x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Romanticism of war drives the impressionable to an ugly fate

There are winners and losers in war, they say. But in the end, even the winners lose a part of them, writes Rym Ghazal

There is something about a man in uniform. The images and sentiments associated with a military man are so powerful that world leaders, particularly those in the Middle East, are often photographed in their country’s military attire even if some of them have never served in the army or earned half the medals they are wearing.

Besides looking sleek and masculine, a military uniform is associated with heroic acts and sacrifice. And that is often the case.

Like most people, I grew up on films of men going to war. The act mostly looked romantic and thrilling against a backdrop of inspiring music. Whatever the details of the actual war, they all carried the same underlying message: heroism.

With a family tree filled with army men, including generals who were killed either in battle or during political unrest, everything to do with battles and fighting for a cause always fascinated me. And fighting is not limited to violence.

I was told several times by religious clerics that one form of jihad is through the pen. I was told it was my duty to write and document the “truth” in the hope that it makes a difference.

Only when I worked in war zones – where I met men and women serving different countries who came with dreams of changing and “saving” the world from evil and “terrorists” – did I find out that reality was entirely different. Reality is far more brutal and complicated than I expected.

I met a 20-year-old American soldier in Iraq, who looked about 17, from Texas, who couldn’t understand why he was so hated by the Iraqis and Arabs in general.

“I came here to save their country from a terrorist,” he said. He couldn’t remember the name of this terrorist, but he truly believed it was his duty to come and rescue the Iraqis from harm. But after actually killing someone, it all changed for this young solider. He withdrew emotionally, and was terrified of death. “I just want to go home,” is one of the last things he told me before a rigged car nearby killed him and several others.

War is so ugly that words fail to describe it. People say there are winners and losers, but even the winners – whoever they might be – lose a part of them in the end.

I think every bullet should cost a million dollars, and then everyone would think twice before firing one.

Then there is a different kind of war, a war that is driven by a different set of motives. Men, and some women, have fought jihad believing they are doing it for the sake of God.

Last week, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah issued a royal decree that punishes citizens who fight in conflicts outside the kingdom, with prison sentences ranging from three to 20 years in jail. The decree also stipulates that any Saudi citizen who joins extremist terrorist groups or supports them materially or through incitement faces harsher punishment ranging from five to 30 years in jail.

The latest open ground for jihad has been Syria, after Libya, Iraq, Palestine and even Lebanon where I actually interviewed some jihadis from different nationalities living in refugee camps and other places. Belonging to different groups or cells, they said they all came to “free Palestine”.

“It is our duty as Muslims to fight the oppressor and free the oppressed,” was what one Al Qaeda leader said in an interview.

What was common between the different fighters was that even though most of them have never been in the army, they wear uniforms along with ghutras (Arab headgear) that they wrap around their faces to hide their identity.

The men who are fighting in Syria, whatever their nationalities, are probably getting a real dose of shock at the reality of war. I have heard people saying that perhaps it is good that they go there so that they see how bad war really is and turn peaceful.

Fighting jihad in Syria is a very tricky issue, with many facets to it. I have talked to all parties, and every party believes they are on the right side and doing it for the right reasons.

But the families of victims, who lost their loved ones to bullets and bombs, hate all armed people, regardless of their affiliation and reasons. As one Syrian refugee said: “You want to fight? Go fight in a video game and leave us in peace.”

rghazal@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @Arabianmau