Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that doesn’t overhype fairly obvious observations.
As the controversial new wave of American led coalition airstrikes continue to hit targets in Syria and Iraq, new revelations that there are American citizens fighting or planning to fight for the terrorist group known as ISIL/ISIS/Islamic State have taken to the news.
We’ll take a look at what some of these cases are and why they are not too far off from a much larger group of Americans fighting in a similar regional conflict from the 1930s.
The Current: Volunteer Fighters
Aside from attacking Kurds, the Syrian government, overrunning a good portion of Iraq, and forcing companies to quickly switch acronyms, it has been the way ISIS has carried out brutal executions of journalists and atrocities against minorities that has affected the public mind and subsequently US government action against ISIS.
Since ISIS’s effective takeover across most of Iraq, the U.S. decided to convene different countries into joining its coalition airstrike campaign at the recent UN convention last month. The prospect of full involvement in Syria since their civil war began in 2011 has been anathema to the U.S. and other countries, yet President Obama, Francois Hollande, and other leaders have felt enough public pressure to respond with a more “hands off” approach.
Interestingly, and even more loudly announced by the press, is the knowledge that American citizens are now fighting alongside the jihadist fighters. The actual number of Americans fighting for ISIS or other terror groups has been disputed – initial government estimates of over 100 Americans were deemed to be a misquote from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and now the government defined number stands at “a dozen”. But American politicians from both parties are calling these volunteer fighters a huge threat to the U.S. – perhaps as an election year dictum.
While ISIS, the airstrike coalition, the offshoots of Al-Qaeda in Syria (al-Nusra Front, et al) have garnered the attention, it’s interesting to note that these groups in the Middle East have the attention of the West and not other regions whose tactics are just as heinous to civilians, women, and children. The separatist groups M23 or ADF-Nalu from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Boko Haram in Nigeria, or al-Shabab in Somalia all are on the same level in terms of crimes against humanity, yet the international response to those groups have not been with the same vigor.
The latest buzz surrounding Americans volunteering to be part of such a group of militant fighters is interesting in that it is the surprise that is exhibited from newcasters as they announce “yet another” American citizen that has gone off to fight for ISIS. The known Americans have been mostly converts to Islam or have committed themselves to the vision of al-Baghdadi – the ISIS leader.
What the newscasters lower their voices for, and what should be remembered, is that the Americans who have gone to fight with ISIS have gone to fight in the Syrian Civil War, against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. While some certainly may be extreme and some are converts to Islam, many simply feel that “this group ISIS has it right”. The volunteers have been drawn to fight during tough economic times at home especially for those in the long term unemployed demographic. Choosing a successful group that blames others for the downfall or misfortune of their own makes perfect sense. It’s the same way people tend to gravitate towards gangs.
This conjures to mind a little known group of Americans who, during a time of economic depression, went to fight in another Civil War for groups that were at the time considered dangerous: The Spanish Civil War between 1936 – 1939.
The Abraham Lincoln Brigade
The Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939) began when a military coup across the country attempted to wrest control from the Republican government to General Francisco Franco and his Fascist party. In the southwest and northwest, the military uprising was successful, but the people of Aragon, Madrid, Castellon, Valencia, and Cataluna stopped the effort – mostly through the power of local workers and farmers unions.
The resistance against Franco and the Fascists was an ambiguous amalgam of Left groups from Communists, to Trotskyists, to Socialists, and Anarchists – each which created their own militia. Given the situation of an uprising against a democratically elected government, many people from around the world were outraged – especially since they were beginning to see the monster of Fascism rearing its head elsewhere in Europe and Asia.
Thousands of volunteers from many countries decided to join the fight on the side of the Republica, now controlled by the “Generalidad” – a council of the political leaders of the various regions and groups. The Generalidad in late 1936 began to try and coalesce all the militias under one umbrella as a front against the fascists, but the fighting continued to be fought on a company to company basis (small militia units).
The military revolt opened the door for a social revolution to occur and workers unions and agrarian unions instinctively took over public buildings , transportation infrastructure, and munitions depots where the Republican government was absent or had fled. Worker collectives began to form especially in Barcelona and Aragon. These collectives offered a nearly idealistic anarchist society: free, stateless, and based on worker control. This is what drew many volunteers to fight for the Republican side – the chance to work and fight for a society that seemed to be headed towards Utopia.
Volunteers from abroad often joined in with one or more of the left groups. Such was the case of George Orwell, the English author, who fought with the PUSC (spanish Trotskyists). Others joined one large group known as the International Brigade.
Approximately 2,800 Americans joined the fight in a clandestine group called the “Abraham Lincoln Brigade.” The Brigade had as its goal to stop the spread of fascism in Spain and rid the country of Franco. They joined 35,000 other foreigners fighting for the Republic in the International Brigade. Their partners included Canadians, British, Irish, Portuguese, German, French, and many others.
Why did Americans join the fight in Spain?
The economic and political chaos and malaise of the 1930s certainly afforded a large population an opportunity to join an overseas adventure. Even more so, the depression spurred many Americans to join others who had suffered injustice, unemployment and were influenced by student radicalism and/or left group ideology.
The volunteers came from all walks of American life: Teachers, firefighters, students, sailors, salespeople, lumberjacks, athletes, and artists. But they were progressive and left leaning. They were led by a black commander, Oliver Law, and 60% of the volunteers were members of the Communist Party – a large connection when thinking about the socialist and communist union groups that were leading the government during the war.
Why did the U.S. not get involved in the Spanish Civil War?
After reluctantly declaring war in 1917 in WWI, the U.S. became vehemently anti-war and isolationist in the following 2 decades as a result. When conflicts arose in Europe in the 1930s, the U.S. was still mired in the Great Depression and had little precedence for involving itself in a major foreign conflict. Besides, the U.S. just defeated Spain in the Spanish-American war just 3 decades earlier – certainly not making them a key ally.
Thus, the Spanish Civil War, while important in pitting major ideologies against each other (fascism vs. socialism & democratic governance) did not see a Cold War influence or puppet masters wielding influence behind the scenes – at least not with the partipation of the U.S. The Soviet Union certainly held high influence over the Spanish Communists and their Union groups – an influence that would eventually lead to the dissolution of the anarchists. Germany financed Franco, though not as much as he had hoped, but the U.S. did not involve itself directly. The non-intervention policy actually harmed the Generalidad because American companies cooperated with Franco’s forces while an embargo against Fascist forces prevented arms from reaching the Republican sides.
Apart from the popular desire not to get involved overseas, the politics of the Spanish Republican Government, especially those in Barcelona were considered very radical. Left groups in the U.S. had historically received very negative press (ex. Haymarket riots) and the Red Scare had convinced many Americans of the “dangers” of Communism, Socialism, and Anarchism. The U.S. had even attempted to subvert the new Soviet government following the Russian Revolution in 1917, so the U.S. official policy was not inclined to support militias which were deemed to be “too radical.”
To further emphasize the official U.S. policy, the McCarthy era Communist witch hunts of the 1950s and 60s made life extremely difficult for returning veterans of the Spanish Civil War and members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade – most of whom were not recognized for their service. Members were blacklisted and affected deeply by their affiliation with the war and its politics.
Conclusion: A Thread
So what does a civil war in Spain have to do with Americans joining an Islamic Militant group bent on creating a Caliphate across Iraq and Syria?
There’s a great deal of correlation, actually.
A solid comparison can be made of the militia groups fighting on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War and the rebel groups fighting under the umbrella group of the Free Syrian Army against the Syrian government and the dictatorship of Assad: many were deemed radical, or too radical to support with American arms.
Americans volunteering to fight in Spain and in Syria had no official U.S. backing and the U.S. has had a non-interventionist stance on the war itself. ISIS, long a Sunni militant group in Iraq that was mainly an outlier while American forces held pat in Iraq from 2004-2011, saw an opportunity to exert a larger following and force when the Syrian Civil War grew out of control in 2011 – 2012. Given the extent of the land they now control, ISIS is by far the biggest player in the Syrian war – but has their own agenda in setting up a caliphate under sharia law.
The militia groups in Spain were considered radical politically, like ISIS is (or ultra-conservative religiously with their brand of “Islam”) but one significant difference is the use of torture and extreme violence in the public eye. Spanish militia groups did not execute journalists for the camera nor raped or pillaged minority villages – that was mainly the MO of Franco’s army (ie. Guernica). Yet given the American public’s image of Communism, Socialism, and Anarchism at the time, the idea of American volunteers fighting for such groups probably conjured unpleasant images – much like the media has made of the few Americans who have fought for ISIS.
Like today’s American volunteers for ISIS and other Syrian rebel groups, Americans fighting for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War may have had few opportunities because of the economic depression, faced serious discrimination, or saw a cause that was worth fighting for – one that they saw their own government looking the other way on. While non-intervention in Spain resulted in a lack of arms reaching militias defending their government, American inaction in Syria until the coalition airstrikes now appear to be helping the Assad regime instead of more moderate groups.
Though the numbers are significantly smaller in terms of volunteers fighting for ISIS than those in the Abe Lincoln Brigade, the explosion of coverage and shock is much higher this time around. Maybe we should take a look back at past conflicts instead of standing with mouths open.
Until the next militia group volunteership,
Your Faithful Historian,
Eric G. Prileson
Sources and Further Reads: