The Kurds as U.S. Sacrificial Lambs

Photograph Source: Kurdishstruggle – Kurdish YPG Fighters – CC BY 2.0

In my military-brat childhood I often attended services at chapels on air force bases. The chaplains were of course obliged to reconcile Christianity with the congregants’ vocation. We would sometimes sing the Air Force hymn (“Lord, Guard and Guide the Men Who Fly”); hear how Jesus came not to bring peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34); and in honoring the war dead, often hear John 15:13 quoted (entirely out of context): “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

Thus death in battle in imperialist wars was compared to the sacrifice of Jesus of the cross! As I became aware of the magnitude of the moral crime of the Vietnam War my adolescent mind rebelled at this religious prettification of U.S. battlefield deaths. The comparison of soldiers fighting Vietcong to the Paschal Lamb disgusted me.

The boys who died in Vietnam did not die for their friends, much less “their” country. They died for capitalism, capitalist imperialism, Wall Street, the One Percent. Nothing to do with your neighborhood or its security.

Of course soldiers at war bond with their comrades-in-arms. Sometimes they perform acts of heroism to save their mates. In that sense they die heroically. That goes for Nazi soldiers, Soviet soldiers, U.S. soldiers, Iraqi soldiers, all soldiers. A U.S. soldier’s death is no worse than anyone else’s. Indeed often U.S. soldiers are killed justly by people defending their countries. (Can one still pronounce that obvious truth in this country?)

But how good the imperialists are at playing the heart-strings! If they can get people teary-eyed at the memory of that scumbag warmonger John McCain, they can surely stimulate tears of rage over the “abandoned Kurds.”

How often have we heard in the last few days—from countless retired military officers and intelligence officials, security analysts, think tank talking heads—that the Kurds in Syria “died for us”? You know, sort of like Jesus on the cross?

As though in fighting ISIL—a grotesque by-product of the criminal U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003—the Syrian Kurds were doing anything other than protecting their homeland?

As though in killing the killers of their children they were killing for Uncle Sam? What sort of solipsistic arrogance generates this bullshit?

As though it took the butchers of Fallujah to mobilize the Kurds against a movement that commits genocide, enslaves people, subjects non-Muslim women to mass-rape, burns or buries people alive, beheads and crucifies, executes children, obliterates ancient monuments precious to humankind, imposes religious idiocy, and despises the Kurds as Kurds!

As though the Syrian Arab Army, the professional, loyal, mostly Sunni army was NOT fighting ISIL, thus leaving it to the U.S. to do the needed job. (Yes the U.S. press sometimes intimates that Assad was somehow supportive of ISIL. The fact is, his forces were focused on containing the al-Nusra-aligned forces around major cities like Aleppo before turning their attention to the northeast.)

As though the Russians, Iranians, Lebanese (Hizbollah), Iraqis (Shiite militias)—all in Syria legally, per the request of the internationally recognized government—were NOT fighting ISIL. (The United Nations recognizes the present government in Syria as legitimate. So do the world’s leading independent nations such as China, Russia, India, and South Africa. The U.S. announced in 2011 that Assad’s regime was illegitimate. U.S. close allies stupidly echoed that opinion and have worked to undermine Assad. But they have failed.)

In the U.S. media, Syria is a battleground on which the U.S. stood with the Kurds against ISIL, cementing beautiful sentimental ties with a capable force that really likes us! (How unusual that is in this world, where most people hate “us” for good reasons because of “our” unbroken record of savage violence from Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya?) The question of why ISIL was in Syria in the first place is never discussed. Why local people couldn’t handle the problem and needed U.S. involvement is never discussed.

Why there is a historical antagonism between Kurds and the Turkish state—that’s just too hard for the average TV talking head to figure out. Why should the U.S. want regime change in Syria, when the government is secular, staunchly opposed to al-Qaeda and other Islamist terror groups, and maintained stability in a multi-ethnic, multicultural society for decades?

Forget all the troubling questions. Trump has betrayed the Kurds! Trump is the Judas who sold out Christ! (Pat Robertson—mixing Christ with Confucius—warns that Trump may lose “the Mandate of Heaven” over this issue. Gosh. Jesus’ chosen one is now abandoned by Jesus, and not because he abused immigrant children at the border—see Luke 17:2; but because he withdrew military forces from a place they never belonged.)

Donald Trump finally did the unthinkable, worse even than trading arms for political dirt in Ukraine. He’s abruptly made an about-face on two decades of U.S. reckless intervention in the Middle East. He has noted, in his crude clueless way, that the U.S. hasn’t known what it was doing in the area, wasted a lot of money, losing 4000 soldiers in Iraq without even taking the oil. (Recall his inaugural talk to the CIA in January 2017, in which he declared “We should have kept the oil, but that’s OK, maybe we’ll have another chance…”) He has intimated that he’s now happy to let other people finish off ISIL. (He claims on the one hand that the U.S. has defeated ISIL, as it were, unilaterally under his unparalleled leadership. But he acknowledges that there may still be mopping up to do, and leaves it to the Russians and Iranians.)

This is good. Withdrawal from illegal participation in a conflict is good. Backing off from the broader regional regime-change project championed not only by the neocons by Hillary Clinton’s “liberal interventionist” State Department is good. U.S. forces have nothing good to contribute to the resolution of the conflicts in the area.

Russia and Iran, which want a unified Syrian state, and Iranians the Iraqis, who fear Kurdish nationalism, urge the Syrian Kurds to accept the Syrian state’s offer of limited autonomy. No one except maybe some confused Special Forces moved by their own experiences imagines that the Kurds can actually establish a separate state in the face of Turkey’s opposition and of course the ongoing opposition of the Syrian state backed by Iran with its own Kurdish nationalist issue.

Lest Assad’s refusal to allow Kurdish independence strike any (stupid) person as shocking, ask them how shocking it is that Madrid opposes Barcelona’s succession, London opposes an independent Scotland, Rome opposes an independent Lombardy. If they look at you blankly remind them that the U.S. has no business messing around in the Middle East. The Afghan War has not been about 9/11 but about counterinsurgency doomed to failure. The Iraq War based on lies produced only more terrorism, notably ISIL, the common enemy of Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Russia (and fought by all, while the U.S. somehow demands leadership in the struggle of the evil it originally generated). The Iraqi parliament demands U.S. forces leave, while the U.S. demands Iraq disband its Iranian-trained militias so vital to the anti-ISIL fight. Meanwhile the Iraqi government (contra Washington) supports Assad and has entered an intelligence-sharing arrangement with Russia.

The U.S. failed in Syria, first to topple the government, which it had so hubristically pronounced illegitimate, then to lead in the defeat of ISIL, using the Kurdish area as a base for ongoing destabilization efforts. As it is, Syrian Arab Army advances have greatly strengthened the regime even as the YPG consolidated control over Rojava. Kurdish gains have produced a Turkish invasion to displace them and replace them with Arab refugees from Turkey. Ethnic cleansing is now in progress, as Trump announces that the Kurds are “very happy” with whatever deal he’s concluded with Tayyip Erdogan.

Was not some form of this outcome inevitable? Would the U.S. have ever crossed NATO ally Turkey over the issue of Kurdish nationalism? When the U.S. added the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to its terror list over 20 years ago it embraced the Turkish state’s hostility to the Kurdish national cause. (It just apparently forgot that, in looking around feverishly for friends in Syria in 2014—anyone at all to help kill the ISIL Frankenstein that the Iraqi occupation had created!) The recent plan had been to destroy ISIL, then work with the Kurds to bring down Assad, coordinating strategy towards that end with Turkey. And then, with the establishment of a U.S. puppet regime, the U.S. would broker some sort of Kurdish autonomy arrangement suitable to all parties.

A pipe dream. Hillary Clinton might have pursued it. Trump just wants out of the Mideast. He’s content to watch the inferior peoples in their shithole countries with their age-old rivalries no one understands fight it out like schoolboys in the schoolyard. If that means the displacement and slaughter of Kurds, it’s not “our” problem. And the Kurds, Trump tells us, “are no angels.” He told a Congressional delegation to the White House that they were communists. Surely he thinks there are very good people on both sides.

Just as in my youth I felt disgusted by the deployment of maudlin religiosity to beatify one immoral war, I feel disgusted in old age by the ostentatious public manifestations of grief for the sacrificed Kurds. Poison drips from those crocodile tears. What would the mourners have? A U.S.-Turkish war in Idlib province? The fact is, they don’t know anything about Kurds, or Kurdistan, or the complex historical interactions between Kurds, Arabs, Persians and Turks.

All they know is that there was a moment in time when some people in the Middle East (other than Israelis) genuinely, enthusiastically, embraced their imperialist benefactors, and was willing to work “with us” to get something done. And so deep is their appreciation of that rare affection, they shed tears of rage when it’s requited by abrupt withdrawal. How dare Trump—that Putin puppet, that Erdogan puppet, that permanent friend of the murdering Saudi crown prince, that bully of Ukraine—once again do the Enemy’s bidding and betray OUR ALLIES?

And thus cause other allies to wonder if the U.S.’s word is good? Horrors! In betraying the Kurds Trump is betraying the whole imperialist program for the region.

The Kurds are like Isaac under his father Abraham’s knife, on the woodpile on Mt. Moriah, prepared for burnt sacrifice in lieu of an animal. Like Jesus, the Lamb of God, he is a symbol of God’s judgment but also his mercy. The entire power structure in this country is now trashing Trump for lacking mercy and betraying the paschal lambs. But one doubts whether all their expressions of anger and shame will advance the just cause of Kurdish statehood or taint it with the worst associations.

Trump is now echoing fellow strongman Erdogan and associating the sacred Kurds with the worst U.S. bugaboo. He of boundless wisdom explains: “The PKK, which is a part [sic] of the Kurds as you know [sic], is probably worse at terror and more of a terrorist threat in many ways than ISIS… So it’s a very semi-complicated, not too complicated if you’re smart, but a semi-complicated problem.” He has also accused the Kurdish peshmergas of being communists, assuming there’s something damning about that.

In other words, the lamb was not unblemished, as is required in appropriate sacrifice (Exodus 12:5). Not sacrificed but discarded, or maybe eaten. This is the ruling of today’s Solomon, who has actually boasted of his “great and unmatched wisdom” on the Syrian issue. Let Turkey occupy much of Syrian Kurdistan, ethnically cleanse it, settle Arabs there. Accept an inevitable rapprochement between the Kurdish separatists and Damascus, brokered by Tehran and Moscow. Accept the ongoing reality of an independent secular Syria that continues to resist Israel, which occupies 700 square miles of its territory. Realize America can’t realize the neocons’ dreams.

Accept the accusation that you have blood on your hands when the Turks start committing genocide. Because you do! The problem is you’re not God, able to crucify and resurrect at will. The United States under Trump or anyone lacks the moral authority to recruit willing martyrs to its tainted, exposed, defiled self. The peshmerga, angered and hurt but maybe not surprised, have deftly accepted the proffer of Damascus’ help as they try to adjust their dreams to concrete material conditions with no prospect of miraculous salvation.

To the extent that they are communists (and I hope they are) may they recall the words of the Internationale: “We want no condescending saviors…” Saviors are always mythological.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: