The Kurds currently under attack by Turkish forces “didn’t help us in the second world war, they didn’t help us with Normandy as an example,” said US president Donald Trump this week. “They mention the names of different battles, they weren’t there.”
The “they” doing the mentioning is a conservative writer called Kurt Schlichter.
Schlichter is a former stand up comic and a retired US Army infantry officer. As a graduate of the United States Army War College (he holds a masters in Strategic Studies), he is certainly a reputable source on the subject of military history. As Schlichter put it in the article President Trump cited, “the Kurds didn’t show up for us at Normandy or Inchon or Khe Sanh or Kandahar.”
In the president’s retelling of Schlichter’s story, he mentioned only Normandy, possibly because he wasn’t familiar with the other three battles.
Inchon refers to the landing of US and allied forces in September 1950 at the height of the Korean war. The allied forces at Inchon consisted of the South Koreans, Canadians, British and French, fighting under the United Nations flag. There were no Kurdish forces fighting on either side, which makes sense as Kurdistan was not then, or ever in recent years, an independent country.
Khe Sanh was the scene of a famous battle in 1968 involving US marines and other forces who were surrounded by Vietnamese Communist troops. Facing the possibility of defeat – with its echoes of the French disaster at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 – the Americans managed to hold out. Their only allies in the battle were South Vietnamese troops, assisted by some soldiers from nearby Laos. No Kurds were anywhere in sight.
Finally and most recently was the battle of Kandahar in Afghanistan, which took place in November 2001 towards the end of the American-led intervention which toppled the Taliban from power. Here again, the main American allies were local people, Afghans, who bore the brunt of the fighting. By this point the Kurds had achieved a kind of regional autonomy in Iraq, and arguably their armed forces, the Peshmerga, were available to join the Afghans in ridding their country of the Taliban. But the Kurds were probably too busy defending themselves against the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein to do so.
But of all these battles, the best known and the one that really seemed to rankle the president was Normandy. The D-Day landings on the beaches of Nazi-occuped France were really a coalition effort involving the United States and key allies, with Canada and Britain playing major roles, together with Australians and New Zealanders, supported by units from a number of countries then occupied by the Germans. These included Free French, Poles, Czechs and Norwegians. And once again, as both Kurt Schlichter and Donald Trump pointed out, there were no Kurds anywhere in sight.
If we try to unpick President Trump’s argument, it seems to boil down to this: the Kurds fought against ISIS, and today are fighting against Turkey, not because they want to help the United States but because they are defending their homes.
As Schlichter put it in his original article, “the Syrian Kurds allied with us in their homeland because we shared a common interest in wiping out the head-lopping freak show that was ISIS.”
So, not genuine allies, then. Not people the United States should feel any obligation toward.
Contrast this with the battles Schlichter mentioned, in some of which the US had allies in the field, laying down their lives side by side with the Americans. Leaving aside Normandy at the moment, the most prominent examples of these are the Afghans in Kandahar, the South Koreans at Inchon, and the South Vietnamese at Khe Sanh. And I think it can reasonably be argued that those people were willing to risk their lives to fight on the American side precisely because they “shared a common interest” with the US – just as the Kurds did. There is no difference.
Similarly, the British, French and others who fought and died side by side with the Americans on the beaches of Normandy did so not because they were keen to help the United States, but because they were desperate to liberate Europe from the Nazi nightmare. Their countries had all been victims of German aggression.
Actually, the historical examples of Normany, Inchon, Khe Sanh and Kandahar have little to do with the fight currently taking place between the Kurds of North Syria and the Turkish forces.
A far better episode from 20th century history, one with clear lessons for today, is the 1943 battle of Stalingrad, which is widely seen as the turning point in the Second World War. Stalingrad came under German attack at a time when a Nazi victory in the war seemed almost inevitable. The German invasion of the Soviet Union was at first a tremendous success story. Thousands of square miles of Soviet territory rapidly fell into German hands. Millions of Soviet soldiers died or surrendered to the advancing forces of the Wehrmacht.
All that stood between the Germans and the capture of the strategically vital oilfields of Baku was the city of Stalingrad, which Hitler was determined to capture first. And it was there, in Stalingrad, that the German war machine ground to a halt.
The Kurds of northern Syria had their own Stalingrad five years ago. Advancing ISIS forces had seized much of Iraq and large chunks of Syria. The Kurdish town of Kobane was about to fall to the unstoppable Islamist fanatics. And then President Obama ordered the American military, together with it allies, to carry out air drops of arms, ammunition and medical supplies to the besieged Kurds.
Their victory over ISIS in the following days and weeks marked the beginning of the end for the “Caliphate”. Kobane had turned into the Stalingrad of this war.
Today, facing the far stronger Turkish army, and with no allies around to support the Kurdish fighters, it seems unlikely that they can repeat their success from 2014.
Instead, it seems that the Turkish forces will probably succeed in subduing them, at an enormous cost of human lives, including children.
Of all the many bad things President Trump has done, this may turn out to the be the worst by far, certainly in terms of loss of life.
And no blathering about Normandy can justify his giving a green light to Turkey carry out this criminal war.