As Americans, especially those in military and intelligence circles, we have an obsession with giving everything a name or acronym. Everyone gets a label and category. I asked Matthew VanDyke what he was doing in the middle of the Libyan Civil War. Was he a mercenary, a private security contractor, or a foreign volunteer? His answer was straight forward and to the point: he was a freedom fighter.
While the Huffington Post and others mistakenly reported that he was a journalist, Matt will tell you that he was anything but. He was conducting a recon mission when he was captured by the Libyan military and imprisoned. Once freed, he joined back up with the rebels and manned the unweildly Soviet DShK machine gun on a jeep that looked like something straight out of Mad Max, trading fire and getting into skirmishes with Gaddafi’s forces on the front lines of the war.
While the National Security Council was meeting in the situation room at the White House, no doubt dabbing beads of sweat from their collective brows with handkerchiefs, Matt crossed into Libya and went to work. Surviving the war, Matt returned to the United States and in the tradition of Ernest Hemingway, he brought back an amazing boots on the ground account of the Libyan Civil War.
It all started when Matt was contacted by an old friend named Muiz who he had met during a motorbike tour across Northern Africa, “If I die, please tell your friends about me. On the streets fighting…fighting with hands…but we have no guns…people dying for Libya.” Matt’s friends were taking up arms against Gaddafi’s forces. They were prepared to sacrifice their lives for freedom.
Matt believed in the cause as much as he believed in not standing aside while his friends and their families were killed off one by one. He started making phone calls to let his mother and his girlfriend know that he would soon be departing to Libya. With a Master’s Degree in Security Studies with a concentration in the Middle East from Georgetown, but zero military experience, Matt hit the ground running in Libya where he linked up with his old friends. His first day as a freedom fighter began with him working on repairing the gun truck that he and his Libyan buddies would use in the war.
I reached out to Matt to help us understand more about the Libyan Civil War.
Tactically, what did this war look like? Were there front lines, or more chaotic guerrilla hit and run type attacks? How did both rebel and government tactics evolve as the war dragged on over a period of months.
“There were front lines. Thanks to NATO intervention the sides were evenly matched enough on the ground that it never really devolved into a guerrilla war, at least not in eastern Libya where I was fighting. The terrain on the eastern front lines was flat, open desert, which also limited the ability to use guerrilla tactics. We didn’t really have night vision gear and the enemy had very little, ruling out night operations. The rebels also didn’t have enough time to train, or enough experience, to be effective with guerrilla warfare. We also had an appalling lack of intel, and very little communications equipment which made coordinating attacks difficult. The enemy did hit us at Ra’s Lanuf with a hit and run attack while I was in the city, and I was part of the mission to search the desert for the attackers afterwards. (http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/09/12/us-libya-idUSTRE7810I820110912
At the beginning of the war we mostly had small arms. The heaviest thing I saw before my capture was the DShK machine gun, although I do know that rockets were being used by our side at that time. When I escaped prison and returned to the front lines things had dramatically changed. There were a variety of rocket launchers, AA guns, and 106s mounted on technicals, GRAD trucks, and tanks. The artillery, GRADs, and tanks operated as organized, coordinated units, but the majority of rebels were small militias consisting of technicals, and many rebels and militias operated largely independently.
As a result, the front lines were basically both sides throwing an incredible amount of rounds at each other day after day, often without visual confirmation of the enemy, and often from great distances which meant a sometimes constant whizzing of bullets over your head fired from unknown positions. There were a lot of snipers, a lot of mortars and rockets, and a lot of seemingly random firing in the general direction of the enemy by both sides. Life or death was largely a matter of luck.
Often times you would just see muzzle flashes of the enemy, or nothing at all. Eventually the gunfire from the other side would die down because a few were killed or were flushed out and retreated, and we would advance. It was town to town, treeline to treeline, street to street, and building to building. Usually they’d put up a good fight for the day, withdraw a bit at night, take up new defensive positions, and be waiting for us as we advanced the next day. They did a good job of predicting where our rally points would be, and had zeroed on them to hit us with mortar and rocket fire when we arrived.
Most of the combat was along the coastal highway, so the front lines were predictable and well-defined. Once inside of Sirte the situation changed somewhat and several fronts opened up, and the lack of intel and communications equipment (some rebels had radios or satellite phoes but most did not, and our jeep did not) made it extremely dangerous in terms of not knowing where the enemy was at any moment, and the danger of friendly fire. Friendly fire was always a major concern given the lack of intel and communication, and the fact that very few rebels had enough training with firearms and firearm safety.
Combat was exactly what you’d expect in a popular revolution fought by citizen soldiers. It was like something you’d expect to see after the apocalypse. Motley crews of freedom fighters in pickup trucks with a lot of weapons and little training, firing a ton of rounds in the direction of the enemy and trying to gain some ground each day. We fought with mostly 1970s and 80s Soviet weaponry. There wasn’t much body armor – I only got a used vest a few days before the war ended and it didn’t have any plates in it. I only wore it for some protection from shrapnel. I never had a helmet. The only protective gear that I had consistently were ballistic shades.
It really was just like in the media reports. And at times strange. I saw dead camels in the street in Sirte, and camels standing around calmly in the middle of combat.
I had around 40 engagements during the war. I kept notes of each one to keep track.”
Matt also found that his lack of prior experience as a Soldier wasn’t that uncommon when compared to the background of the average rebel fighter.
“Very few of the rebels had any [military experience], and of those few who did have experience (as part of the Libyan army), it wasn’t particularly good experience. The Libyan army was not particularly skilled or well-trained. Most revolutions do not involve fighters with military experience, so I fit right in.
I had…experience going on many missions with US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan (as a war correspondent), and more experience than many rebels with firearms from doing some recreational shooting on a few occasions in the USA and overseas. Basically, I had more experience than most rebels did with military matters and weapons when I arrived in Libya in March (with the exceptions of course being the defecting military units, veterans from the Libyan war with Chad, and whatever former Libyan foreign fighters who had returned from Iraq that were serving in the rebel forces).”
Watch out for parts 2 and 3, including Matt’s thoughts about weaponry used by the rebels, his capture and imprisonment by Gaddafi’s forces, and his perspective on Libya’s future as a democracy. You can find Matt at his blog
about freedom fighting, and also on Twitter