Young Volunteers Fight with the Kurds and against ISIS

by NORMAN SIMMS August 2, 2016

When the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) broke out and the Italian Fascists and German Nazis entered on the side of Franco's rebels, the dictatorships seeking to use this action as a test of their men, material and strategies, in other words, a rehearsal for World War Two.  With European nations and the United States unwilling to fight for what was just-there were then, as now, too many appeasniks, pacifists and know-nothings to face the challenge of racist bullies and aggressive barbarians-it was up to individuals to volunteer their strength and lives. From all over the world, young men and women streamed to Spain to join the loyalist side, those whose democratic monarchy was confronted by a huge force of right-wing thugs and mercenaries.  The American component of this volunteer army was known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, representing many liberal and left-wing groups, not only the Communist Party.

Today the fanatical army of ISIS wreaks havoc across the Middle East, plundering, raping and murdering infidels, taking sex slaves, committing genocide against Yazidis, and claiming to be harbinger of an Islamo-Fascist Caliphate. Half-hearted attempts by European, American and some Arab states, along with anti-Baathist groups in Syria to oppose these anti-democratic warriors are unable to check their advance fully.  NATO and other coalition governments fear to put boots on the ground and, instead, depend on drones and missiles, enough only to cause minor damage and sometimes check the advance of the Caliphate.   The longer they are allowed to exist, the more we see them lash out in Germany, France, Belgium, England, even America--represented by small groups of jihadis and by mentally ill individuals inspired and  emboldened by the charismatic show of beheaders and slave masters.  Russian and Iranian support for ISIS means that local forces in Iraq and Syria are insufficient to defeat the enemy of civilization.  Only the long-suffering Kurds seem able to mount a sustained opposition. 

At this crucial time when the West is unwilling and the Middle East incapable of defeating this combination of anti-modernist fundamentalists and their allies, a small number of individuals from America and elsewhere have volunteered to fight with the Kurdish people.  Newspaper headlines scream that these young heroes, female as well as male, when they are killed in action, are rebels or mercenaries: they are neither, because they have put their lives on the line in defence of high ideals not for pay as professional fighters (guns for hire).  As in all wars, to be sure, young people volunteer as a way to seek adventure and to break free from family controls, just as older men-probably very few women at all until recently-used the occasion of foreign wars to escape from unpleasant marriages, awkward occupational situations, and a restrictive life altogether.  But in regard to fighting for "good causes", the motivation is more often than not an honest sense of wanting to make the world better. 

One young man whom I have known about through friendship with his mother recently lost his life in combat due to an exploding landmine.  Not just from what his mother and sister have said about him in interviews since, but from his own remarks recorded by reporters in each of the two times he had gone off to do his soldiering in Syria, it is clear that he not only knew the risks involved in modern warfare, but he accepted them because the cause he would be fighting for was a good one.  The so-called Islamic State represents a religious fanaticism that is cruel and barbaric; it murders in gratuitously horrible ways, rapes and enslaves women, destroys historical monuments and poses a threat to the basic values of western civilization.  Unlike so many young people of his generation who cannot not find a purpose in life-what is worth dying for, killing for, living for-Levi Shirley at the age of twenty-four finally found something that he could believe in-and believe in himself.[i] 

From a fairly young age, Levi wished to become a soldier like his father Russell Shirley who had served three tours of duty in Vietnam, and when the boy found that he could not join the US Marines he was deeply disappointed.  Russell says he was relieved when the military turned his son down on medical grounds (bad eyesight, even after surgery to correct the fault) and very anxious when he learned Levi had found another way to get into combat; but nevertheless, when he heard the news of his son's death this year, he said "he was brave." 

Through friends on social media Levi heard that the Kurds were seeking Western recruits to bolster their efforts in Syria and Iraq, and that many young men and women from Canada, Europe, Australia, Zealand and the United States had already gone to the Middle East and been formed into volunteer brigades.  Though no one mentioned it, this was similar to the way anti-Fascist westerners had travelled to Spain to aid the Loyalists against Franco and his German and Italian allies.  There were also many Americans in 1939 who went up to Canada to enlist in the Royal Air Force, the so-called Eagle Squadrons, they too impatient with the USA's reluctance to confront the Nazi menace.  Levi Shirley makes reference to this group as role models.

While the exploits of the RAF and its multi-national fighters and the Spanish Civil War had a romantic cause which still reverberates through many novels, films and historical paintings, the flow of idealistic young men and women to join the Kurdish struggle for an independent (or at least autonomous) state has been drowned out by noise of radicalized Muslim youth going to join Islamic State.  There could be no greater contrast, however, between someone who was "always sticking up for the underdog" and someone with a fanatical sense of cruelty... 

Levi's mother, Susan Shirley of Arvada, Colorado, has said of her son, "He was ‘soft-hearted' and wanted to ‘fight injustice', and was willing therefore to give up all the comforts of America.  In February 2015 Levi found himself near the Syrian  towns of Kobani and Cizire among like-minded volunteers where he was known as "Jack" and nicknamed by his Kurdish comrades Heval Agir Servan (the friend of fire). After four months, though, he was back in Colorado and vowed never to go back.  Whatever romantic notions of warfare had been quashed by the reality around him.    But, like so many other young soldiers home from conflict zones, he found it difficult to adjust to peace-time life-and to face the misunderstanding comments of people he knew of his generation who could not comprehend what he had been fighting for. 

The more he understood what the fighting had been about, what the risks were worth, and how many of his friends over there had made the supreme sacrifice, the less he could sit back and do nothing.  The endless stream of atrocity news showing what ISIS was all about, the more he itched to get back to the conflict.   Among the Kurds he had found a cause that gave life meaning, and alongside other volunteers he discovered a kind of friendship he had never known before.  Without telling his family, Levi went to Syria again, this time to Manbij, site of much heavy fighting earlier this year (2016).  A correspondent covering the battle around Manbij asked him what he was doing there, surprised to find an American alongside the Kurds, and he answered softly that "he travelled to Syria to do his part to stop the Islamic State", adding

They're my definition of pure evil.  I don't think good people in a society can stick other people inside of a cage and set them on fire-so, yeah, I came here to stop that.

Though his family were at first deeply confused by his actions, of returning to the Middle East without warning or goodbyes, they can see that, despite what happened, he had done the right thing.  His mother says she now sees that "he had a calling".  His sister Katy told reporters "she understands his motivation." On their Facebook page, the Kurdish Protection Units (YPG) wrote that "Levi Shirley made a lasting impression with them for his ‘discipline and sense of responsibility.'"  When he died in combat, his comrades-in-arms recognized something in him that showed his youthful indecisiveness and adolescent problems were over.  He had become a man and a hero.  As his mother puts it, when she received word from the American Consulate in Turkey that Levi had been killed by a landmine on 14 July:

Even from a tiny kid, he had a big heart.  He has a very strong instinct for defending people.  As much as I would have preferred he didn't go back that second time, I do get why he did.

The account of Levi Shirley's life, career and heroic death is compiled from many local and national newspapers in the United States.  I also thank his mother Susan for several lengthy emails in which she confides her thoughts and for permission to cite her.

Norman Simms has just published the first volume of a new book, Jews in an Illusion of Paradise: Dust and Ashes (Cambridge Scholars Publisher.  Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK).  It is available from the publisher as well as and other online bookseller sites.  The second volume may be out before the end of this year    

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