What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘mercenary’? My guess is nothing good. Mercenaries tend to evoke images of men who fight for all the wrong reasons – lucre/money, a need to be active, perhaps a love for violence. They certainly do not have a great reputation, at least the way I see it. Nor are they representative of a recent phenomenon: soldiers for hire have been around for a very, very long time. Probably as long ago as ancient Egypt.
Why do they have such a checkered reputation? Probably because of our complicated relationship with violence in general. We both abhor killing and yet we know that as a species we are indeed a violent one. We hate war and yet we engage in it with alarming regularity. We send our sons (and daughters) to war and we mourn their deaths. We expect our citizens to volunteer to fight yet we also acknowledge conscientious objectors (we did not always do this: in WWI those who elected not to fight were seen as cowards). Somewhere in all this are mercenaries who seek out wars to fight – and kill – in. They are both heroic adventure seekers and people engaged in activities we see as unsavoury.
To throw a spanner in the works (to cite a British phrase), what then to do with those who willingly go to war with groups who are fighting our enemies who are terrorists but which groups also happen to be terrorists? Let me unpack that very complicated and far from clear sentence.
This is exactly what has happened in recent years with the rise (and apparent fall) of Islamic State (IS or ISIS or ISIL or Daesh). A disparate bunch of people, including many Westerners, left the comfort of their homes to go and fight IS terrorists (I am not speaking here of those who went over as part of their national military forces). Given the particularly nasty bunch that IS were – they are among the most brutal violent extremists we have ever come across (crucifixions, beheadings, drownings, defenestrations, etc.) – is it any wonder that some see those who rise to the occasion to fight these bastards as heroes? No, not really.
But there is a complicating factor. Some of the ‘volunteers’ have opted to link up with a group that is itself considered, by some, a terrorist group. In other words, we have men – and women – who fulfilled a desire to give IS terrorists a black eye by enlisting with forces who themselves are terrorists. I am speaking here of the presence of foreigners in the YPG – the ‘Peoples’ Protection Units’ – or the YPJ (for women). Problem: the YPG/YPJ is the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party or PYD. Turkey says the PYD is tied to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) And the PKK is listed as a terrorist entity by several countries, including Canada. Are you still with me?
A few days ago Turkey sentenced a Brit to seven and a half years in jail for having joined the YPG. The Danes did something similar with a woman a few years ago. We in Canada have questioned those who have returned from Syria and Iraq and who fought with the YPG/YPJ (they are not hard to find: they tend to post their exploits on social media) but none have been charged that I know of.
So what gives? Turkish over sensitivity about the Kurds notwithstanding (THAT is a whole other matter), are we ok with our citizens going off and joining a terrorist group? Are some terrorist groups ‘better’ than others? In light of how much we want to see the end of IS are we turning a blind eye to the acts of the PKK/YPG? Are we good with this? (For those interested I have a much more detailed discussion on Westerners in the YPG in my book Western Foreign Fighters)
Am I the only one who sees the two sides to this issue? Is there not a degree of inconsistency? Are we eating our cake and having it too? Or I am failing to see the much bigger picture – i.e. the need to get rid of IS by hook or by crook?
The mercenary phenomenon is not going away. It has a very long track record and in light of our unfortunate propensity to wage war and kill/destroy we will always have those who benefit personally- and financially- from our need to take up arms. The newish wrinkle of terrorist groups on the battlefield does complicate matters however. In theory, and by the letter of the law, they should be charged. Some are, most aren’t. In the end, I don’t see an easy way out of this conundrum.