“Radicalization” is the new buzz-word. Politicians in particular use it when trying to rationalize to themselves why British-born people might wish to leave the comfort of the United Kingdom in search of a shallow grave in the Middle East, while at the same time so many people are trying to dodge shallow graves all over the third world in favour of the comfort of the United Kingdom.
Flying the family nest in search of adventure is nothing new; and flying the family nest for ideological reasons is not new either, from the Crusaders in the Middle Ages, to the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War (1936-9) and any number of adventurers, privateers, soldiers of fortune and pilgrim fathers in between.
Volunteers for the International Brigade went to support the Spanish Government of the day against an insurrection of the Spanish military. They weren’t representing their countries of origin, nor were they necessarily representing their homeland’s foreign policy. It was a case of responding to the call to arms as individual militiamen.
That call came through the Communist Party, attracting left-wing support for a left-wing government that was too left-wing for its own military’s taste. Support for the rebellious Spanish army in 1936 came from Germany and Italy, both of which had right-wing governments at the time, and they used the war to test new equipment and to give their frontline men combat experience. Britain’s fascists under Sir Oswald Moseley were also supporters, so the British government found its people adopting the traditional British position of supplying both sides.
When the International Brigade was disbanded in 1939, volunteers from fascist countries were given honorary Spanish citizenship, as they could not go home. Most others went back to mixed receptions in their native countries. Several thousand Americans of all ethnic backgrounds fought in Spain. We pause to remember Oliver Law, the first African American in the history of the United States to command a racially integrated military force of his countrymen, as officer commanding the Abraham Lincoln Brigade for the last four days of his life. Returning American were labelled ‘premature anti-fascists’ by the FBI—i.e. were suspected of not being proper Americans. Those who served their country in WW2 (despite difficulties such as not getting promotions) and survived, got caught up in the McCarthy red scare afterwards, since he (more accurately his assistant Bobby Kennedy) remembered that the fight to save Spanish democracy was communist organized. Belgian and Dutch volunteers lost their citizenships for having served in a foreign army.
British volunteers seem to have been ignored by the establishment and welcomed home by the people who appreciated their sacrifice. The welcoming committee included Walthamstow MP Clement Attlee, later a Prime Minister of the UK. Any concerns Secret Squirrel or the British right wing may have had about the 305 returnees being terrorists, or of unsound mind, intemperate habits or communist leanings were short-lived: war against Germany in 1939 saw most of them back in uniform serving under British colours.
A mixed bag of individual odysseys, then, that painted the final panels in the history of that conflict. They have to be considered individually rather than as a pattern, since no pattern emerges, but since in a democracy it is the people who make war, governments should pay attention as to whom public opinion is supporting.
For the current conflict in the Middle East, what are we to make of the volunteers trying to get into the fight? Or out of it afterwards? They haven’t been summoned, was our first thought. We heard a radio report detailing a Syrian rebel commander’s complaints about British volunteers. His problem was that they were untrained. They didn’t speak the language, they slept too long, ate too much, and expected far more home comforts than irregular warfare in a Third-World country usually provides.
Ideology doesn’t have much to offer, except possibly as a kick-start. British Moslems teach their children the principles of their faith through the Mosques, Islamic centres and Madrassas that they fund. British Christians do the same through churches, Sunday Schools and faith-based schools. Neither radicalizes anybody in the mainstream; that is the role of individuals who appoint themselves to do so. As an example, consider the opening scene of the movie All Quiet on the Western Front: Arnold Lucy radicalizes his classroom of young men to rush out and enlist. (Donald Pleasance was scarier but less radical in the 1979 re-make.)
So what would yer average jihadi warlord make of British tourists wanting to join the fight?—apart from that they don’t have the language, the training, etc. Well, as in Spain, propaganda. They make a statement by their presence. No matter if the first drone to happen along kills them, as long as their accents have been recorded on someone’s mobile beforehand.
The eventual outcome of tourist terrorism, as with tourist mercenary or tourist security work, is that those young people who survive the adventure will ‘find themselves’ (with any luck, but not necessarily, in one piece). It used to be said that there are no atheists in foxholes, and that may be true, but only of those who were trained not to be atheists. We assume that our supposedly radicalized wannabe jihadi tourists have sufficient training to draw comfort from their scriptures, but knowing when to dig in, what not to tread on and who the enemy actually is, may also come in handy. After some experience of the food, sleeping arrangements, drones, incoming fire, discipline, footwear, prayer times and travel arrangements, most will know, after a few weeks, whether they want to be in, or out.
As to what they do next, that is largely a matter for Islamic State. Volunteers are usually committed for the duration, so there may not be an exit strategy that meets with local approval. Assuming there is a way out, the UK Government wants to have a bigger role in debriefing those returning (and presumably rejects) than they did when the International Brigade came home. First indications are that they want to emulate the American position of the late 1930s and treat any returnees as suspicious.
Of what, is undecided; but at least some sort of debrief, even a hostile one, may help those returning make the adjustment to the comforts that the UK provides its residents, assuming that the UK government lets them in and releases them into the wild.
Somewhat more sinister is the vague threat of preventing them leaving, since, as an arbitrary power being given to undertrained people, it could affect any or all of us wishing to take a holiday. Turkey is nice at this time of year and in 2015 will host centenary events to remember the Gallipoli campaign.