Crossing back across friendly lines can be a tricky proposition in the middle ISIS-made warzone.

“Can you have your commander write you a letter to help you get through the check points?”

“He’s dead.”

“What?”

“He’s dead, Jack.”

“What about your Squad Leader?”

“He’s dead too.”

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“Are you kidding me?  There must be some officer around there somewhere.”

“Not really.  They died or ran away.”

“Dude, are you in charge now?”

“Pretty much.”

This was the conversation I had today with a friend fighting alongside the PKK in their war against ISIS in North West Iraq.  The last time we spoke was several days ago.  He filled me in on what had happened since then.  About three hours after our conversation his position was hit by ISIS.  Once again they were outnumbered and outgunned.  ISIS had fifty jihadist and three or four DShK 14.5 machine guns assembled around their redoubt in a L-shaped formation that rained fire down on them all night.  The PKK position was occupied by ten fighters, including my contact, who were armed with one DShK, one PKM, their Kalashnakovs.

The firefight raged throughout the night until two of the PKK fighters were able to repel an ISIS assault by laying down DShK and PKM fire on them as they advanced forward.  Eventually, ISIS was forced to withdrawal back to their former positions.  Then daylight came, and with it, the ISIS tanks.  They could fire shells at the PKK position, but not maneuver on them as the tanks were on the other side of the sand berm which marks the border between Iraq and Syria.

Now that he was back in a rear area catching up on some sleep and taking a shower, we had a few minutes to talk.  I asked about the media reports here in the US about female PKK fighters and whether or not they were true.  He told me that every PKK unit has women in it because they are so depleted and hurting for warm bodies.  Most of the women serve in support functions but plenty of them are on the front lines as well.  He knew a female PKK fighter who was the real deal and went out on small recce patrols with them until, “half her face got blown off the other day.”

“Jack, is anyone talking about us?  Does anyone care about us?”

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I told him that I went on television the other day to talk about the battles he was fighting but other than that it is just scattered media reports from a handful of journalists.  I said that I proposed a coalition between the Kurds, Yezidi, and Turkmen to defeat ISIS but he was bitter, fatalistic, and probably very realistic when he said that it would never happen.  None of them trust each other and the PKK hates the Kurdish government just slightly less than ISIS.

ISIS is turning the handle on the meat grinder and churning through the PKK’s best efforts.  Most of the experienced fighters are now dead, only to be replaced with teenage kids who, “will be dead by the end of the year.”  The PKK is extremely resource poor and can’t hold out against ISIS on their own.  Additionally, some members the PKK elements fighting are constrained by their Marxist ideology.  Some of them will not cross their legs, call a toast at dinner, and at least one will not use a cell phone because it is “capitalistic.”  With this level of inflexibility you can only imagine how responsive they are to suggestions of employing tactics which are creative and unconventional.

Battle fatigue is thick as the bodies keep piling up in Iraq.  Help isn’t coming, hope doesn’t exist, and hatred is the currency propelling the combatants forward.

My friend asked me what was wrong with him.  He gets nervous when things are quiet and nothing is going on but when the shooting starts he says he feels completely normal.  He isn’t the person I knew six months ago, a academic type with zero military experience.  “All my friends are dead, I’ll never love a woman, I’m going to die over here,” he tells me.  He sounds a lot like someone I knew eight or nine years ago.  He’s worried that he is losing his mind.  I reminded him that insanity is a perfectly reasonable response to an insane world.  It isn’t that he is crazy, it is that the entire world around him has come apart at the seams.

I told him he has fought bravely but there is no reason for him to keep going to the front lines until he gets killed.  His death will not serve any purpose at this point.  It is the guilt of leaving his team mates to fight and die that keeps him going back.

I’ll be waiting for his next phone call, if it ever comes.