The silence of the room was broken only by the chirp of a radio and the concussive booms of mortars on the other side of the wall. Dust fell from the rafters. I was lying on a mattress on the floor. A young Arab handed me a cigarette, an AK-47 across his lap. And I told another with my eyes that I was done fighting as I pressed a bandage tight to my leg. Blood—hot—running through my fingers.
“They come for you,” he said in Kurdish.
Some time ago, a year or more, in an undergraduate class about the history of the English language, the question was put to me how war—how it being such a different way of living and dying—shapes and mutates the ways we communicate. Being as yet inexperienced in the matter, the answer I gave was something along the lines of “I don’t know.” Language is hardly capable of describing it.
Following my graduation from Texas State University in May of 2018, I joined the Kurdish YPG, a militia in the north of Syria (an area also known in Kurdish as Rojava). I flew into Iraqi Kurdistan and stayed at a safe house for some days with some other western volunteers. I’d climbed mountains in Iceland, drank beer in Munich, rode a Harley through west Texas desert, and rebuilt the motor in a motel room, but I’d never been human trafficked. We were smuggled across the Iraqi-Syrian border in the dead of night and ushered to a place called The Academy.
I expected to be launched straight into the fight against the Islamic State. Instead, many months of ideological training ensued. The Kurds practice an ideology of feminism, ecology, and a decentralized socialist form of democracy all contained under the umbrella of Democratic Confederalism. There were cultural snags and mishaps, friends who died in far off battles that we were told we would be shielded from—no more of us would fight––die, and there were widespread propaganda campaigns headlined by us westerners. We begged to go to the front. And we were told to make more propaganda. And we begged all the more to carry our rifles and grenades down to the Hajin Pocket and help in the fight against the last vestiges of Daesh (a word of Arabic slang for ISIS meaning Invader; it carries as much heat and anger behind it as calling an African-American the “N” word would. And Daesh is just as offended).
Our unit was made up of mostly English speakers, and our integration into the local Kurdish society was minimal. So English was all we spoke along with some mutilated form of Kurmanji. At best we could muster something like Eng-manji––Kurdish mostly, with English words and wild cheradiphic gesticulations to fill the gaps in our fluency. That language of the world that is mostly universal wherever you go.
As our language skills progressed it became apparent how little of a spoken or written language is needed to survive and get by. Kurmanji, thanks to generations of ethnic cleansing, is still not officially a written language, with multitudes of dialects and ways of spelling simple words. For example, the Kurdish word for fire can be spelled agir, egir, agîr, êgir, axir, ahir and so on to infinity. Language is a very simple thing that we educated types have done our best to turn into a labyrinth of pitfalls and exceptions waiting around every corner to snare the unsuspecting speaker. As a result, it is best maintained orally. Such is the reason why so many of those songs of the ancients have survived––the oral tradition is far more important than the written one. As a writer it pains me to say that, but it makes it no less true. This forbidden language of Kurmanji was outlawed by the Byzantine empire, the Ottomans, the Safavids, Salahadîn (a born Kurd) even shunned the language of his birth in favor of Allah’s Arabic, the modern states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria have all at one point or another in their history banned the speaking and teaching of Kurdish. Yet still it presses on. It was spoken in dark alleyways and behind locked doors. And it became a language of resistance, cemented by centuries of struggle and conflict into the memories of proud Kurds throughout the region.
War binds experiences to your soul. It is what saved the Kurdish language.
After many months of begging and pleading with the command, we were given the opportunity to go to the front line. By this point, the city of Hajin—the last capital, and the largest city held by the so called “Caliphate”—had mostly fallen. The bulk of the fighting was taking place south of Hajin proper. The front line was just outside the city of Ash Sha’fah. We were told we would now be heading there. “You will go as snipers. Stay somewhere in the back, stay safe, gain some experience in how the front line works. Come home safe. No injuries, no şehîds (martyrs). You will not be in the fighting.” A refrain we had heard many times over the months.
But hear this: FUCK. THAT. SHIT.
We met with cebhe (frontline) commanders and immediately began weaseling our way forward. “Is this close enough?” Of course not. “How close do you want to be?” We were itching for the fight, the very front line, and then we were there. Due to five years’ worth of gear smuggled into Syria by western volunteers, we boasted far superior arms and equipment than the Arab QSD who were doing the bulk of the frontline fighting. They loved us for our night vision, my M-16, our ability to zero a dragunov scope to the rifle. We made many friends among the Arabs, found our way to the very front unit, and once there we kept pushing forward hundreds of meters at a time, moving in a lightning-quick advance by cover of night down the banks of the Euphrates. We joked one night after pushing forward some two and a half kilometers that this must be what the Mongols felt like when they were amassing their empire. ISIS must have given up and fled to Turkey. There were none of them left, and this advance was just to look good on the news reels.
There was little resistance in the suburbs—pot shots—little more than a few cursory rounds across the rubble of no-man’s land to let the other side know we were there. There were some mortar bombardments and artillery barrages that thudded into the earth and spaced out the time spent waiting during the day.
And there were the air strikes; they were beautiful from far off, hitting every small light made in the distance in the dead of night, killing those who would kill you. You saw them first, a burst of sparks and dust a mile or so off, and then you heard the roar of the jet and the boom of the missile hitting, shortly followed by a concussion wave that hit the building and jostled the bricks in their mortar. But they were more terrifying and amazing from close. If you heard the report of the missile impacting at the same time that it hit the ground, there was a good chance it would be the last sense you ever felt. I woke one night to a jet diving low, sending a missile screeching overhead—a flash of white light roaring and ripping apart the sky. It hit not 50 meters off. My world shook enough to fall apart. Shrapnel, and debris, whole bricks and bits of rebar rained down on the rooftop where we slept. I covered myself with the blanket as a child might. Nothing can get you there. Under the blanket you are safe. I rolled to the wall and ducked my head under my body armor once I realized what was happening. After the rain of rocks and metal ceased, a stream of English, Arabic, and Kurdish curse words flowed from our end of the radio towards whoever had called in the strike. I did not sleep again so long as jets were flying above us.
In the morning, with dawn’s soft light creeping in on the peripherals of the world, we lit fires from wood found on the roofs of houses to keep warm, making tea, us and the Arabs trying to make our jokes understood to one another. We were now in the city of Ash Sha’fah.
The wind was blowing harder than the days previous. It kept our bones chilled even as the sun emerged. (Syria is a cold fucking place in the wintertime; don’t let anyone tell you different.) With the wind in their favor, Daesh lit a tire fire somewhere near the city center. Its black smoke billowed toward us, and the air strikes all but stopped. There were no targets to see. Then, of course, came a fortuitous sandstorm. You could hardly see 75 meters at times. ISIS, using their most favored tactic, began to advance with the windswept sand. Mortars, both ours and theirs, incoming and outgoing, were hitting all around our little house on the front line. The team nearest us was pinned down by a Daesh sniper. Then came a dushka (a very large Russian machine gun usually mounted to the bed of a pickup truck or the roof of a tank). It was firing our direction. When it hit the wall outside, dust would rain from the rafters.
Then came a call over the radio. Our friends in the next house over had somehow gotten pinned on the roof of their building. All the English speakers in my sniper team had gone to the rear to get the water we’d been without for 24 hours. Some gesturing and broken Kurmanji followed. Only one of the QSD fighters I was with spoke Kurdish. The rest were Arabs. From this conversation, I gathered that we had to go to the roof, find the sniper, and give our comrades some cover. So we did. One man with an angry countenance and a black hat pulled low over his face grabbed a PKM machine gun, I was second in line, carrying my M-16 with the scope, and a kid no older than 18 behind me hefted a Kalashnikov onto that rooftop.
They say that time slows when you are in a firefight. I am not sure that is the case. It is rather that the firefight unfolds so slowly in reality as opposed to what we see in cinema and what our mind regulates backwards for us to understand. There is no way you could be so calm as bullets and shells are humming through the air at thousands of feet per second. But you are. Battle is as serene and peaceful a place as any. At the time of the fighting I was no more stressed than I would have been in rush hour traffic. You fire, and you look again, and you fire. You feel shockwaves in the earth beneath you. And you think you may have hit something, but there is never any way to tell.
The machine gunner set up to my left, the AK-47-wielding kid to my right. I looked through my scope to the rubble of a building. Two black-dressed figures ran through my field of view, and I fired once for each of them. I hope to whatever god there is––theirs or yours or the Flying Spaghetti Monster that I killed them. I hope that more than anything I have ever hoped, and that is the best I can do to describe it.
Then the wall exploded by my face.
And I was running back to the stairwell. The two I had come to the roof with were nowhere in sight. Typical QSD. I found them in the stairwell and they asked if I was alright. My heart was pounding euphorically, and I knew in that instant how it was that men became addicted to combat.
I felt some sort of pain—the kind you feel when someone throws a rock at you and hits you right on the bone. Not hard. Just a deadened feeling in the limb. I thought I was fine. Maybe a mortar hit close by and sent some rocks into my leg and foot and armpit. I kept patting at myself, finding nothing, finding nothing, until I felt blood on my hands––warm and wet. Sticky, slimy somehow all the same.
A curse-ridden rendition of the Happy Birthday song popped into my head.
“How fucked are you now? You’re surely fucked now.”
“I’m hit;” that was all I could manage over the radio. The sniper we were after got me. Or maybe it was the high-powered Russian machine gun. Or maybe it was a grenade. Maybe a mortar round exploded on that rooftop. What it was that bit me matters little, but the fact that the bullet punched through a wall and was probably misdirected by a few inches of concrete saved my head from turning to paste like so many dropped watermelons.
The Arabs had never even seen a tourniquet. So I put one on myself and bandaged the wound in my thigh. There was pooling blood in my boot as well, and under the arm, but those wounds seemed minor in comparison. I asked the kid, an AK-47 across his lap for a cigarette and stress smoked it in about two drags and was soon out the door on the machine-gunner’s shoulders screaming at him to “Go!” in Kurdish he did not understand and he muttered something in Arabic as mortars hit all around us and shrapnel whistled through the air and in my head in English I am in awe of the parade of auditory sensations running through my ears and mind, wondering if I will die, soaking in life’s beauty in the thick of a heavy mortar bombardment on the banks of the Euphrates.
He sprinted some hundred meters through all that angry air to get me to safety. We did not even know one another’s names.
And then a long journey came, back to the rear to where I sat surrounded by people speaking some sick Arabic-Kurdish lovechild of a language that I could little understand or make myself understood in beyond charades. But we understood one another.
That is what war does to language. I can tell you all about what it is that happened, but that does not adequately describe what it is like to be engaged in combat with an enemy. Language fails war the same way it fails love. Combat was both the best, the most wonderful, joyous experience of my life and the absolute worst, full of terror and hatred and pain indescribable. Silence and deafening noise.
There was an Esquire article written by William Broyles Jr. in the 1980’s about Vietnam titled “Why Men Love War.” In it, Broyles says, “I suffered, I was there. You were not. Only those facts matter. Everything else is beyond words to tell.” You will likely never experience combat, and I hope that you don’t, but the experience is the only adequate way of describing the thing.
Language is of little importance in the matter anyhow.