Poor, unemployed American men go overseas fight in a rag-tag multi-national army. About a third of them die in battle. And back home, they’re vilified as traitors to their own country.
Islamic jihadists in the Middle East? No, American Communists in Spain.
I’m speaking of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, which enlisted nearly 3,000 Communist and left-leaning Americans to fight in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Like today’s jihadists, they were inspired by a powerful global vision. And they were often willing to sacrifice everything in its service.
But the similarities end there. Whatever their blind spots about Communism in the Soviet Union, the men who fought in Spain believed deeply in human equality and progress. And that’s how they’re different from the estimated 100 American jihadists fighting today in the Middle East, where they dream of an Islamic caliphate that will bend the entire world to it will.
Consider Douglas McAuthur McCain, who last summer became the first American to die while fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). His Twitter posts reveal a confused and disaffected man, who turned to jihad because it offered purpose, direction, and adventure.
Ditto for his best friend from high school, Troy Kastigar, who died in Somalia in 2009. “If you guys only knew how much fun we have, this is the real Disneyland,” Kastigar told his friends back home.
That fits the terrorist profile to a T. Despite the stereotype of devout Muslim jihadists, most of the people who choose this line of work have not led particularly pious lives. The architect of the September 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, once flew a helicopter past his girlfriend’s office building with a banner that said ‘I love you.’ And the 9/11 killers frequented strip clubs during the run-up to the attacks.
Nor have the recent crop of Islamic jihadists spent much time studying Islam. Two recently captured British jihadists ordered Islam for Dummies from Amazon before they set out for Syria, which tells you all you need to know about their religious knowledge.
Like the jihadists, the men in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade were almost all young and unmarried; many of them were unemployed, thanks to the Great Depression, and few could afford college.
And between two-thirds and three-quarters were members of the American Communist Party or its affiliates, which provided a training ground for young radicals. The Party dispatched lawyers to defend the Scottsboro Boys, the nine black youths falsely accused of raping two white girls. It also organized protests outside German consulates, warning about the rising threat of fascism in Europe.
The anti-fascist struggle brought thousands of American and European leftists to Spain, where they defended the elected Republican government against Gen. Francisco Franco. Their numbers included George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway, who had little doubt about who would win. “The fascists . . . may destroy cities and villages,” Hemingway wrote in 1938. “But you cannot hold any people in slavery.”
Hemingway’s 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls reflected his dejection about Franco’s triumph and also his disillusion with Communists, whom he depicted as deceptive, callous, and naïve. Indeed, some of them were slavishly devoted to the Soviet Union. One former Brigade member became a Soviet espionage agent, boasting that he had provided the key intelligence for the Russian atomic bomb.
Later, during the McCarthy era, dozens of Brigade veterans were jailed, deported, or fired from government jobs because of their Communist past. But most of them were young idealists, not spies. So were the thousands of Americans who joined Canadian armed forces during the early days of World War Two. By the time of Pearl Harbor, when the United States entered the conflict, over 15,000 U.S. citizens were already fighting in Canadian uniforms.
So there’s nothing new about Americans joining other armies. Nor is it illegal, provided that they don’t take up arms against the United States. That’s why roughly 1,000 Americans serve in the Israeli Defense Force, while others have joined the the Australian and New Zealand militaries.
What is new is the raw nihilism and brutality of the current crop of jihadists. Whereas earlier generations of Americans were inspired by visions of equality and freedom, these young men seek violence and martyrdom. “Family is not gonna save me frm hell fire because muslims are getting kill[ed] and if I just sit here I will be ask[ed] in the [hereafter],” posted Abdirahmaan Muhumed, the second American killed while fighting with ISIS.
If you want a vision of hell right here on earth, think about hundreds of other clueless young Americans going overseas to follow in Muhumed’s footsteps. And think about how we can foster more understanding of world religions at home. In the end, the only real remedy for ignorant Islamic jihadism might be more knowledge of Islam itself.