Vets Who Want To Fight ISIS Can Learn Something From Old Fights In The African Bush

A modern re-enactor, Stefan Melander, simulates a Rhodesian Light Infantry soldier from 1979, wearing appropriate uniform and carrying appropriate gear.
Photograph taken by Samu Hupli. - Wikimedia Commons

The ongoing conflict between the terrorist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and various other groups within the region have begun to attract veterans from both the United States and its allies. There are now ongoing online recruitment efforts, such as those by the Lions of Rojava, which is actively seeking foreign fighters. Lions of Rojava itself is partly run by a former Army soldier named Jordan Matson, who lives among Kurdish fighters. Many of these foreign volunteers see combating ISIS as simply an extension of the missions they were tasked with in Iraq and Afghanistan. But this isn’t the first time American veterans left their country to fight outside the purview of the military. Decades ago, after the end of the Vietnam War, a few American servicemen found themselves on the battlefields of a tiny former African nation: Rhodesia.

As Vietnamization took hold and American involvement dwindled, many Vietnam veterans found themselves uncertain about what their future held. The American military was at a cultural low point, and the inflation-based economic woes of the late 1970s presented many vets with an unfavorable employment market. But for some men, like John Alan Coey and Ken Gaudet, it went deeper than that. Coey, who was an ardent anti-communist, was set to become a commissioned officer in the Marine Corps when the U.S. began drawing down in Vietnam. Coey viewed the American withdrawal from Vietnam as a betrayal of the United States’ commitment to fight communism. Gaudet, who had served two tours in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, found he missed the military life, and wanted to get back to professional soldiering. Dubbed the “The Crippled Eagles” by author Robin Moore, Coey and Gaudet were among roughly 300 Americans who decided to travel to Rhodesia and fight.

This map shows the 1965-1980 borders of Rhodesia, as well as the operational areas of the Bush War.

A forgotten battleground of the Cold War, Rhodesia was a small nation that had fought communist-backed insurgencies and condemnation for the international community since its Universal Declaration of Independence in 1965. The intensity of the conflict, known as the Rhodesian Bush War, grew in 1975 when settlement talks between the white-minority Rhodesian government and black paramilitary political groups broke down. Portuguese colonial power in Mozambique collapsed that same year; at this point, Rhodesia was essentially surrounded, its only ally being the trepidatious apartheid regime in South Africa.

Rhodesian security forces were extraordinarily effective, but small. In an effort to boost manpower, Rhodesia started recruiting to foreign nationals indirectly, most notably through ads in the infamous “Soldier of Fortune” magazine. For Americans like Coey and Gaudet, the conflict in Rhodesia seemed to be the next front in the fight to contain communism.

Many of the foreign nationals who fought for Rhodesia were characterized as mercenaries, but the military required a three-year minimum term of service, and most were paid the same as any other Rhodesian trooper. They also mainly joined existing units like the Rhodesian Light Infantry, Special Air Service, and the Selous Scouts; there wasn’t a foreign “volunteer” unit that could be characterized as a mercenary force. But while U.S. law did not explicitly prohibit American citizens from fighting in Rhodesia, it was a thorny issue for policymakers. The United States supported the economic sanctions levied against Rhodesia, mindful of supporting a white-minority regime in the era of the Civil Rights Movement. The Rhodesian Bush War ended in 1980; with elections ousting the regime, and the establishment of the nation of Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe. Most of the Americans left soon after; a few, like Ken Gaudet, were folded into South African special operations units. Seven Americans, including John Alan Coey, died in service of the Rhodesian armed forces.

The service of Americans in Rhodesia presented a complicated problem for the United States government's foreign policy. In the case of Rhodesia, the communist-backed organizations the fledgling nation was fighting against often had support from the Soviet Union, in the form of military advisors and material.There was a possibility, however likely or unlikely, of an American fighting under Rhodesia’s flag being captured by groups supported by the Soviets. Such a situation would have put the United States government in a difficult position, both in regards to their policy on Rhodesia, and the Cold War implications of an American found fighting forces supported by Soviets in a war that the U.S had condemned.

Now, all these decades later, the emerging conflict with ISIS has present similar issues with Americans serving in foreign military formations. The main difference here is the U.S. is officially involved in the fight against ISIS with Operation Inherent Resolve, providing air and logistical support for the Iraqi government, as well as establishing  training programs for moderate Syrian opposition groups. But Americans going abroad to fight ISIS in direct combat could complicate things.

Rhodesia, while condemned by the international community, was still the de-facto government; Americans who fought for them were part of an organized national military chain of command. In Iraq and Syria, there are variety of semi-organized groups committed to fighting ISIS, but their status can be questionable; the Kurdistan Workers Party has begun attacks against ISIS fighters, but the group has been listed as a terrorist organization by the United States since 1997, due to Turkey’s place in NATO. Conversely, Iraqi Kurds are considered more legitimate by the United States than their Syrian brethren. Determining who is is a part of what group, or even differentiating between different rebel organizations has been difficult. Eric Harroun, a former Army soldier, was arrested after fighting in Syria for al-Nusra Front, a group classified as a terrorist organization by the State Department. Harroun had intended to fight for the moderate Free Syrian Army, and after getting separated during battle, accidently linked up with al-Nusra Front members.

The shifting allegiances and unclear depositions of many groups make it dicey for anyone looking to fight ISIS as a volunteer. And in the same way as Rhodesia, the question remains: How will the United States respond if an American volunteer is captured fighting for another entity?

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