In Spain as in Syria? Why do people fight in foreign wars?

In Spain as in Syria, people fight in foreign wars for many reasons, or sometimes none at all. Historian Michael Lambert explores.

In Spain as in Syria? Why do people fight in foreign wars?
Orwell (tallest, centre) in Huesca, Spain in 1937. Hoover Institution Archives/Harry Milton Papers

The death of 22-year-old Dean Carl Evans, the second British man to be killed fighting the Islamic State in Syria after Konstandinos Erik Scurfield was killed last year, should prompt us to wonder why he and others would choose to travel to the frontline and involve themselves in the bloody civil war of a country other than their own.

Trying to understand the motivations of foreign fighters such as Evans has invited historical comparisons, particularly with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. Richard Baxell, historian of the British Battalion of the International Brigades, has argued against making generalisations about their motivations. Suggestions of ideological naivety or extremism alone can be particularly misleading.

Journalist George Monbiot has used the history of the International Brigades to argue against prosecuting returnees from Syria. But to understand the problems faced by those returning from both conflicts revolves around not just why they fought, but who they fought for.

Dean Carl Evans, 22, from Berkshire, who was killed fighting alongside the Kurdish YPG. Ragihandina YPG

How history judges

Few of those volunteering for the International Brigades had any understanding of the situation in Spain which led to Franco’s coup in July 1936. Most were working-class activists motivated by anti-fascism, not Stalinist stooges. Equally, those volunteering for Franco had little idea of the politics in Spain, and typically went for adventure, not anti-communism. The war in Spain was seen by those who went not as a domestic civil conflict, but part of a growing global war against fascism – or communism.

Perhaps the most famous of those that fought in Spain is George Orwell. For the eight months he was in Spain, Orwell didn’t fight with the International Brigades but instead with POUM, a tiny anti-Stalinist militia that he joined largely by chance. Later, intending to join the larger International Brigades, he was instead caught up in fighting in Barcelona in 1937 between his comrades and Stalinist factions – supposedly fighting on the same side against Franco. Disillusioned, he left the country.

Reflecting on his time in Spain, he wrote in his memoir Homage to Catalonia that in retrospect he would rather have joined the anarchist militias than either of the other groups. Not out of political sympathies, but because they were the largest force in Catalonia where he fought. Orwell, like others, wanted to travel to Spain because of its international significance, but even he had little idea how things would play out on the ground when he arrived.

The same is true in Syria. Those supposedly motivated by radical Islam do not necessarily fight for ISIS, but can end up in a range of different Sunni- and Shia-led rebel groups. As was the case for those like Orwell en route to Spain, the different paths volunteers take into Syria can affect which organisation they join.

Most volunteers from the West fighting in Syria against Islamic State are ex-servicemen, often informed by experiences in Afghanistan or Iraq. Others certainly are adventurers and are motivated by the thrill of danger. Most travel individually or in small groups, rather than through organised recruitment networks.

In fact a commitment to fight radical Islam is perhaps the only unifying feature of these Western volunteers. Most, like Evans and Scurfield, end up in the Kurdish YPG, People’s Protection Units, which openly welcomes Western recruits. Recruits are often unaware of the domestic politics of the region they are entering. Those motivated by more conservative or right-wing anti-Islamic views find themselves increasingly at odds with the radical Kurdish leftists in the YPG – with the result that many leave.

Our view of the war is shaped by those aspects that become most visible through the media. The YPG are the best-known rebel group fighting ISIS in Syria, partly due to the deaths of the two Britons fighting for them. The anxiety over the intentions of returning volunteers of a Muslim background gives this aspect prominence. Together this reinforces the idea of a war where combatants are either for or against Islam, rather than the far more complex reality of Middle Eastern and international politics.

Orwell returned from Spain in 1937, but the civil war raged until 1939. In Homage to Catalonia, Orwell to some extent punctured the myth that the conflict was merely the ideological fight against fascism – for some it was the fight against communism, documenting the complexities of Spanish politics and the strife that flared between groups supposedly fighting on the same side. Ironically, by the time of the book’s publication in 1938, the world did indeed face a fight against fascism with the rise of Nazism in Germany leading Europe into World War II.

As noted by writer Michael Petrou, it is the failure of international powers to intervene that has led to the war in Syria, just as non-intervention facilitated the rise of Franco. The desire of individuals to act when presented with the inaction of the international community explains the allure of the conflict to idealists, mercenaries and adventurers alike.

By Michael Lambert, PhD Researcher, Lancaster University

Michael Lambert is affiliated with the International Brigades Memorial Trust in Britain and the Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica in Spain.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


New law aims to boost hunt for Spain’s Franco-era mass graves

Spain’s government finalised a bill on Tuesday aimed at boosting the search for the remains of people killed during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship and the country’s civil war.

New law aims to boost hunt for Spain's Franco-era mass graves
A search team exhumes the remains of people dumped in mass graves during the Spanish Civil War a tMount Estepar near Burgos on July 24th 2014. Photo: Cesar Manso/AFP

Known as the “Law on Democratic Memory”, the legislation makes the state responsible for finding and identifying the remains rather than leaving the task to relatives.

Campaigners say the remains of more than 100,000 people are in unmarked graves across Spain, a figure which Amnesty International says is only exceeded by Cambodia.

Franco’s Nationalists won the 1936-1939 civil war and honoured their own dead but left their opponents in unmarked graves.

Many more people went missing or were killed under the dictatorship, which ended with Franco’s death in 1975.

The bill is expected to be passed by parliament despite hostility from the main right-wing opposition, which says the left is needlessly opening old wounds and has promised to repeal the law if reelected.

“Today Spain is settling a historic debt with its past. We have passed the democratic memory law that lets us move towards recognising the victims of the civil war and the dictatorship,” tweeted Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

“It is a much-needed law that lets us become a better country.”

The passage of time and the lack of records about the executions has made both finding and identifying victims difficult.

‘Dignified country’

The bill sets aside public money to search for the missing, map the mass graves and create a DNA database to help identify the remains.

It also annuls the convictions of opponents of the Franco regime and provides for the appointment of a prosecutor to probe human rights abuses during the civil war and dictatorship.

Until now, all such moves have been prevented by a 1977 amnesty law, which was seen as essential to avoid score-settling in the fledgling democracy.

Under a 2007 law, the state simply offered support to help families trace and exhume relatives buried in unmarked graves.

But Sanchez’s government has sought to bring Spain in line with other European countries that have gone through dictatorships.

“With this law, we are making Spain… a more dignified country,” said Democratic Memory Minister Felix Bolanos.

He added that the law took care of the victims and did not forget those who died fighting a dictatorship.

Spain has been criticised for shortcomings in its efforts to address the legacy of the civil war and the dictatorship.

The UN Human Rights Council said leaving victims’ relatives to search for their loved ones highlighted “the indifference of state institutions”.

Since coming to power in 2018, Sanchez has made several moves to deal with Franco’s legacy.

In October 2019, he had Franco’s remains transferred from a vast basilica near Madrid to a small family plot.