History, Reference, Research, and GrogTalk > Military (and other) History

Men with guns never starve

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al_infierno:
Awesome story found on Reddit.  Well worth reading to the end.  Everything below was taken from the post and not written by me.

https://www.reddit.com/r/MilitaryStories/comments/otlvxq/men_with_guns_never_starve/

I love that in the military you occasionally pick up life changing pieces of wisdom in very unlikely places, from very unlikely people. One of the toughest men I’ve ever met in my life was an Iraqi militia leader named Yonis in the village of Multaka in the northern edge of Hawija district. At the start of my first deployment, he passed on two lessons to me that are forever carved in my heart. One he deliberately taught me as an older warrior to a younger. The other was accidental, from the heart of a man that had seen much war and little peace in his time, and yet was content with life he had lived. One of those lessons I firmly believe, and that knowledge has served me well on each subsequent deployment. The other, I’m not so sure of these days, but it’s a dual source of comfort and terror, depending on my frame of mind.

Yonis had been an intelligence officer in the Iraqi Army and had served in the first and second Iraq wars. His younger brother, Abu Sayef, was the head of the largest organized crime family/group in the AO. To hear them tell the family story, Yonis had been covering for his brother for years, who made a living selling black market oil, tapped from the Kirkuk to Baji oil pipeline and smuggling embargoed oil and whatever else was profitable in and out of Turkey. When the US invaded, Abu Sayef was in prison as a common criminal and the US military liberated him, under the false assumption (that Abu did not dissuade them of) that he had been a political prisoner. Once the Coalition Forces released him, he went back to doing what he did best, smuggling, and organized crime. Yonis, “liberated” from his duties as an Iraqi officer for an Army that no longer existed, took up the position as war chief and enforcer for the crime family.

For the early 2000s, neither of them harbored any particular dislike for US forces in the region, but they did occasionally clash, as the Sayef brothers didn’t really conduct background checks on who and what they smuggled. Despite being Sunni Arabs with ties to the former Baathist government, they were ambivalent about the insurgency. Unfortunately for them, Coalition Forces were big on law and order and didn’t really like the idea of a private militia/crime family operating in the AO, with financial ties to all sorts of insurgent organizations. “Ideologically Agnostic” was how the intelligence folks described the brothers, they didn’t really care who employed their services, so long as they got paid. And because of their capitalistic and entrepreneurial spirit that would make Ayn Rand proud, they found themselves on the US military kill or capture list.

But then a funny thing happened around 2007, the Sunni tribes of Western and Central Iraq decided that they were thoroughly sick of foreign insurgents ruining their country. The “Anbar Sunni Awakening” spread through Iraq in the fall of 2007, and suddenly tens of thousands of would-be and fair-weather Sunni insurgents changed sides, seemingly overnight. I arrived in Iraq at the start of 2008, and it was mind boggling how quickly the level of attacks on Coalition forces dropped after a few months. Entire terrorist networks made of disbanded Iraqi Army personnel voluntarily turned themselves in, pledged loyalty to the Iraqi government, and started assisting in hunting down the remaining holdouts….so long as the US cash payments kept coming.

The US used other forms of soft power to leverage Sunni Arab militia leaders into cooperating with the US and National Iraqi forces. One of them was infrastructure projects, all funded by Iraqi oil money that the Iraqi government literally could not spend fast enough. The Iraqi government literally handed over billions of dollars of their own oil revenue to the US State Department and Department of Defense to spend in Iraq on infrastructure projects. Which is how I (at the tender age of 22) ended up driving around Iraq, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in Iraqi oil money, looking for infrastructure projects to leverage hostile militia leaders to work with their own government. I have never had such a high level of job satisfaction in my entire life, and I likely never will again.

This mission is how I was introduced to the Sayef crime family, and how I spent almost every Monday eating lunch at their compound, discussing and planning infrastructure projects. My fellow graduates of the class of 2004 were doing their last keg-stands, polishing their resumes for the shaky 2008 job market, while I was paving roads, building clinics and schools with my favorite Iraqi warlords/mafia dons. They thought it was hilarious that someone with my low rank, inexperience and youth was allowed to make project recommendations and conduct limited diplomacy on behalf of the US military. Ultimately, all my “Suggestions” were reviewed at multiple layers up the chain of command, but it was extremely rare for a project or initiative of mine to get turned down.

In the meetings Abu Sayef usually wore a finely tailored business suit, gold watch, and carried himself with the air of businessman or politician. All smiles, handshakes, and the culturally famed Iraqi hospitality and generosity at his dining room table. Yonis usually wore camouflage fatigues, carried a loaded pistol everywhere, and usually juggled a few radios and cell phones coordinating his militia as we ate and discussed projects. Yonis had one other unusual trait for an Iraqi, that led to my first inadvertent lesson. A tattoo of Arabic script over an Islamic crescent on the inside of his right forearm, a quote that I still carry engraved on an extra dog-tag with me to this day for luck.

I asked him what the tattoo said, and he smiled and simply answered “Paradise Awaits”. I remember smiling back and feeling an odd mix of awe and fear. Awe; because my faith in a just and loving God was eroding day by day, like an ice cream cone in an Iraqi summer. Fear because the whole ride back to base I puzzled over in my head this thought “How do you fight a man who thinks his ticket to Paradise is coming out of the muzzle of your rifle”. Yonis didn’t strike me as even being that religious, but his smile and gaze convinced me of the sincerity of his convictions. No matter what Yonis did in this life, and believe me Yonis did a lot of very, very dark things, he was 100% convinced that paradise was waiting for him. At the time I wondered if I would ever face my own mortality and stand before the God I then believed in, with that same absolute certainty.

I believed the brothers were genuinely enthusiastic about helping the Coalition and their new very Shia Iraqi government, for reasons that transcended the financial. Of course, we were making them rich, but we were also lending an air of legitimacy to them and their clan. They were frequent visitors to the FOB and had friendly relationships with many Soldiers in the garrison. They provided us with commercial grade fireworks on the 4th of July, celebrated Eid at the end of Ramadan, and even attended our KIA ceremonies with genuine concern and sorrow. Abu Sayef had even floated the idea of running for office on a national level in a few years once the business and war had settled down. Had he not been cruelly maimed by a car bomb that summer, he might have gone places.

So effective they were at capturing (and occasionally extra-judicially murdering) insurgents in our AO, the Sayef family became the target of a short series of bombings and assassination attempts that culminated in Abu Sayef being nearly killed by a car bomb late that summer, losing an eye and arm in the attack. In an extraordinary example of his perceived value to the US Forces he was medically evacuated to Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany. I’ve never seen that done before or since for a local, let alone an un-elected militia leader/criminal/mafia don. In the chaotic days after the bombing, we were worried that it might shake the resolve of the remaining members of the Sayef clan, and that our fragile peace might unravel, but we were wrong. The insurgents took the wrong man out of the fight, if they were smart, they would have targeted Yonis, because his revenge was the stuff of nightmares.

In the next few weeks dismembered bodies began turning up all over the northern part of our AO, and when they were able to be identified (a difficult task between the desert heat and deliberate mutilations) they often had ties to the different insurgent networks operating in our province. Some had no ties to any organization that our analysts could find, but we suspected Yonis was behind most of it. As a recipient of quite a few American tax dollars, Yonis REALLY shouldn’t have been running a death squad, and at our next Monday lunch, I thought of how we were going to discuss this. Being still very young and junior, I wasn’t tasked with bringing Yonis and his vendetta to an end, but as one of the guys that controlled the project money, I was ordered to go along as leverage to convince him to stop (allegedly) killing people.

I remember the hour-long drive from the FOB to his fortified compound that was more of a FOB than a clan home. I remember as we got closer to his village, we began running into militia checkpoints that became progressively more heavily armed as we traveled north. I remember hearing nervous voices on the radio “I didn’t think we allowed the militias to have RPGs?” “Nope, we don’t”, “That guy has a recoilless rifle, I thought those were all turned in during the peace talks in the spring?” “Yeah, well that one didn’t get turned in”. It was a show of force, meant to inspire confidence that his loyalty hadn’t swayed, and carried a not-so-subtle threat; he had almost an entire battalion worth of heavily armed, equipped and very angry men, and they had no intention of backing down in the mission to avenge their tribal chief.

Yonis greeted us inside the walled compound without his usual smiles and laughter. We headed to his office and without the usual preamble of greetings, banter and refreshments, Yonis asked for more money, more weapons, bounties paid for the (literal) heads of the men he had killed and the right to enlist his militiamen into the Iraqi National Police to give them legitimacy, but to still retain them under his command. My superiors and I tried to explain to him that while we could pay for more militia to be enrolled under his command, we couldn’t provide weapons, or the cover of legality for him to wage his vendetta. Yonis accepted the money, and shrugged away the rest, and vowed that he would continue to wage his own private war without us.

We then pleaded with him to end his revenge, explaining that we would stop funding his militia if extra-judicially mutilated bodies kept getting dumped on the sides of Main Supply Routes for American patrols to find. He smiled a humorless smile and said he had no idea what we were talking about. I remember patiently explaining that as American Soldiers, we were bound by international law to report war crimes, and that we couldn’t allow this continue. Yonis laughed at my explanations of “International Law” telling me no such thing existed in Northern Iraq in the summer of 2008 and invited any policeman or soldier, American or Iraqi to try to kill or capture him. He repeated the quote from his tattoo, “Paradise Awaits”. The meeting ended shortly after and we returned to FOB McHenry, wondering if things would change.

To the surprise of everyone, the bodies stopped showing up. The militia checkpoints didn’t go away, but the heavy (illegal) weapons returned to whatever dusty caves they had been stored in. After a few weeks, Yonis even somewhat returned to his semi-hospitable self. And while though his mouth would often smile, by his eyes rarely did. My reconstruction projects continued, albeit with more Iraqi militia providing security at the sites, and Yonis, myself and the officers from the infantry battalion resumed our Monday luncheons. The meetings had a more somber feel, without the easy hospitality of his younger brother, but they seemed to take on a new sense of urgency, as Yonis was seeking to consolidate power as the insurgency crumbled and peace was gradually (though for not long) restored.

It was at one of these more peaceful meetings towards the end of my deployment he passed on his second lesson to me. I had mentioned that I would be leaving in a few months, and he would have a new American Soldier taking over supervision of the reconstruction projects. He expressed that he would be sad to see me leave and asked me what I would do next when I returned to the US. I told him that since I was a Reservist, I was going to go back to college, to continue with my university studies in International Relations and Political Science. I also told him that I was thoroughly sick of war, and I had promised myself to leave the Army forever.

I returned his question and asked him what he was going to do, not after I left, but after the war was over. I joked that he would have to find a real job in the peace, since the new Shia dominated Iraqi Army would never hire a Sunni former Republican Guard intelligence officer, with ties to organized crime and a private militia. He smiled at me, smoking a cigarette, and told me he didn’t know what he was going to do. I asked him why he didn’t seem worried about not having a place in the new Army, or government, or socio-political structure. Yonis looked me in the eye and said in Arabic through my translator “Men with guns never starve”.

I remember leaning back into the couch and taking a drag of my own cigarette while I thought it over. Yonis might have had a plan, he might not, or maybe he wasn’t keen on sharing it with a 22-year-old American Soldier. He could try to pick up his brothers plan of going legitimate and being a regional politician. He could try to get back into the Army. He could try to go back to tapping the pipeline and smuggling. Ultimately none of it mattered, he was going to be fine, he had a private militia of hundreds of men in a country where even in peace, hundreds of armed men at your beck-and-call was a great ace up your sleeve. In short, Yonis Sayef was going to survive, because Yonis Sayef was a survivor, and while men with guns very often get shot, they never starve. Because of men with guns, other people starve.

I was only half correct in the future I had described to Yonis on our Monday lunch in the fall of 2008. I did return to my university studies, and I did eventually graduate, though it took until the spring of 2014. My collegiate career was repeatedly stalled because of the failure of my second prediction, as I did not in fact leave the Army. In May of 2014 when I finally received my diploma in the mail, I was on my 3rd deployment, this time in the Horn of Africa. The television in the dining hall was showing the news of ISIL overrunning most of northern Iraq, culminating most famously the fall of Mosul.

Less international coverage was paid to the smaller cities that ISIL overran that spring summer and fall, but one of my former translators would send me the regional coverage. It was sickening to watch the ISIL terrorists kill and maim some of the local leaders I had worked so hard with, in the cities of Hawija and Riyadh. Though, the area being a hotbed of Sunni insurgency earlier in my war may have made for an easy conquest, as many of the locals were initially sympathetic to an organization that was attacking the Shia Iraqi government. Those good feelings didn’t last long, and the last message I ever received from my former translator in Hawija was “Goodbye my friend, they are killing anyone with a satellite dish”. That was 7 years ago, and I haven’t heard from him since. We were a few months away from completing his immigration paperwork for him and his family to come to America.

I spent a lot of time that summer wondering about my old friend Yonis and what he was doing. Did he and his Sunni militia throw in with ISIL? Probably not, he never struck me as the religious type, and enjoyed his illicit whiskey and cigarettes too much to fake it, and while the philosophy of his tattoo would have pleased them, the actual tattoo would not have. Did he side with the Shia dominated Iraqi government that obviously hated him and his kind? Probably not, I never saw him taking orders from anyone that wasn’t in The Family. Or did he make the same pragmatic deal with the Shias and his Kurdish neighbors that he made with us, the enemy of my enemy is my friend…. until there are no more enemies. Is he still alive or long dead? If he died, then who pulled the trigger and why?

As I said, I broke my promise to leave the Army. I deployed 4 more times, 3 of them to conflict zones; Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa. I was there for the fighting season of 2011 in Kandahar. In 2013 and again in 2017 delivered aid to Djiboutian refugee camps to Somalis displaced by their 30-year, never-ending civil war. During the winter of 2018 in eastern Ethiopia, I surveyed aging humanitarian aid projects that USAID initiated to the combat their famine, some had been initiated in the year of my birth. I talked to farmers whose plows still dredge up withered femurs and skulls. On my European deployment I saw the fingernail marks in walls of the gas chambers of Birkenau, pressed my head against the cool concrete on a slab of the Berlin Wall, and ran my fingers through the shell pocked craters of the old city walls in Dubrovnik.

Much of my 20s and 30s was spent in conflict zones, participating in, or cataloging and attempting to mitigate the misery, misfortune, and deaths of others. Sometimes I think of all the death I have seen and reflect on the promise of the tattoo on one of the most violent men I’ve ever met. If Yonis Sayef believed Paradise waited for him, what of all the others? I like to believe that if whatever higher power allows Yoni’s entry, then surely, they would allow the poor bombed children in the Arghandab River Valley, and the walking human skeletons in the Horn of Africa entry as well. Generations butchered and damned in Eastern Europe for their surname, shape of their skull, religion, or political beliefs. I would very much like to think Paradise Awaits for them, the innocent and their killers. But my Faith has Lapsed…. much like the Pacifism I once had.

All of my travels and deployments have much eroded my belief in the first lesson; Paradise Awaits. I’d like to believe that, but I’m not sure. Those same travels and deployments to some of the most barbarous places in the world, populated by some of the cruelest of men, have done nothing but reinforce my belief in his second lesson. It is carved into my soul with a diamond tipped bullet. Because in our world, paradise will have to keep waiting. In our world it is men who rule, and many live by that lesson that is as old as war itself; Men with guns never starve.

steve58:
Interesting read.  Thx.

Jarhead0331:
Hardly a novel concept though. It reminds me of Mao’s quote from 1927…power grows through the barrel of a gun. Before there were guns, it was swords and spears. This is how it was, is and will probably always be.

al_infierno:
The McCarthy quote in my signature touches the same sentiment.  I just thought it was a cool story overall.

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