The Russian invasion of Ukraine is history unfolding before our eyes, a cataclysmic event that will reshape international politics and world order for decades to come.
For many watching the war on television and social media, there is an intoxicating draw towards such a conflict. I've heard the refrain many times from people who want to leave behind their mundane 9-5 job, who want to recapture their glory days as a young soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan and take up the world's second-oldest and often most misunderstood profession by becoming a mercenary.
A week and a half into this conflict, all too familiar patterns are already emerging as international volunteers present themselves in a new war zone. Having time and distance from war and both the fiction and realities of this trade, there is a bit of advice I would like to share with the men – some young and some old, some military veterans and some mere curious amateurs. I'd like to tell them about some of my own observations before they pack up their old tactical nylon, ballistic helmet and buy a plane ticket.
I would like to tell them about my two friends who volunteered to fight with the Peshmerga in Iraq, and fight they did, but they also had an angry cab driver upset about a bad tip tell a gate guard that the two Americans had raped him. The gate guards butt-stroked my friends without hesitation, leaving them a bloody mess.
I'd like to tell people thinking of volunteering in Ukraine about the British Azov soldier I knew who got separated from his unit in no man's land in Eastern Ukraine and spent two days dodging Russian armored vehicles as well as friendly fire from his own side as they mistook him for an enemy combatant before he finally crossed back to friendly lines.
I would like to tell you about the American YPG volunteer who got shot by a border guard while crossing from Syria, mistaking him for an ISIS terrorist. He spent a month in a Kurdish prison with actual ISIS prisoners.
These are a few of the more mild stories.
Let me back up for a second to explain why you may want to consider listening to my advice about why you should not go to fight someone else's war.
After serving in the U.S. military for what feels like a long time ago, I became an investigative journalist covering war and the military. I've met and spent time with foreign volunteers in Syria who signed on to fight with the YPG. I covered a battle in Iraq where the Peshmerga, along with their international volunteers, fought ISIS. I became acquainted and interviewed countless foreigners who served in the YPG, Peshmerga, and Azov battalion in Ukraine in 2014.
I consider this subject to be a lifelong interest of mine, and my bookshelves are stacked with tales of mercenaries. I've interviewed dozens of mercenaries who fought in Rhodesia, South West Africa, Angola, Colombia, Nigeria, Sudan, Burma, Sri Lanka, Yemen, and beyond. I broke news stories about South African mercenaries in Nigeria, American mercenaries in Venezuela, and many others in the gray areas where mercenary activity overlaps with private security contracting and straight-up crime.
I only say this to point out that when I tell you not to go to Ukraine, it isn't because I'm ignorant, biased, anti-military, or anti-contractor. But rather because I've been watching and learning about this topic for a long time. The reality of mercenary operations is nothing like you think. Far removed from what you see in the movies, or life in the U.S. military, the reality of becoming a mercenary is long periods of time sitting around doing nothing, smoking cigarettes and drinking, being issued a rusty Kalashnikov, and, if you're lucky, you get to avoid a prison sentence or worse, a shallow unmarked grave.
Mercenary operations are ramshackle, poorly planned by people who don't know what they are doing, with little if any logistical support. These missions are ad hoc, thrown together in a whimsical unprofessional manner. Not to mention the pay is shit.
Exceptions, where professionals run well-planned and executed operations, are few and far between, such as Executive Outcomes in Sierra Leone, STTEP in Nigeria, or Peter McAleese's attempt to assassinate Pablo Escobar.
The press is now almost gleefully reporting on foreign volunteers in Ukraine, encouraging them one could argue after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a direct appeal for foreigners to join the Ukrainian military. Funny enough, the press was deriding these volunteers up until a few weeks ago as neo-Nazis and white nationalists who pose a right-wing extremist threat when they return home. The narrative changed so quickly that it nearly gave this reporter whiplash.
Just as we saw with the war against ISIS and the reporting on foreign volunteers who signed up with the Peshmerga and YPG, we are already seeing war hero stories about the most “fearsome” Canadian sniper, or the American Army veteran who told his wife he has to go to Ukraine and “do his part,” or the British “Lion” who went to fight in Ukraine but instead got captured by his own side and beaten up as a suspected spy.
You can set your clock by these stories. I may have even written a few such profiles myself in the past. They're mostly bullshit and bravado.
At the moment, the foreign fighter situation in Ukraine is similar to what it looked like in the opening months of the war in North East Syria, known as Rojava by the Kurds, where foreigners clustered around a base called Derik just across the border where they were left to smoke cigarettes and take pictures for Facebook while the Kurds tried to figure out what to do with them.
Due to the influx of foreigners showing up in Ukraine to fight, a similar situation has developed in the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv, where foreigners are sitting around in bars (I'm sure the accommodations are nicer than Syria) while the government tries to figure out what to do with them. The most obvious answer, as the Kurds found, was to use the foreigners for public relations. Let them use social media, get them interviews, and show the world that their fight has global support.
As time went on in the Syrian civil war, the foreigners were often put in remote bases where they could be kept safe and out of harm's way. However, the YPG was based on a mountain guerrilla model forced into a conventional military setting, and what Tabor (platoon) you ended up in depended a lot on when you hit the ground in Syria and which group of Kurds you linked up with. In time, quite a few foreigners saw serious action over there.
In time, the nature of the volunteers in Syria also began to change. Initially, there were a lot of U.S. military veterans, red-blooded Americans who wanted to get their kill on against an enemy that was clearly evil, and some of them did. Later, the international volunteers became more ideological and left-leaning as anarchists, communists, and others from both Europe and North America joined the YPG. I sat at the memorial service for one such young man in New York City. When his face came up on the big screen on stage, a little girl sitting behind me cried out, “that's my daddy.”
Currently, the Ukrainian military is going through this same cycle, trying to figure out what to do with the foreigners. Some Ukrainian officials are cautious about cowboys and war tourists being integrated into their units. A source intimated to me that the plan is to integrate the foreigners into a unit called the International Legion of Defense of Ukraine also called the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine. As a territorial unit, it may pan out like how the Kurds initially handled foreigners, these troops will be used to do presence patrols in remote villages and kept out of harm's way.
That said, Ukraine is not Syria or Iraq. This is a different type of war. Even back in 2014, the internationals in Ukraine had better weapons and kits but it is also an old-school slugfest with enemy airpower, artillery, and armored vehicles.
However, the riskier method is to bypass the Ukrainian process to join their armed forces altogether, as some volunteers simply pack up their go-to-war gear, fly to Poland, cross the border, and jump right into the formation of the unit already in combat that they want to be with. Azov might not want foreigners anymore, but the equally sketchy Georgian Legion will take them. One picture has already emerged from the International Legion, with one Mexican member allegedly flashing an MS13 gang sign.
Here is another truth about the foreign fighters in these wars: they are strategically relevant to nothing. I know that's a tough pill to swallow, but we can disregard that silly figure of 16,000 foreign fighters the Ukrainian government has put out. That's a logistically impossible work of fiction and propaganda. The reality is that the foreigners come into the country in onesies and twosies, not in platoon or company strength. While one man can make a difference, understand it is a small difference and that it is Ukraine's fight to win or lose.
Another uncomfortable truth about foreign mercenaries: they are not necessarily good people. In my travels, I've met ones who were con artists, stolen valor types, criminals on the lam from the law back home, blowhards living out war fantasies, and even guys who showed up to die choosing suicide by war. Once and a while, you might run into the rare professional soldier in these units, but I would describe every single one of them as a lost soul.
The early years of the Azov battalion in Ukraine saw the unit loaded with ex-prisoners and neo-Nazis. Another friend signed up with them when they were doing Mad Max ops driving out to the front lines and playing Star Wars (green and red tracer fire) with the Russians, then running as soon as mortars came screaming in and heading back to the rear to get into some drunken punch ups with their erstwhile Nazi teammates. The Russian apologists won't like to hear this, but NATO getting involved in Ukraine was what began cleaning them up, kicking out the Nazis, and minimizing extremism in the ranks.
There are guys like George, who I knew in Syria, a rich kid from Chicago who joined up with the YPG early on, and a dyed-in-the-wool psychopath who was pretty open about his desire to become a war profiteer. His behavior was erratic and irrational, one moment he'd be carrying on complex discussions about economics and politics, and the next he'd break down crying over something mundane. He's still out there grifting as far as I know.
Most of the foreign volunteers will head to Ukraine, like those before them, get bored and head home in a few weeks, but only after they've snapped a bunch of pictures for the 'gram. A few still stay for the long haul, even make multiple trips back. Others will return home and pitch stories to the news media about how they got more kills than cancer behind a sniper rifle, or build their identity around their month in Ukraine and do fundraising, but for who we're never quite sure. Still, others will bounce from grift to grift, some will try to give Burma a shot with the Karen rebels, others will drift to Africa and say they are doing counter-poaching activities.
Others will participate in coup attempts, searching for that high one more time in places, like Seychelles, Equatorial Guinea, and Venezuela only to end up dead or in prison.
On the flip side, in no shape or form am I saying they are all bad people. Some former foreign fighters are good friends of mine, a couple stayed in my home and met my family. Some of these guys get it out of their system and figure out their lives. They get normal jobs, get married, have kids, and live great lives. But they all ended up fighting someone else's war because they were running from something back home.
But here is the deal fellas, what if you could just skip straight to the end game? Cut out all that messy painful war business in the middle and jump straight to the part where you give up chasing someone else's war and instead build a life for yourself? It's not easy, and I suppose I'm an imperfect messenger. After all, I've spent a long time chasing you guys around the world for stories I've written.
What you are planning to do is dangerous, and could get you in legal trouble if not dead. While I respect the intentions of those who want to fight on behalf of beleaguered people and help them secure their freedom, I also feel that the stories I've related above never quite make it into the books or movies about mercenaries.
While I may respect many of you, I'm also not looking forward to attending your memorial service.
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