My friend Ash Johnston died on Tuesday. He is my third friend to die in the last six months. I lost one friend after he fell off Mt Aspiring. The second hung himself from a beam in a church hall. And now Ash has died. He was killed by Islamic State militants while fighting with a Kurdish militia linked to the YPG.
The life arcs of my three dead friends bore no similarities except the ages at which they died and the fact that the decisions they made (Ari, to spend his life climbing mountains; Matt, to end his life on his own terms; and Ash, to live his life by the sword) ultimately contributed to their deaths. They were all in their twenties, all male and they were all driven by idealism. Only the good die young, as they say.
Very few people knew that Ash was in Syria. I certainly didn’t. I’m not even sure if his family knew where he was.
I knew Ash for four years while we served in the Werriwa Company together before I moved to a different unit. We were reserve infantry soldiers, and like me, being a “chocco” was effectively a full-time job for Ash. He was more dedicated and task-focussed than most “regs” (regular army soldiers) that I’ve ever worked with. Often volunteering for the less-appetizing of general duties Johnno quickly acquired the nickname “Shit Jobs Johnston”. He seemed to actually revel in the nickname. It’s immediately apparent when you meet someone who was born to soldier. And it’s not just because they always show up to work with their shirt collar squarely ironed or that you know they spend their evenings fixing the webbing straps of their battle vests. It’s embedded deep in their person.
Superficially, these born-soldiers bitch about the same thing that every Digger bitches about – how stupid the military heirarchy is, how we never get enough ammo and days for marksmanship training, how unfair it is to be “stabbed” with bullshit duties like driving a van-load of officers to a dining-in night or unloading a truck full of deckchairs and goffer-coolers for the lards in the Q-store.
But beyond the jokey, blokey bitching you can tell that these men are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing. Soldiering was exactly what Ash was supposed to be doing. While I was a square peg through a round hole, Ash fit the military mould like a key into a lock.
When I heard the news that the Australian killed in Syria fighting ISIS might have been Ash it seemed very surreal but not surprising. Nothing was confirmed but it was being talked about in back-channels and it was a bizarre time indeed. I, like many others, have been following the Syrian foreign fighters story with close attention for the last year and it seemed surreal to have such a close connection to one of them. But the more I thought about Ash, who he was as a man, the brotherhood of soldiers he belonged to and the generation he was born into, the more it made sense.
Our generation of young men is the most mediatised that has ever existed. We are not the first generation to be exposed to the day-to-day images of war. The generation of our parents had the romance of battle dispelled before their eyes as the gore and guts of Vietnam was beamed across their television screen. The imagery sparked a generation-wide “anti-war” movement.
For our generation however, civil wars in the Third World have not actively involved imagery of white American soldiers massacring Vietnamese villages (of course, some might dispute this). Syria, like Rwanda or Liberia or Ukraine is about people from the same country killing each other. And looking at these horrors has resulted in a keen awareness of a physical and moral disconnect between, say, “our comfortable Western lives” and “brutal civil war in the Middle East/Africa/South Asia”.
Contiguously, the worldwide proliferation of Western liberal idealism has seen the hardwiring of a set of principles which underlie the subsequent actions of the men who view these images and respond to them. “What can I do to change the world?” “How can I make something of my life?” “How can I do something that will serve a higher purpose? Something that will be valued by others?” “How can I ensure that I will be remembered?” It is not pure selflessness that drives the actions of young men. But the desire to be remembered, though selfish, is a very human thing.
In the Iliad, Achilles recounts the words of his mother, the sea nymph Thetis who tells him that his choice to go to Troy is not just a choice to fight but a choice between two ultimate fates.
“If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,
my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies,” says Achilles.
“If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
my pride, my glory dies…”
In other words, if he had chosen to remain in Greece he would live a simple life, take a wife, bear children perhaps. But if he leaves for the Middle-East he will die in battle but win glory and be remembered. Achilles chose the latter and died and was immortalised by Homer.
With the lesson of Achilles in mind, the philosopher Charles Taylor is right in arguing that “a number of strands in contemporary politics turn on the need, sometimes the demand, for recognition.” The desire for recognition is at the core of the human experience.
Further yet, Ash was recruited into a generation of mediatised soldiers. Soldiers of our generation watch the same movies, read the same books and play the Call of Duty franchise like every young man. Every man, since the beginning of time, has at some point or another aspired to be a “hero”. As fictitious as this Hellenic archetype may be, “heroism” is something to be strived for because it elevates and separates. One seeks to become more than just a man – one seeks to become “the Übermensch“ (see Mark Twight rationialising his mountaineering).
At the core of the “hero”‘s experience is a struggle against something. It is the fact that the hero perseveres against all odds that makes what he has done so heroic. Awards like military medals are items of material culture which prove that a man is a hero because he has “struggled”. The Infantry Corps to which Ash and myself belonged issues an award called the “infantry combat badge”. To a rifleman, the ICB is the ultimate award since it signifies a man who has been in “combat” – a man who has struggled against the enemy while the POGs play Xbox back in the FOB.
We know now that Ash went to Syria to fight against the militants of the Islamic State, because, like me, and like many of us, he identified that ISIS is an entity which must be purged from this world and its ideology abrogated to the most shameful annals in the history of political Islam. A fight with ISIS is the struggle Ash sought.
In saying this, we must identify that the foreign fighters flocking to fight with ISIS are driven by the same intrinsic desire to struggle – the word “jihad” (Arabic: جهاد) literally means “struggle”. Of course, the fundamental basis of its ideology and the abhorrent actions of foreign ISIS militants like “Jihadi John” surely negates any and all merit to the struggle in which ISIS is engaged. But as Marlow, the protagonist of Heart of Darkness, ponders as he looks upon “savages” in the African jungle: “if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend.”
We are accustomed to a discourse that says that ISIS’ foreign fighters have been “radicalised”. It’s a misnomer though, because as Andrew Exum recently put it, the problem with the word “radicalised” is that it is in the passive voice (“radicalised” by someone/something) and that “maybe a better approach would be to stop describing radicalization as a passive activity in which the radical loses all agency.”
Jihadi John might have suffered racism growing up in some London ghetto but he chose to cut off James Foley’s head. Ash was shaped by the structures of the media and other cultural pressures but he chose to go to Syria when others did not.
There is a great quote from the mountaineer Bill Denz, a former New Zealand army commando, who, having been jilted by the military and never sent to Vietnam, rationalised why he had chosen to climb mountains instead. “Young men must go into the mountains because they long for war,” he said.
Like Bill Denz, neither myself nor Ash had found a worthy “struggle” in the military. So, like all young men of our generation, we sought struggles elsewhere. I chose to pursue a life of mountain climbing and the life of a struggling writer. Ash chose to go and fight with the Kurds on the frontlines of Syria.
One of my strongest memories of Ash is of one day, twiddling our thumbs outside the Q Store and laughing about an American UCLA maths student who had gone to fight with the resistance against Gaddafi during the Libyan Civil War. Images of the war and this particular guy were streaming to us through the 24 hour media cycle. At the time the sheer idealism of fighting for the cause of an oppressed minority with whom you have no familial ties was touted as something very “Giuseppe Garibaldi” or “Lawrence of Arabia”-esque.
To me, the American guy’s actions seemed rather idiotic. We laughed about it. I have a very clear image of Ash’s big grin when he smiled. He had alot of teeth and a wide mouth like a Cheshire cat’s. But unlike a Cheshire cat’s it was an honest smile – wholesome, happy. Then we laughed about a mutual friend who had gone to Libya on a kind of “spring break tour” of the war-torn Middle East and had posed for a Facebook photo in a pink rave-party singlet, holding an AK-47.
At the time, I suppose the cogs in Ash’s head were already turning. He was planning on leaving the Aussie Army. But the British Royal Marine Commandos, whom he planned to join, were no longer accepting Australians. So I suppose he was pondering another type of adventure abroad – another way to be remembered.
I think Ash made a mistake in going to Syria to fight. But did he die for nothing? History will answer that. Regardless, all death in war is a tragedy.
If the fundamental human yearning to be a part of something bigger than one’s self (and to be remembered for it) was what drove Ash to die, far from home, in a bloody foreign war, then he succeeded. I respect him, not for what he did – not for going to Syria and fighting of his own volition in a war that perhaps wasn’t his – but for who he was. In private, another military mate probably put it best to me: “It’s horrible, the decision-making process that got him killed. He had his own selfish reasons for being there. But I admire him for grabbing himself by the fucking balls and dying for something he felt he needed to do.”
RIP Shit Jobs Johnston. I’ll miss you mate.