A bright young man is seduced by a powerful ideology, appealing to his own cultural roots but manifested in an armed struggle in a remote country. The war pits native fighters against soldiers of a foreign empire, and is presented in his social circles as a spiritual battle of good against evil. He ignores the moral dubiousness of the cause, its vast cruelties and inconsistencies, in favor of its propagandistic pull. After making the journey and taking up the rough life of a guerilla revolutionary, he is finally brought to reckoning. In his wake, he leaves victims, dead and wounded — not other radicals afire with rhetoric, but men and women trying their best to live well and responsibly.
This is a common narrative in our era of international militant jihad. Its latest public face is Omar Khadr’s: the Canadian child soldier recently sentenced to eight further years in custody for killing an American soldier while fighting for al-Qaida in Afghanistan. From a legal perspective, the Khadr case has been fascinating, raising questions about the morality of trying child soldiers for war crimes, not to mention the impenetrably thorny issue of enemy combatant status in the War on Terror. The case also has a civil angle, as Speer’s widow is suing Khadr for damages, the first civil liability ever sought for an act of terrorism committed during wartime. But what is undeniable is the cost of Khadr’s adventure: SFC Christopher Speer, a 28-year-old Delta Force soldier, is dead, leaving behind a widow and two children.
And yet it strikes me that the archetypal account above is not specific to the 21st century and the mountains of Afghanistan. On July 16, 1823, an aristocratic English poet set sail from Genoa to take up arms in the cause celèbre of his day — the Greek War of Independence. Lord Byron was neither Greek nor a soldier, and yet, like many young Western intellectuals of his day, he felt deeply moved by the romantic struggle of the Greeks — a rugged band of mountain-based freedom fighters with evocatively classical names like Odysseus and Athanasios — against the Ottomans. Byron would be felled by a malaria-ridden mosquito bite before he ever saw combat, but his death would still be seen as a heroic sacrifice across Europe.
I don’t mean to suggest a moral equivalency between the aims of Filiki Eteria — the Greek brotherhood that launched the independence movement — and al-Qaida — who seek an ill-defined caliphate through an ill-defined war of annihilation against “Crusaders and Zionists.” However, the tactics of the organizations are shockingly similar. The Greek revolutionaries, popularly known as “klephts” — bandits — were hardly paragons of moral integrity, as the Western European press suggested. They changed sides with dizzying frequency, robbed their fellow-countrymen as readily as they raided the estates of Turkish pashas, and, most odiously to modern eyes, carried out brutal massacres of Turkish civilians and Jews — up to 30,000 at a time when the city of Tripolitsa fell. Ottoman atrocities were at least as appalling, to be sure. But to Byron and his fellow adventurers — including American progressive Samuel Howe — the cause of Greek liberation was worth the occasional shedding of innocent blood, whereas equivalent Ottoman slaughters were decried as abominations. From this double-standard held by otherwise compassionate and intellectual men, the justification of suicide bombing is only a minor leap.
In a fascinating 2009 essay, Professor David Malet makes similar connections between the 19th-century Philhellenes and the modern Afghan insurgents, along with other conflicts — notably the Spanish Civil War, when the ilk of Hemingway’s famous character, Robert Jordan, battled Franco’s legions. Indeed, the classic “For Whom the Bell Tolls” presents Jordan as a fascinating portrait of these fighters, based on Hemingway’s own experiences — he is a lost soul who finds fulfillment in a foreign cause, seeing it as the front line in a struggle that will eventually envelop his forsaken homeland. Malet notes that “foreign ﬁghters … are responsible for higher levels of violence because they believe that it is necessary to act more aggressively in a losing struggle for survival and because they do not have their own assets and families to protect as do local insurgents.” However closely they identify ideologically with a land and its struggles, they are never capable of understanding its nuances and necessary compromises — they project onto a real, bloody struggle their own ethereal dreams.
Malet suggests that tighter restrictions on mobility and a reinforcement of citizenship identity (versus transnational affiliations) can help stem — albeit never halt — the flow of foreign idealists to insurgencies. But I’d suggest that a first step might simply be to question our heroes — whether forsaking one’s nation to fight for a bandit cause in a foreign nation really qualifies as heroism, or if it is really a selfish fantasy whereby the young and rootless take the lives of soldiers carrying out their own citizenship responsibilities. Omar Khadr’s story is tragic both for the life he took and for the ruthless ideological lie to which he sacrificed his future. Our careless child does not qualify as a hero, lost in the bloody, swirling sands of a conflict to which he does not belong.
Sam Lasman is a junior in Berkeley College.