That’s what Michigan resident Caleb Stevens did in 2017.
The now 23-year-old, who spent two years at West Point, decided to join a Kurdish militia allied with the U.S. that was fighting ISIS in Syria. Yes, that ISIS. The one that beheads, burns, rapes, otherwise tortures, and kills people, and that once controlled large swathes of Iraq and Syria. ISIS should be the new synonym for evil in the English language. Although it is just the latest version of “man’s inhumanity to man.”
More than 400,000 people (many of them civilians, including children) have died in the Syrian conflict since 2011, according to the World Bank. 400,000 people roughly equals the population of Sacramento, California; Kansas City, Missouri; Miami, Florida; or Minneapolis, Minnesota.
What Stevens did was dangerous and a bit foolhardy, but also inspiring. His West Point military training might have given him an advantage, but he also was lucky. Many Westerners who choose to go to Syria or Iraq to offer humanitarian assistance, provide important reportage to Americans back home, or fight against ISIS come back in body bags or don’t come home at all. Being a student of the Middle East, I’m sure Stevens knew the dangers before he left America, but he still went because he saw something that was wrong and tried to fix it. He told WGN-TV, “Before I went to Syria, I was thinking a lot about human dignity. I feel like people [there] don’t have the opportunities to live the good lives that they want to live.”
Stevens has been interested in social justice since he was a little boy. This early interest fueled his desire to join one of the Syrian militias fighting ISIS. “I wish more people would put more on the line for the cause of human dignity,” he told the Chicago Tribune recently. “Not just having something to live for but having something you’re willing to die for.”
In January, Stevens was shot in the leg during a battle. According to the Chicago Tribune, the gunshot “fractured a bone, damaged nerves, and tore his Achilles tendon.” With the help of the U.S. Army, Stevens’ eventually returned to America.
Stevens is in his twenties, and, after watching him in interviews, it’s clear that he has that 20-something burning idealism and “nothing can hurt me” energy that is a fuel for what is often one of the most interesting and rewarding decades of our lives. Being almost 50, I am still idealistic (if not more realistic about what can be done in this complicated, often troubling world), but certainly aware that our lives become increasingly fragile as each year passes.
Would I go to Syria to fight ISIS? The answer is no, given that I have a wife and young child (unlike Stevens). I am no longer in my 20s or 30s—a time when life seemed infinite and every dream was possible, and my body didn’t hurt when I woke up. And I have no military training and last shot a gun more than 35 years ago when I was in Boy Scouts.
Stevens has been called a kook (mostly by Internet trolls and armchair quarterbacks) or a reckless adventurist. But people need to remember that Americans with a conscience have been heading overseas for years to fight for a cause that they believed in. For example, in the late 1930s, thousands of Americans fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Twenty percent of these volunteers died in combat.
I see Stevens not as a kook, but as a thoughtful, intelligent adult who decided to follow his beliefs to make the world a better place. As far as I understand from media accounts, he put only himself in danger. It’s easy to feel that a single human being is incapable of stopping the waves of evil that constantly sweep the world, but Stevens didn’t listen to that chorus.
The lesson we need to take from this story is that anyone can make a difference, and that each one of us (including myself) needs to move beyond the basics (“thoughts and prayers,” donations to charity, Facebook posts, etc.) to make the world a better place. We need to do something extraordinary—or at least try. One example are the Parkland high school gun control advocates who, through fierce advocacy in the three weeks since the massacre, have shamed the Florida legislature into passing stricter gun control laws. The law is not perfect, and it arms some school workers, but it’s better than the lax laws that existed before the shooting. Keep it up, kids! We need to follow Stevens’ and their lead to both passively (charitable donations, etc.) and aggressively—but respectfully—work to make the world a better place. We need to run for office, advocate for a favorite cause, march in protests (I went to my first last year), think outside the box to propose solutions for hard problems, volunteer, economically penalize companies that support ideas and organizations that do not share our values, and do other things that take us outside our comfort zone.
Like Stevens, we also need to become more engaged with the world. I like that Stevens decided to educate himself about the Middle East and think about life from a global viewpoint, not just an American one. Americans make up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet, sometimes I feel as if we believe that this percentage is reversed. If the words/phrases Peshmerga, Sunni, Shia, Kurd, Hezbollah, 1948 Arab–Israeli War, Alawite, Free Syrian Army, Golan Heights, barrel bombs, and the Sykes-Picot Agreement are foreign, or a little hazy to you, you should look them up and learn why America has such a strong presence in the Middle East. We owe it to our soldiers serving there and to the people who are suffering under repressive governments and ideologies in the Middle East to learn the key players and issues so that we can seek to influence U.S. policy through public advocacy and interactions with our leaders.
As Americans, we should be proud of the good aspects of our country, but we also need to think about others beyond our borders. Borders can be both physical and mental.
A call to action is just a call until we do something. Unfortunately, it took another massacre at a high school to make something happen. But look at what a group of outraged teens did in Florida, and what Stevens did as one person. Every action causes a reaction no matter how small it may seem at first.
Copyright Andrew Morkes (text, except Chicago Tribune quote); photo provided by Stevens to the Chicago Tribune
Click here to watch a WGN-TV interview with Caleb Stevens.
Click here to read the Chicago Tribune story about Stevens.
Nature in Chicagoland regular readers: I promise to get back to writing about nature in my next blog post. The weather is improving in Chicagoland, spring flowers are stirring beneath the ground, migratory birds are heading back north, and it will be warm and green in no time.