MERCENARY!  The imagery is painted in our psyche from books, films, and even popular music.  It is the image of the lone wolf merc deep in the Congo with a rusty AK-47, running from the law back home, and desperate to end his down and out streak with a hand full of blood diamonds in his tattered cargo pocket.  While a few of these types of people exist, the image is almost always divorced from the reality.  Why do foreigners from the West sign up to fight in wars they have no part in?  I believe I can offer an explanation based on first hand reporting I conducted in Syria and conversations with foreign volunteers in Ukraine.

Sitting in the barracks with some foreign volunteers in Syria, one American citizen told me his life story no less than four times within a 24-hour period.  When he was a young Marine he was dating a really crazy girl that cheated on him all the time.  He was too young and naive to know how to handle it.  His drinking got out of control and the Corps gave him the boot.  He drifted through life without a purpose.  Now in his thirties, with his forearms covered in tattoos, he sought a battle to go fight.  At first he considered enlisting with anti-cartel vigilantes in Mexico but realized that once the vigilante squads gain power, they become just as corrupt at the cartels.  With the spread of ISIS in the Middle East, he saw an opportunity.  He got his affairs in order and traveled to Syria, signing up with the Kurdish YPG.

I really believe that he went to Syria with the intention of dying there.  He talked with a lot of finality, as if this was the end of the road for him.  He told his life story to other volunteers as well, like he wanted to make sure he was remembered after he died.  The last I heard from him he had gotten disenfranchised with the YPG and joined up with the Dutch-Kurdish biker gang fighting ISIS in Kurdistan.

Personalities like this are closer to the norm of what you find with foreign volunteers than the romanticized image of a former Green Beret or French Foreign Legionnaire going freelance and plying his deadly trade in some West African hell hole.  Another foreign volunteer in Syria told me that the other foreigners were, “the misfits of society.”