I got a lot of grumpy readers who want a column on the Kurdish-Turkish skirmishes in Northern Iraq, pronto. A lot of them were pissed off at my last column gloating about the Malibu fires. I guess I'm only supposed to glorify this violent shit if it happens outside California. Well, too bad, fellas. Maybe you weren't one of those kids who always cheered for the flood vs.
the dam, the wildfire vs. the water-bombers, and Ebola vs. those interfering French "doctors without frontiers," but I was and still am. People get the wrong idea about me, like I'm actually a cuddly puppy growling at the sofa. But I mean every damn word of it, and that goes for Malibu every bit as much as Mali. Sure, I have sentimental favorites, but not many any more. And I try to be fair about it. If you were to say, "So Gary, would you be just as happy to see Fresno burn as Malibu?" I'd say, "Sir or Madam, Your Honor, that is what I dream about every night on my commute." Hook me up to a polygraph and you'll see nothing but a little smiley-face on the graph when the notion of Fresno burning comes up. Hitler asked, "Is Paris burning?" My question is, "Why not Fresno?"
But fine then, ya pussies, we'll go back to nice safe overseas chaos'n'violence, take a slow Predator tour of Kurdistan and zoom in on what little gore there is to highlight. See, that's the first thing to keep in mind: this is classic low-intensity warfare, and if you're hoping it'll build up to a nice big poppable zit of a battle, forget it. Nobody wants that except us frustrated war watchers, and you'd think by now, after 60 years of this chronic-fatigue warfare, we'd face facts. But we're all--and I admit I feel it too--we're all hoping for something a little more Stalingrad, a decisive campaign with winners and losers.
I guarantee a lot of you won't like the story here, because it's the same old thing: combat itself is trivial in this kind of war, casualties are insignificant (unless you're one of them) and military genius, it don't mean shit. This is one of those annoying "wars" that are just about everything EXCEPT combat, everything from the difference between a language and a dialect to the whole notion of being something called a "Kurd."
Could you draw a map of Kurdistan? Basically it's a peanut-shaped footprint across SE Turkey, Northern Iraq and a patch of western Iran. But it's not on any world map, because the Kurds, like the Tibetans and the Tuareg, are stuck in the Hell of the Landlocked Tribes, a seriously bad Hell when countries are mostly defined by their chunk of coastline. There are 25 million Kurds just festering in that peanut, but they don't have their own country and never will unless a new Woodrow Wilson comes along and gives the world another shaken-not-stirred roll of the liar's dice like Woody did in 1919. We get a lot of our dumbest ideas from that fine Presbyterian gentleman, but Wilson would've been better off sticking to showing off his stiff collars as president of Princeton instead of doing his Jurassic Jimmy Carter routine by playing Sir Noble Knight defending "the rights of small nations." The right of small nations is to duck, shuck and say "Yessuh." That's about it. That's how they survive. Small nations that can fight for their rights usually keep going past the tribal borders till they're stomping on the rights of other small nations that can't back their "rights" up with guns.
Prussia would be the classic example here, and it's more relevant to the Kurdish example than you'd think. When we think "Prussian" we think German officers with monocles and an attitude problem, but there were other Prussians living there first. They spoke something called "Old Prussian" that wasn't even German-based. It was related to Lithuanian, and as far as I can tell, Lithuanian is related to the Language of the Flowers or Proto-Gnome or Paleo-Sanskrit in a fur coat or something like that.
You don't need to bother your little head too much about sending away for the 2-CD "Learn Old Prussian" set though, because it vanished along with the poor proto-victims who spoke it when the New Prussians, a bunch of aggressive Germans who fought like Tasmanian Devils (and were just about as good at making alliances, which is why they ended up losing it all). For a while there, Prussia was a small nation that didn't need any crap about "rights" or any New Jersey high-collar deacon defending it. They had this thing called The Prussian Fucking Army, the one that actually won the battle of Waterloo. (By the way, if you think Wellington beat Napoleon at Waterloo you need to go back to War Nerd Summer School. The short version is Napoleon beat Wellington, then Blucher mopped up the French when they'd worn themselves out stomping the Brits. If you've ever watched one of those one-day UFC tournaments, you know how it works: the winner is the one who drew a bye or a pushover in the first round and came in fresh like Blucher's boys did.)
So let's get real: small nations have no rights. Nobody has any rights. People have the guts and the guns or they're nothing. So the central fact about Kurdistan is that it hasn't managed to claw its way to existing, which means it doesn't have any "right" to exist.
Now I want to be fair here, so let me say up front it's not because the Kurds are cowards. Nobody ever said that about them. Besides, lots of cowardly tribes have managed to become "independent nations" with their little flags and seats at the UN and local big boys who get paid a million dollars to support Japan when they have one of those whaling votes. (And speaking of whales, they have about as many "rights" as an Old Prussian's skeleton sitting in a museum, meaning none. Don't get me started on the damn whales.)
The Kurds don't have a country because they have no discipline and plain old bad geographical luck. The wimpy countries are usually little islands, and when the sea powers like Britain and us were setting up the world, it just seemed natural to us that one island full of wogs talking their own little language equals one country. Why not? Nobody needed those little atolls anyway. Let'em have their flag and their little anthem and take the tourists for a few million every year.
But this "Kurdistan" footprint, this peanut of land, happens to be not just landlocked but dropped across the bloodiest borders in the world, the backwoods of the Fertile Crescent that people have been killing each other over since Sumerians started telling war stories with little bird-print writing on clay tablets. This is not Tahiti; it's Ground Zero. You want a country in these parts, you better be prepared to cross off most of your family tree in the process.
And the Kurds are willing to die, I'll give them that. Always have been. Good fighters; Saladin was a Kurd, after all. They just can't stay united for more than the time it takes to sign a manifesto. By the time they've got pen in hand to initial their latest United Front for Kurdistan memo, the Supreme Commander of the Kurdish Liberation Front has stabbed his imported Parker Pen into the throat of his ally of two minutes ago, the Generalissimo of the Free Kurdistan Army.
The Kurdish Descent: From Saladin to Tribal Rambos
It's not hard to fight people like that, or keep them "oppressed." You just farm it out to their relatives. Most of the time, you don't even need to use your own tribe's troops. Kurd-on-Kurd violence will do it. Which is why bravery isn't anywhere near as important as discipline in a military force. A force of 200 German clerks or Vietnamese insurance agents, no matter how many of them wear glasses and can't bench-press a Starbucks latte, will beat 200 Rambos every time on the battlefield, because 200 Rambos is pure chaos, nobody willing to obey orders. And Kurds, too bad for them, are a pretty Rambo-y group, all macho yelling, counting coup and strutting instead of sticking together. You get this a lot with mountain tribes, and the Kurds are mostly--not all--mountain people. "Our valley vs. the world," that kind of small-time crap. Cute if you're Swiss, but only because the Swiss valleys usually had enough sense to unite against foreign invaders. Kurds don't. They have what the professors call "local loyalties," meaning whatever little baron family always ran their valley.
When you compare the Turks and the Kurds, you see how important unity is, even when the way a tribe gets unified isn't pretty to look at. We think there's this fight between "the Kurds" and "Turkey" but both those words are temporary. The only reason there's a "Turkey" is one man: Kemal Mustafa aka Ataturk, a Turkish officer who made his bones killing Aussies at Gallipoli and went on to terrorize the Turks into becoming Turkey. The Turks had no country and no "rights" after WW I because they'd made the mistake of siding with the Kaiser. So even though they won against the Brits at Gallipoli--you can generally win against Brit officers who decide to occupy the beach instead of the high ground overlooking it--the Turks lost everything, including their country, the Ottoman Empire.
Papa: Ataturk made his bones killing young Aussies at Gallipoli
See, they weren't "Turks" then, they were Ottomans. Sure, Turks were the dominant tribe in the Ottoman Empire, but it was one of those Islamic Empires where being One of the Faithful counted way more t
han being a Turk. The main distinction was between Muslims and Others, and you definitely didn't want to be one of the Others. You especially didn't want to be one of the Christian tribes who wouldn't convert, like the Armenians who used to be a "small nation" in what's now Eastern Turkey. Around 1915, when every power fighting the Great War was getting a little paranoid and impatient with its local troublemakers, the Turks decided they'd had enough of these pesky Armenians and took action. You can talk all day about whether it was "genocide" or not, if you're one of these fools like Wilson or Carter, but the end result is that the Armenians are now resting with the Old Prussians and the Algonquins in that big Human Rights Court in the Sky where Small Nations can exercise their rights all day long without bothering anybody.
And who benefited, you might want to ask, from the Ottomans wiping out the Armenians (except for about ten zillion who moved to Fresno)? Well, let's see if you can name a Muslim tribe that lives in Eastern Turkey. That's right, the Kurds! I'm not saying a whole buncha Kurds moved in and crossed out all those Armenian names on the deeds, but they sure got a lot richer in a hurry--because they were Muslim, and I repeat, to the Ottomans that's what mattered, way more than tribal identity.
Four years later, 1919, the Anglos stomped the Ottomans as good as the Ottomans had stomped the Armenians. I'm talking total collapse. No Ottomans, no Sultan, no empire, nothing. Everybody thinks that because there's this place called "Turkey" now, it just had to happen that way, but that's crap. The reason there IS a Turkey and there ISN'T a Kurdistan is that enough Turks had the sense to obey Mustafa Kemal's orders and reclaim the Anatolian peninsula. People don't realize what a slow, bloody mess it was taking Asia Minor back in 1919.
While Wilson was talking crap at Versailles, Ataturk's generals were attacking in damn near every direction at once. They started from scratch, from the survivors of the Ottoman officer corps, recruited the same Anatolian peasants whose ancestors had fought with Belisarius (who's up there with Subotai as maybe the best general ever) and started pushing outward. It took them way longer than the Great War had taken to evict the Greeks from what's now Western Turkey but used to be Greece, and still is part of Greece if you're a sulky Greek nationalist. That was just the biggest of the wars they had to fight. In every compass direction they had to TAKE their country back. They had a couple of advantages, like a coastline, a genius for a leader, and some great commanders. But their biggest advantage was unity.
Oh, there was a Wilson style "treaty" that was supposed to give the Kurds a country--the Treaty of Sevres in 1920--but you can't give people a country. They either luck into one or they carve it out with a knife. Ataturk rejected the treaty and told the Kurds, "How about we just fight ya for it?" The new army, now the Turkish Army, fought Kurdish guerrillas all through the 1920s and beat them--and again, it wasn't because the Kurds can't fight, but because they couldn't unite and the Turks could. If you had Ataturk sitting back at HQ you'd follow orders, too. You better, boy. The Kurds followed their nomad tribal bosses and got cut to pieces, real bravely.
A Kurdish major dressed to kill
And then, after the slaughter, comes the comedy. That's what I love about modern war: how the language crap always follows the carnage. See, Ataturk's new country had to follow Wilson's line that a country means a bunch of people from the same tribe, preferably talking the same lingo. The Ottomans never even heard of that idea, and the Turks didn't really get it either; all they knew is that they had taken their country back from pretty much the whole damn world and weren't going to give any of it back, not an inch, period.
Ataturk was a smart guy; he knew you had to deal with the Anglos' crap about "the rights of small nations" if you were going to do business in the 20th-century world. So he or his Propaganda Ministry came up with this hilarious revisionist history where the Kurds were actually "Mountain Turks." Meaning, hillbillies, but from the same tribe as the main branch of the Turks, just kinda backward, needing a little help from Istanbul. You know: "Never mind, Meeester President Weeeelson, these so-kall-ed Koords, they eez joost poor mountain Turks, we help them, they our brothers"--and then the Effendi shuts the door on some League of Nations dweeb and calls to the back room, "Mehmet, haven't you torn that bastard rebel's fingernails out yet? What are you, expecting time-and-a-half because it's Friday? We're secular now, asshole, so get the pliers and write down the names of all his relatives so we can get them buried before sundown!"
Actually, and I expect you to be properly impressed I looked this shit up, Kurds ain't Turks at all. Nobody seems too sure what they are ethnically or even what a typical Kurd is supposed to look like. One thing you'll remember from the Kurdish uprisings after Gulf War I is how the women reporters were all blubbering about "blue-eyed children" getting gassed by Chemical Ali, like it's a whole lot worse when a kid with some recessive gene drowns in her own lung butter than one with brown eyes. Still, in this pissant era you use every propaganda weapon you got, and one of the few cards the Kurds are holding is that they've got their share of blondes and blue eyes. Not a high card--I mean, look how far the moron Nazis got basing their ideology on a couple recessive genes--but better than nothing. Of course there are plenty of pale Turks, too--people used to do a lot more rapin' and ridin' in those parts and genes kinda got swapped around--but they're not "victims," so nobody cares.
Sir Noble Knights
As for "the Kurdish language," that's another messy one. I realize most war nerds would rather talk MBT main-gun caliber than linguistics, but if this crap is good enough for Petraeus, it's good enough for us. Fact is, language is a huge part of making war in the past 200 years, ever since that whole "small nations" crap started. The basic idea is that if there's a language out there, you need to give it a flag and a little song and the whole deal or it'll be wiped out by the big, bad languages. A whole bunch of guerrillas who are willing to die for their idiot language and songs and poems. Don't ask me; I guess it's something you have to get conquered to understand. Maybe if Iceland invaded California and banned me from humming "Kickin' up a fuss in the Cumberland Gap," I'd riot, too.
Anyway, the Turkish military junta of the 1980s considered Kurdish a big enough issue that they passed a law banning it. Yup, the whole Language. Made it a felony.
"What are you in for, dude?"
"Armed robbery. How 'bout you?"
"Oh, I fucked up and said 'Good morning' in Kurdish."
"Shit, dude, that's serious! Don't sit next to me, what if the guards see? I like having eyes and fingers an' shit, man, so fuck off, troublemaker!"
Kurdish turns out to be this hillbilly version of Persian, not Turkish. There's still a whole lot of professors making a harmless living arguing whether it's even a single language or a bunch of dialects. (You know what a dialect is, don't you? Old joke but good joke: A dialect doesn't have an air force.)
The one thing that these professors can agree on is that Kurdish has nothing to do with Turkish. Ataturk's bit that the Kurds were just the Turks' country cousins went down the drain right there. The Turks went back to the sort of argument they were better at, like beating Kurdish troublemakers to death and dragging their bodies around their home villages at the back of an M113 to show the locals how sad and unnecessary all this ethnic nonsense was. You know, hearts'n'minds stuff.
The complicating factor is that the very same thing was going on in the two other countries that got superimposed on the peanut shape of Kurdistan, Iran and Iraq. In all three countries, you got Kurds staging ragged local uprisings with zero chance of success, and in all three countries you got paramilitary troops shooting and torturing them to persuade them to work within the system.
For 80 years the Kurds got nowhere. It's a long, pointless story full of the Barzani family, the Kurds' pitiful excuse for an Ataturk, but the one amazing thing it shows is that even middle eastern governments can sometimes have enough sense to resist that crap about "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Seriously, that proverb is one of the dumbest things ever. The enemy of your enemy is usually your enemy, too. And whoa, will miracles never cease as my grandma used to say, most of the time the sleazes running Iraq, Iran and Turkey had enough sense not to let any of the Kurdish militias get strong enough to give the Kurds any of their so-called "rights" to their own country.
The actual military history of the Kurds vs. Everybody wars of the 20th century are pretty cool, as long as you recall that the military details are pointless. I'll talk about the fighting in my next column, but the reason I did all this lead-up first is because I'm not going to lie to you and say that the real fulcrum, the real decider in this war, was the lousy skirmishes that gave the bodies those Turkish (or Iranian or Iraqi) troops used to drag through Kurdish villages behind their APCs. That's nothing. And that, friends, is the saddest thing about modern war, the way it makes the fun part, the shooting, damn near irrelevant.