Book Review: Fighting Monsters brings a reality to war

Bill Ectric King

Jim Matthews, author of Fighting Monsters, says most people first heard about the Kurdish YPG fighters when “Images of photogenic, enigmatic young women in combat gear reverberated around the world.” The press focused on the females because it made a more compelling story, says Matthews, but at least it gave needed publicity to the Yekineyen Parastina Gel, or People’s Protection Units, and their fight against Isis terrorism and takeover. In January of 2015, Matthews, a citizen of the United Kingdom, was teaching English in Saudi Arabia when he decided to leave for Syria and join the fight, not with the British military, but as a volunteer with the YPG.

The YPG is a democratic fighting force that welcomes all faiths and races. Women do make up over half the numbers, and rank is distributed equally between genders. The soldiers are mostly Kurdish, but they also include Syrians, Assyrians, Armenian Christians, and even Americans and Europeans. “Armed with the most basic weaponry, equipment, and tech,” says Matthews, “outgunned and surrounded, they stood defiant, month after month, fighting from the wreckage of their city.”

Some people oppose war at any cost, while others are gung-ho to rattle their sabers at the least provocation. Most people agree that military intervention may be necessary as a last resort against threats to national security. Of course, those in the military must trust their leaders to tell them when and where to fight. Matthews didn’t make his decision lightly. In the book, he thoughtfully ponders the pros and cons joining the YPG, and emphasizes that there are no easy answers. He certainly didn’t do it for the money, mercenary-style. He earned more teaching English in Saudi Arabia than he did fighting Isis, and I can detect no trace of thrill-seeking motivation on his part. Ironically, upon returning to England, he had to prove in court that he wasn’t a terrorist because of a complicated political and legal system.

Matthews is a very engaging writer: Intelligent, clear, affable, and to the point. His tells us what it’s like amid gunfire and exploding shells; the mindset of putting your life on the line. Besides the dangers of war, he writes about human nature, quirky personalities, sharing, loyalty, and sense of humor among his fellow soldiers as they learn each other’s languages and overcome differences. This is especially poignant in light of his obvious grief over the deaths of soldiers he counted as friends.

I was fortunate enough to ask Jim Matthews a few questions by email. Here are my questions and his answers:

Q: I know you talk about this in your book, but could you briefly discuss the decision to fight in terms of pacifism vs. freedom fighter? As in explaining to someone who believes it is always wrong to volunteer for a war?

A: I’ve never personally called myself a pacifist, though I have been involved in a lot of activism (protest/direct action/civil disobedience) along peace and anti-war lines. Pacifism in its pure form strikes me as quite an absolutist position. As a moral ideal I have no problem at all with the idea of turning the other cheek. But if the downside of that means standing by while – as was happening in Syria and elsewhere – all kinds of obscene human rights outrages were being committed, then perhaps that has more to do with a wish to preserve one’s own (perceived) moral record than with the greater good. Which seems morally paradoxical. Always is an absolute, and we don’t live in a world of absolutes. Out on the ground it’s usually quite messy and dirty.

Of course, your question didn’t say ‘someone who believes it is always wrong to fight’ but ‘someone who believes it is always wrong to volunteer for a war’. Meaning, if I understand you correctly, you’re suggesting that choosing to fight when you don’t have to brings a separate moral charge to answer. Which is a very fair point. People all over the world have war thrust on them with no choice, and to say that they are necessarily morally compromised for taking the only option open to them (fight) would seem perversely sanctimonious to me. As to my own case – as someone who didn’t have to fight but chose to – I think I will probably go on questioning myself over the morality of that as long as I live. Perhaps it’s not for me to say (or for anyone else).

On the pragmatic level I feel like I’m in the clear. Isis needed stamping out, it was a humanitarian catastrophe and I was in a position to help. There’s no non-violent way to fight a war and nothing but force was going to persuade a movement like Isis. But the only absolutes out there were those being propagated by our enemy.


Q: What are some ways your life feels different now than before your experience fighting Isis?

A: Well Bill, things certainly are different. Firstly, I was charged with terrorism – which affected my life in all kinds of ways. I lost my job, my bank account was frozen, my movements monitored, and so on. It was baffling to say the least. Not only was I fighting against proscribed terrorists, as part of a group that was not proscribed, but the group I was in was also assisted by my own country (as well as by the US) with air strikes and other support. After two and a half years the prosecution dropped the charges, and to date have completely refused to explain their reasons.

On a different level, two main themes of my book are those of comradeship and loss. The group I was in, the YPG, is a peoples’ revolutionary militia, not a regular army, and there is a culture of comradeship which is quite unusual. The casualty rate is very high in that environment, for all kinds of reasons, and consequently, you lose a lot of friends – sometimes not long after you’ve got to know them. The bond develops quickly between people in such circumstances and is very intense. I think it’ll go on affecting me for the rest of my life.

  1. Q. Is the YPG still fighting? Do you think Isis is basically defeated?

A: At the time of writing this, the YPG is closing in on Isis’ last enclave, in the town of Baghouz, Eastern Syria. But the situation is complex, fragile and volatile. The caliphate dream is dead, but thousands of the people, and their toxic ideas, are very much alive and well. Without continued coalition support there could easily be a resurgence, and the region liberated by Kurdish-led forces is extremely vulnerable. Turkey stands ready to invade across the border again, as it did in Afrin last year, and, again, it will use a proxy force of ex-Isis militants as a first wave. Those jihadis, repurposed by Turkey, drove the Kurdish people out of the region, and basically bussed in a separate demographic from other parts of Syria, overnight. They have installed hardline Islamic rule there and gone about the usual Isis practices of murder, looting, abduction and rape. Without international support, the Kurdish-led forces may have to release Isis prisoners, who will then head straight for the Turkish border.  

It looks as though, for now, Trump’s political and military advisors may have talked some sense into him and got him to stall his plan of pulling US troops out of the region. Still, Trump is looking for a way out, and Erdogan is looking for a way in. It’s not a time for hollow celebration.


Q: Do you have any advice for someone thinking about joining the military or fighting in an independent group like YPG?

A: I don’t actively recruit for the YPG, because I don’t want the responsibility. It’s not a regular army and a lot of ex-military find it difficult to adapt. If someone approaches me and it’s clear they’ve made up their mind to go there no matter what, then I’ll tell them what to expect, what to take, etc, how to prepare for their return, assuming they make it back (quite a few don’t). This last is important because anti-terror law is being used against returning volunteers and very recently the law in the UK was updated – perhaps as the state has so far failed to convict any of us.

5/5 Sails


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