republican cause, particularly its Communist and Anarcho-syndicalist allies. George Orwell fought with the Marxist but nevertheless anti-Communist POUM militia, but in none of his Spanish writings did he ever face up to the atrocities committed by the Republicans. The Catholic victims of the Spanish conflict hardly register when one reads Homage to Catalonia.
Today, with ISIS, Britain is also a divided country. As Julie Burchill shows in this polemic, there are people here who support ISIS.
The National Secular Society have also spotted support for ISIS in unusual quarters, as has Guido Fawkes. And of course, there are those who one would expect to be apologists for ISIS doing exactly that.
So what exactly does this tell us? It tells us that while the ‘real’ war will carry on in Iraq and Syria, there will nevertheless be a continuing war of words in this country and other places too, while ISIS fights it out with its enemies. And in this other war, the line up is not quite what you would expect. Turkey is seemingly pro-ISIS, President Assad is certainly not; yet Turkey is a member of NATO, and Syria is a pariah state. Makes little sense, eh? It reminds one of the Te Deum sung in St Peter’s to give thanks for the victory of William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne.
All this should underline the need for moral clarity. ISIS stands for kidnap, murder, slavery and threats of terror. No one anywhere should support that. We must guard against any moral incoherence that sees ISIS as somehow excusable. We must shun its allies and its apologists. We failed, by and large, in Spain to point out the atrocities against Catholics in the Civil War; we ended up as allies of Stalin, and turning another blind eye to even worse atrocities. This must not happen again.