Our Gallant Allies, the Kurds (and other fairy tales)1
Ah, the Kurds. How can mere words render a proper appreciation? They’re trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous…um…no; no, they’re not. Oh, sure, as individuals they can be fairly boon companions, but in the main and in the mass? Not so much.
My first experience of the Kurds – rather, of how the rest of the area thinks of and feels about them – was before I’d ever met my first one. This was at a majlis,2 in the town of Judah (or Goodah), Saudi Arabia, sometime in December or so, 1990. Citizenship is kind of an iffy and flexible concept in that part of the world, so there were folk from Saudi, from Oman, from the Emirates. There was even one Arab who insisted he was a citizen of the Gulf Cooperation Council, since he was a fully documented citizen of so many places in the GCC. I had my doubts right up until he pulled out a bilingual ID card which, indeed, did seem to list him as a citizen of the GCC.
One of the attendees had brought with him a book3 detailing the results of the chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja by the army and air force of Saddam Hussein. It was really heartbreaking, all those picture of gassed, dead, discolored, and decomposing Kurdish kids, who are, in fact, every bit as cute as the papers and television made them out to be.4 At least when they’re not dead they are. My team sergeant, Sig, and I were duly appalled and sickened.
The Arabs, though, didn’t seem to understand. To paraphrase, “What’s the problem? Don’t you understand that these were Kurds who got gassed?”
At the time, I found that attitude completely inexplicable.
Fast forward a few months; we’ve incited the Kurds and Shia to rise up and overthrow Saddam. They didn’t, of course, while such an uprising would have looked difficult and might have done us some good.5 Oh, no; instead the Shia – whose rebellion was spontaneous, anyway – waited until it looked like the Iraqi Army was crushed and such an uprising would be easy. The Kurds – who were organized – waited even longer. Sorry, boys, but when we offer you a quid pro quo, that doesn’t translate into “free lunch.” Moreover, when we’ve already offered someone a cease-fire it’s a bit late to try to get us to start hostilities again.6
In short, we owed them nothing.
Fast forward, again, to late May, 1991. I’d come home from the Middle East, hung around a while, and been sent back, this time to Operation Provide Comfort, the Kurdish Rescue, there to quasi-govern a few towns, run refugee camps, coordinate humanitarian relief, and such like.
While we’re waiting in the camp on the Turkish side of the border, not too far from Silopi, overwatched by a Turkish police fort on a hill, some Kurds got in position to fire at the fort such that, should the fort return fire, the Turks will be shooting at us. So much for gratitude from people you’re trying to save, eh?7 Fortunately, Turkish discipline held firm and enlightened Kurdish dreams of advancing the cause of having a homeland of their own by getting their rescuers killed came to naught.
After a couple of days at the camp, the crew I’m with and I are ordered forward to link up with the British Marines and their Dutch counterparts, already inside Kurdestan. We’re riding in on the back of a British Bedford Lorry, one which, based on the comfort of the ride, probably crossed the Rhine with Monty in 1945…after enduring the entire war in North Africa. If it had a suspension it was tolerably hard to see, and impossible to feel.
Sitting next to me is a Staff Sergeant Farnsworth. Farnsworth and I are both grunts, so we’re doing what grunts do when there’s nothing better to do and neither sleep nor playing cards nor reading are possible; we’re analyzing the terrain. It is fiercely rugged, with winding roads going through narrow passes between hills and mountains difficult enough to climb on foot and impossible for vehicles. Reverse slopes were of such an angle as would make defenders largely invulnerable to artillery and would make even high angle mortar fire of much reduced effect. In any case, at a certain point, looking over a particularly defensible pass, Farnsworth and I looked at each other. I no longer remember who spoke first but the conversation went like this:
“If the Kurds-“
“-couldn’t defend themselves-“
“-in this kind of terrain-“
“-they don’t deserve-“
“-their own country.”
And that was before we even knew how much they used mines.
A little digression is in order here. As mentioned previously, Kurdish kids are adorable. (The women are also quite fetching, right up until they’re worn out, usually by age twenty-four or so, from being used like donkeys, which is to say, beasts of burden, but who, unlike donkeys, can still bear young…and must.) Most people shy away from or are at least ignorant of the reason so many of those adorable kids died. It’s simple; the Kurds starved them to death themselves. It’s a cultural imperative among them, when times get hard, to let the little girls die of starvation (first, of course), and then the little boys.
Good guess, dear reader; why, no, I didn’t like that for beans. As a matter of fact, now that you ask, I’m not much for multiculturalism, in general, either.
Interestingly, before we even arrived in our area, there had been an incident – a firefight resulting in several Iraqi dead – between the British Marines and some Iraqi troops guarding one of Hussein’s palaces in that part of Iraq. I asked a British officer about it and his answer was to the effect that, “As near as we can figure, as one of our patrols was passing, two Kurds, from different positions but surely with coordination, took a shot each, close to simultaneously. One shot was at our patrol, the other at the Iraqi on the gate to the palace. Both shots missed, but the Iraqis and our men, thinking they were under attack, reacted as one would expect. We were just a lot better shots, better led, than they were. Poor bastards. One of the reasons we’re quite sure that the Iraqis didn’t shoot first was that, as our men passed, they waved at each other, as soldiers will who have no particular reasons for enmity.”8
The main town I ran was Assyrian and Christian, Catholic, actually, having their own rite but being in full communion with Rome. It was an experience to attend mass held in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, a memory I rather cherish despite not understanding a word of it. They are nice people, the Assyrians, seriously nice people. I’ve dealt with a lot of different kinds of foreigners, over the years, even married one, for that matter, and liked almost all of them. But the Assyrians have a special place. They’re also amazingly hardworking. They can’t defend themselves or, at least, they don’t think they can, which amounts to the same thing. Everyone knows about the Armenian genocide. The genocide of the Assyrians, around the same time period, was about as bad and may have been worse, as a percentage of the pre-massacre population. And among the chief agents of that genocide? Of both of them, really? You guessed it, the Kurds.
I asked my Assyrian translator there, once, what he and the other Assyrians really wanted. He answered, “We’d like the British to come back and run the place, permanently. Failing that, we’d be very happy to be subjects of the American Empire, if you would just declare one. If that’s not possible, then letting the Iraqis back would be minimally acceptable. Under no circumstance, however, do we want to be under the Kurds.”
That main town was the only one in which no Kurdish babies died, of the smallish number that the Kurds didn’t let starve anyway, and the only one in which there were no political or ethnic murders in that time period. Part of that was probably my own rather forthright approach to domestic harmony – “One incident, just one, and I’ll cut off your food, medical care, and other goodies, causing all your followers to desert you for other groups and leaders I haven’t proscribed!” – but part of it, too, at least for the long term maintenance of the thing, was probably the perception among themselves that the various Kurdish groups needed one safe area in which to engage in local diplomacy, and, since this one area was peaceful, well, why not?
That meant a lot of luncheons, meaning, yes, I had the chance to meet most of the bright lights of Kurdish domestic politics and self-determination of the day. I’ve long since forgotten their names, but am pretty sure I could identify most of them in a police lineup and wouldn’t, of course, mind doing so. One in particular stands out in my mind, a rather distinguished looking middle aged barbarian who had once, over what amounts to a domestic dispute, murdered some thirty-seven Christian men, women, and children.
And then there was the day the Kurds demanded to be paid. Paid? Why, yes, we were providing free food, free medical care, free shelter, and free security, but they saw no reason not to be paid for unloading the free food and other goodies.
I sent the trucks back with the food until they knuckled under.
Thus, it might be better for the United States, before pinning too much hope and faith on the Kurds, to understand that they’re military imbeciles with an unearned and undeserved reputation, that their culture is barbaric, they their one talent seems to be propagandizing and manipulating liberal Western opinion, which is eager to be manipulated, anyway, that any kids who die usually do so because of their own neglect of those kids, that they have no sense of gratitude for any help you give them, that they treat women like donkeys, and that they place zero value on the lives of those who try to help them. Why we, or anyone, would place our faith and trust in them…well, it eludes me.
To help that lesson stick in your mind I offer a Kurdish National Anthem, written by my team sergeant, Sig, in a moment of complete disgust with them. Every line tells a story:
(Tune: O Tannenbaum)
A voice without a hint of shame
Cries, “It’s all your fault; you’re all to blame.
We must be clothed, we must be fed
And when that’s done build our homesteads”
A Kurd can have no greater love
Than his brand new Kalashnikov;
O Kurdestan, my Kurdestan,
Do what you want; grab what you can.
You gave us shelter overhead
Doctors and blankets for our beds.
You’ve saved us from Iraqi raids,
Now tell us when do we get paid?
We fought the Turks, we fought Iran
We fought Iraq for Kurdestan.
And now you’ve made us free and strong,
We’ll kill the Christians when you’re gone.
1 This column is dedicated to the memory of Father Hanna Marko, of Mangesh, Iraq.
2 Majlis is something of a flexible concept, in the Arab and broader Islamic world, ranging in meaning from national legislature, to local council of elders, to meeting of de facto clients, to a festive gathering of friends, peers, and subordinates in a tent out back.
3 The book I don’t have. Here’s a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CgqXifzYKs
4 The Kurds are the only population I’ve ever run into with substantial numbers of people with eyes like mine.
5 People often forget that we did send some ten or eleven thousand body bags over, in anticipation of what we thought would be the likely casualties, so anything that might have distracted the Iraqi Army looked worthwhile.
6 As I’ll mention later on in this piece, trying to start hostilities among others is something of a Kurdish forte.
7 Cue footnote 6.
8 Cue footnote 6 again.
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images
Tom Kratman is a retired infantry lieutenant colonel, recovering attorney, and science fiction and military fiction writer. His latest novel, The Rods and the Axe, is available from Amazon.com for $9.99 for the Kindle version, or $25 for the hardback. A political refugee and defector from the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, he makes his home in Blacksburg, Virginia. He holds the non-exclusive military and foreign affairs portfolio for EveryJoe. Tom’s books can be ordered through baen.com.
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