The Robin Hood complex: Why do people from the West fight in other’s wars?

The war against ISIS isn’t the first time in history that we have seen hordes of men volunteer to fight for something they believe in.

November 26, 2017 22:36
2 minute read.
THE AUTHOR with Kurdish Peshmerga during the offensive near Bashiqa in October 2016.

THE AUTHOR with Kurdish Peshmerga during the offensive near Bashiqa in October 2016.. (photo credit: COURTESY EMILE GHESSEN)


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After the recent defeat of ISIS in its de facto capital of Raqqa, we have heard stories of young men and women leaving the West to join the group. What we haven’t heard so much of is the other side – the men and women joining Kurdish forces as volunteers to fight against ISIS. I have followed these volunteers for the past three years trying to understand their motives for traveling to the region to take on the world’s most feared terrorist organization, for a self-produced documentary.

Theses volunteers all come from different backgrounds; some are former military, others aren’t.

Being a former Royal Marine myself, I was interested to find out what drives a man to pick up arms in someone else’s war. As I move around Iraq and Syria in search of these fighters, there is no doubt the Kurdish forces are glad that these volunteers have come to fight on their behalf. They often ask me, “Where is the British military? Why do these volunteers come, while your government once again turns its back on Kurdistan?” The simple answer is, I don’t know.

The war against ISIS isn’t the first time in history that we have seen hordes of men volunteer to fight for something they believe in. In the 1930s it’s estimated that 45,000 international volunteers from 54 countries traveled to Spain to defend the Spanish government against Franco’s rebel forces in 1936. The motives of today’s volunteer is probably no different. Injustice, good vs evil are just some of the reasons I’m given by these modern-day Robin Hood characters.

I met Mike in Shingal, Iraq. Mike is a 54-year-old British volunteer who previously served in the French Foreign Legion. He was on Mount Sinjar fighting alongside another army that wasn’t his own. I wanted to understand how a British man ended up fighting shoulder to shoulder with Yazidi forces.

After hours of drinking sugary tea and talking with Mike and local forces, he explained his motives. He said that while the world’s armies stood by and allowed ISIS to murder thousands of civilians, volunteers like him couldn’t do the same.

While groups like the YPG, Peshmerga and Yazidis are all under-equipped, this doesn’t deter volunteers like Mike. The horrors of ISIS war crimes brought him here. He’s not under any illusions that one man can make a difference, but feels one man alone can make a statement of solidarity with Kurdish forces. He hopes his statement brings attention to the wider world that the Kurds are fighting on behalf of humanity.

My documentary, Robin Hood Complex, explores why these men’s stories of sacrifice, sometimes naivety, but overall commitment, is so important. As governments shied away from dealing with the growing problem of terrorism in the Middle East, men like Mike refused to do the same. Edmund Burke’s quote sums up well the feeling among the volunteers: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

The author is a former Royal Marine who swapped his rifle for a camera to become a documentary filmaker.

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