January 3, 2022

American Orphans In The Wasteland

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by Andrew Doran, Senior Research Fellow

Amid cruel nature and primitive violence, the American sense of liberty took form, second sons forged new destinies or perished, fallen men were made anew.

We strode through the rubble of West Raqqa, a section of the city recently wrested from ISIS that July of 2017. Rifle shots echoed through the streets. The shots were not, I thought, directed at us, half a dozen Americans, Syriac Christians, and Kurds, but we moved nonetheless toward the exchange of fire, toward a building held by Kurds from Qamishli, the frontline against ISIS. To reach it, we would have to sprint over an open area of street perhaps a hundred yards across. Before we got there, I slowed to take a photo. An American fighting with a Christian militia saw me slow and yelled, “It’s usually the last guy who gets hit.”

As we reached the street, I caught up to the others and we sprinted to the building, closer to ISIS yet somehow safer. We climbed the stairs toward the roof, part of which had been blown open by explosions days before, and from there watched the sunset amid sniper exchanges that grew infrequent in the gathering night. The young men interlocked arms at the shoulder and smiled for photos, delighted in one another’s company, delighted to cheat death another day.

It seemed that every man-made thing in Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates—the cradle of civilization—was a wasteland. Only the desert lay untouched. By its barren roads one came to Raqqa, the heart of what remained of the Islamic State, a site of torture, crucifixions, and worse. Raqqa had been a desert frontier city in antiquity; then a crossroads of Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Persian empires; then the capital of the Caliph Harun al-Rushid, and lately of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. That caliphate was slowly losing ground in bloody assaults by a makeshift army of unbelievers.