The Problem with Modern Lawrences of Arabia

I recently sat through a documentary film called Point and Shoot about the Libyan Civil War. In it we are introduced to Matthew Van Dyke, an American guy who fell in love with the celebrity of Lawrence of Arabia so much that he leaves his mother and girlfriend behind to go and fight with the Libyan rebels against Gaddafi.

As an American fighting with the Libyan resistance, he decides that his role in the war is so important that it should be painstakingly documented so he can be lionised later. Throughout the entire film he is not observed speaking a single sentence of Arabic but he documents his experience as if it is a #LawrenceofArabia story of war. When filming himself stood-to behind a wall of sandbags he spends more time looking at the camera than facing out waiting for targets. He recounts that he no longer wanted to “just observe” but “to shape the events around him”. He donned a pair of wrap-around sunglasses like a Hollywood action hero and wore a keffiyeh like an Arab tribesman. He wanted to be a fighter.

In a novel about the Caucasus War, Leo Tolstoy describes a young Russian officer who, in a bid to look like a Chechen, dresses local but fails completely. “Anyone would have known him for a Russian and not a Tartar brave,” writes Tolstoy. “It was the thing – but not the real thing.”

Matthew Van Dyke, who cites Lawrence of Arabia and Indiana Jones as two of his major influences, is the thing but not the thing itself.

Worse yet, although he demanded after the resignations of all those who criticised his participation in a war that wasn’t his, the Libya he left behind is not a post-Gaddafi utopia like he imagined it would be. It is a violent, fractious nightmare best described as a real-life Fuseli painting.

Matthew Van Dyke is now in Syria and giving interviews to Fox News about how he has “covertly” begun training an Assyrian Christian militia group collectively referred to as the “Nineveh Plain Protection Units”. In short, he is continuing with his #LawrenceofArabia life.

For all new arrivals to the Syrian conflict, regardless of whichever side you have chosen to fight on, you are likely to take up arms alongside someone like this.

Like anyone who has read about how integral TE Lawrence was in turning the tide of World War One, I have to admit that at times I have been romanced by his celebrity. Lone white guy. Oppressed people. Great travel story. Ticks all the boxes doesn’t it?

But never once have I thought that going to Syria and fighting in the war would be an effective use of my time and energies.

I spent six years in the military in various infantry roles. I spent seven years studying Middle Eastern politics. I studied the Arabic language in Syria before the Arab Spring and have almost filled two passports with the stamps of various Islamic countries. I have read the Quran from cover to cover (in English, because though I’ve studied Arabic since 2008, Quranic Arabic is really old-skool and so I’ve barely scratched the surface of what Islam is all about). Despite this, with all this specialised knowledge, I am not even remotely qualified to be fighting for any of the revolutionary groups in Syria. I am barely even qualified to be commenting on what is happening in Syria since I haven’t been there since the war began.

One of the friends with whom I studied in Syria, who now speaks Arabic almost flawlessly (compared to my lumbering White Man Arabic at least) lived in Jordan for a year working with Syrian refugees on a daily basis. With all of his in-depth knowledge he’s not even sure that the Free Syrian Army was ever real or if it was just a bunch of high-ranking officers sitting across the border in Turkey smoking cigarettes and fielding media enquiries. Indeed, the FSA’s actual existence is a legitimate subject of debate.

Syria right now is a contemporary manifestation of what France in the Dark Ages looked like before Charlemagne started kicking heads. There is now a literal alphabet soup of militias running around committing all sorts of nastiness. Without question, ISIS is the most brutal of these.

Let me paint a picture for you of two likely scenarios which await you if you choose to take up arms in Syria.

Scenario 1: You have chosen to fight with the Free Syrian Army. You have chosen the FSA as your militia-of-choice because a.) you have read that they are one of the groups engaged in a battle against the Islamic State. You meet an Arab guy in the Turkish city of Batman. He says he is Syrian and that he can get you to an FSA stronghold near Aleppo. You drive across the border clandestinely near Jarablus. You speak only the basic Arabic you picked up from a crash online course. You can’t read the street signs. On the floor of the vehicle is a book with the following title: “معالم في الطريق“. You are unable to glean that this is a book written by a man named Sayyid Qutb and as such alarm bells do not begin ringing. When your friend/driver stops at militia-manned checkpoints he speaks in Arabic to the other fighters. Because you can’t tell the difference between the various dialects of Arabic you fail to notice that he is pronouncing the “j” sound like a “g”. This man is not from Syria. He is from Egypt. He is a foreign fighter with ISIS. You are being driven to Raqqa and you are about to appear in the next of Jihadi John’s horrific videos

Scenario 2: You have chosen to fight with ISIS. Somehow, you make it past customs in your Western country and reach the heart of “The Caliphate” in Raqqa. You discover that rather than being the lead element in a global war against the West on behalf of the oppressed ummah, ISIS is actually little more than a local actor in a bloody civil war whose main victims are Muslims. The ranks are rife with in-fighting and bickering. The only people with prior training are the Chechen veterans and they have formed their own groups because they don’t trust the other soldiers of the Caliphate not to accidentally shoot them in the back.

You used to smoke back home in Sydney. You can’t anymore. You liked listening to rap music. You can’t anymore. You realise that murdering people who do not share your faith is against the tenets of Islam. You decide you want to go home. You can’t anymore. The Australian government will throw you in prison. You realise you might never see your mother again.

But you need to get out of Syria. You try to leave without telling anyone but you are discovered by the ISIS high command and then executed by a child and the video is broadcast on the internet.

Frankly, if you go to Syria, and you die fighting for one or other of these groups, it is quite possible that you have wasted the most precious thing you had – your life. Even if you have died on the battlefield, you have more than likely died in an attack on a strategically-insignificant town in rural Syria as a small part of a minor offensive which constitutes only an auxiliary component of a large-scale campaign. Your military training or “protection from Allah” has not made you a “force multiplier”. You are cannon fodder.

Unlike Lawrence of Arabia, whose main triumph lay not in his military prowess, but in identifying that only Feisal had the political acumen to lead a successful revolt (as opposed to his brothers or cousins or tribal allies), your presence in Kurdistan or Assyria or “The Caliphate” has probably achieved nothing.

Many of ISIS’ recruits have read more about bomb-making and jihad than they have about zakat or the finer points of Islamic jurisprudence. Jake Bilardi, an eighteen-year-old boy from Craigieburn, went to Syria to join ISIS having learnt everything he knew about Islam through the prism of the War on Terror. Bilardi blew himself up at a checkpoint near Ramadi. He has been profiled as a “school shooter” personality, but above the rest, his main problem was that he joined ISIS knowing only what he was fighting “against”.

In his own words he knew he hated “democracy” but wasn’t sure what should replace it. This is precisely the problem. Everybody in the Middle-East, both foreigners and locals knows what they are fighting against.

The murderous thugs fighting with ISIS are fighting against the kuffar. The Kurds are fighting against the murderous thugs.

A young British Royal Marine Commando recently travelled to Syria and joined a Kurdish militia. He, like many Western soldiers, was so appalled by ISIS’ atrocities that he couldn’t hardly wait for the British government to make a declaration of war. So he booked a flight to Turkey on a three-day leave block and put his military training to use. A week ago, he died in Syria.

He died fighting with a Kurdish militia against ISIS. To repeat, he knew what he was fighting against. But what was he fighting for? Kurdish nationalism? The creation of a Kurdish state in Northern Iraq? Or the creation of a Kurdish state in Iraq and “Rojava”? Or the creation of a Kurdish state which encompasses all the ethnically-Kurdish areas in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran?

I have personally written about how Australia should be militarily involved in a campaign against ISIS. But though at times I am frustrated by how slow state actors are to respond to atrocities I appreciate that there is a reason for the argument that the state should have the monopoly over the use of force. And that is that individuals, by themselves, often make bad decisions. Bureaucracy can be slow and inefficient, yes. But generally when states go to war it is usually decided by a group of people and not by an individual, acting on a whim or reducing a complex situation to a series of simple moralisms. This creates a safety net to prevent individuals from acting rashly. And it produces good results.

Take the United States’ involvement in recent action in Sinjar, for example. An Assyrian Christian** population, surrounded on a mountaintop, was about to be massacred by ISIS. The Kurds stepped in to help and with assistance from a series of bombing runs from the United States Air Force, they opened a corridor to Sinjar and evacuated the civilians. Crucially, the Kurds opened their corridor without the assistance of white guys in their ranks. The Kurds knew the area, spoke the language and they got the job done. What they didn’t have was planes. And so the US – after much bureaucratic deliberation – offered theirs.

This was an example of “the utility of force” – when the application of violence ceases to be an intrinsically foolhardy endeavour and becomes an effective measure yielding positive results – lives were saved.

Contrast this with the possible consequences of Matt Van Dyke’s individual decision to begin training a Christian militia in Syria. Has Matt Van Dyke heard of the Sabra and Shatila Massacre? Probably not. Here’s what happened. In Lebanon, in the 80s, a Christian militia called the Phalanges were given external support to search and destroy members of the PLO, the terror group*** du jour. Instead these champions of Christendom went through a Beirut neighbourhood and massacred thousands of civilians. We can all agree that the Assyrian Christians of Syria are facing an existential threat from ISIS but believe me, another religiously-motivated militia is the last thing the Middle East needs.

The whole Dark Age militia bullshit – currently being championed by Matthew Van Dyke, an individual – is not going to improve the situation in the Middle East. Careful, measured and rational action (involving both military and civilian efforts) directed by state actors is the key to peace.

Author’s Note:

** I stand happily corrected. Those saved in the Sinjar offensive belonged to the Yazidi ethnic/religious group.

*** I originally wrote “Islamist terror group” instead of just “terror group” here which serves only to highlight that we young men, and I least of all, have no idea what all these different groups are fighting for.

4 thoughts on “The Problem with Modern Lawrences of Arabia

  1. A Few comments:
    1. The main ethnic group to face annihilation on Mount Shingal (Sinjar) by ISIL were the Yazidis.
    2. Rojava is not an inverted commas location. It exists and means West in Kurmanji. The name is used to denote a region of North East Syria that has been the focal point of the Kurdish fight against ISIL. It deserves more than an inverted comma label.
    3. The PKK (listed terror group) and YPG from Rojava actually came to the rescue of the Yazidis on Mt Shingal after the PDK Peshmerga withdrew towards Erbil in the face on the ISIL onslaught. The city of Sinjar was actually retaken last month by the YPG. There were foreigners of many nationalities fighting in their ranks.
    4. Christian Militias in the war against ISIL are not new. There are a plethora of Assyrian units that sit under Kurdish command either the YPG or the Peshmerga. It is highly unlikely their presence may lead to a sectarian war. The actual risk is old political divisions arising between the PYD and the PDK and PUK for starters. The possibility of a Kurdish civil war based on political affiliations is a far bigger threat.
    5. Since when is understanding the complexities and underlying causes of a conflict a prerequisite for fighting it. That would render 99.9% of coalition soldiers who went to Afghanistan and Iraq unqualified to have gone. Erik Scurfield and Ash Johnstone were volunteers. They may not have been university trained and knew exactly what it was about but they had strong convictions and were prepared to be martyred for them.
    6. TE Lawrence is a poor choice as a comparison to someone like Matthew Van Dyke. Lawrence spent a fair amount of time in Syria before he was hired to gallivant around the desert with Tribal Arabs on the pretext of espousing Arab nationalism but all the while pushing for British neocolonialism in a post-Ottoman middle east. Van Dyke is what we call in the trade a “war tourist”. He was in it to make a name for himself and is doing the same with Sons of Liberty International in Iraq. If the Assyrians (NPU) are smart they will send him home.
    End of the day, do any of these Foreigners compare with TE Lawrence? Absolutely not. Do they make a difference? To the moral of local forces absolutely. Give the Kurds the weapons they need to dislodge ISIL for good and they will be happy to send the American and Euro XBox Warriors that have come over to fight home.

    • thanks for correcting my inaccuracy regarding which minority was surrounded in Sinjar. I have corrected it with a post-script **
      IRT who did the saving. My post simply said “the Kurds” but thanks for providing some useful extra detail (important to mention which Kurds were involved in this operation).
      I placed “Rojava” in inverted commas because like many disputed areas and autonomous regions it doesn’t have international recognition (my own opinion on whether it should have recognition is irrelevant here), since it is still technically part of Syria.

    • also in regards to your mention of university training. i do agree that the academic guild mentality is demonstrative of an intellectual vacuum more than anything else. the theories learned in the classroom rarely have any immediate relationship to “ground truth” (one of the reasons I chose to study languages and anthropology which is all about going out there and doing fieldwork). your first-hand knowledge of what is happening over there at the moment is evidence of this. 😀

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