There is a famous phrase in publishing: “The first duty of any publisher to their authors is to remain solvent”. With many major publishing houses only making around 10% profits a year, it is unsurprising that successful sub-genres are often latched on to and pushed hard, particularly in non-fiction. The result of a really successful book can mean a proliferation of similar titles, often rushed to press to capitalise on fleeting public interest.
This formulaic approach to non-fiction means that a quick browse of the military history section in a book shop and you could be forgiven for thinking that an Army is solely comprised of special forces and snipers. Yet for every #1 New York Times bestselling book, such as American Sniper, there are countless mediocre accounts by those whose experiences of war, while no doubt of significance to the author, are neither particularly well written or consist of anything more than a description of daily life on operations. For the serving soldier these can be particularly disappointing purchases.
Last weekend I found myself with twenty minutes to kill before boarding a flight at Sydney airport. Absent mindedly I wandered over to the Newsagents to look at the books. There was the usual, instantly recognizable fare: a couple of books on Australian Special Forces, a weighty tome by Peter FitzSimons that could hold open a barn door, and a book on bomber crews in the Second World War that didn’t look particularly appealing.
About to move on, I noticed a book spine I hadn’t seen before and picked it out for a closer look. My heart sank. The cover photo was taken from behind a soldier as he looked out over a ruined city, a Dragonov sniper rifle slung over his back. Its title was Long Shot: My life as a Sniper in the Fight Against ISIS. Turning it over, the rear blurb did not assuage my fears.
“If you had seen me back then, carrying my trigger finger through the sharp edges of war as though it were a baby, you would have understood that human beings can survive almost anything if they have a purpose”.
The back cover read like a western volunteer had spent a couple of weeks loosening off pot shots at ISIS from a distance and then returned home to write a book telling the world how brave he was. If ever there was a cover to put a soldier off buying a book, this was it. However, with nothing better demanding my attention, I flicked it open a read a passage. It was the best decision I made that day.
Long Shot could not be further removed from the poorly written account of a western volunteer I had assumed it to be. Instead it is the powerful personal testimony of Azad Cudi, an Iranian Kurd who returned from being a refugee in Europe to fight in Syria against ISIS. Through his carefully chosen words, Azad transports the reader to the claustrophobic rubbled streets of Kobani during the siege of 2014. Azad’s narrative highlights the horrors of urban warfare while illuminating the beauty of true comradeship common among soldiers in combat. As a book on modern war, it ranks up there with the very best.
Yet Long Shot is so much more than a book on combat. Through the clever use of non-linear chapters, Azad not only weaves in his own life story, but the story of the Kurdish people. He describes how his upbringing in post-revolutionary Iran and compulsory service in the Iranian Army shaped his personal ideals of justice and fairness. His description of how he deserted and was moved through Europe by people smugglers brings humanity to an issue too often colored by populist politics. Perhaps most impressive is the manner in which he articulates the ideals the Kurds were fighting for: not just land, but a progressive way of life in which democracy and equality were practiced daily, with female volunteers taking their place in the front line alongside the men.
“Most significant was the creation of the women’s militia, the YPJ. All over the world, soldiering was still largely men’s work. The YPJ showed what folly that was. Here were self-assured, fearless, powerful women like Tolin and Medya who felt no need to abandon their femininity. Just as brotherhood described the bond between male fighters, so sisterhood expressed the loyalty between women. The YPJ showed that qualities such as endurance, courage and sacrifice could be coloured, textured and enhanced by womanliness just as well as manliness. The only difference we allowed between men and women was at the level of command. Because of men’s baleful history of ordering women around, female commanders only were permitted to instruct both men and women”.
This, along with repeated accounts of YPJ gallantry, puts the tired debate of women in combat firmly into perspective.
In many respects, the expressive yet patient articulation of what motivated the Kurdish volunteers is what makes Long Shots stand out from all the other books currently on the bookshelves. Long Shots is not just a military book. It is not just a book on sniping or on urban combat. It is a book on philosophy and humanity. It is a book that eloquently describes the reality of killing and the unspoken bonds of friendship among soldiers as two sides of the same coin. It is a book that lays bare the horrors of the soldier’s profession, both during the act of fighting and the long-term damage that relentless combat causes: yet gives such sacrifices meaning through its humbling portrayal of those few Kurdish volunteers who stood up against the evils of ISIS when much of the world feared the Caliphate was unstoppable.
“In many ways, it was hard to digest the enormity of what we had achieved. With our old guns and a few hundred men and women we had stopped the most ruthless, richest and best-equipped militia in the world. ISIS had terrorized the region, abused the name of God, and murdered, tortured, raped and destroyed for years. Their medieval malevolence had seemed unstoppable. They had called a bluff on all the good in the world. But we had stopped them Then, step by step, building by building, we had pushed them back. We had broken the spell of ISIS’ invincibility and the world could breadth again. It was a new beginning for the Kurds and for the world.
“But what price had we paid? We had lost thousands. The jihadis had also left their mark on those of us who survived. They had made us killers. They had forced us to live as animals. They had made us love our friends more fiercely than most human beings could ever know, then forced us to watch them die. I had taken so many lives that I now did it without thinking, sometimes without even remembering. Even if we managed to rebuild Rojava and restore some normality, how could we, the fighters who had saved it, ever be a part of it?”
Because of all these things, Long Shot is not just the story of a soldier: it is the story of a people.
For all those serving, and especially junior officers, I would say this: don’t be put off by the title and don’t judge this book by its cover. Make sure you read Long Shots. It will form an essential part of your education, not just as a military professional but as an individual. It will give you an insight into what modern war is really like. It will give you some understanding of the enemies you may have to face, the hardships you will have to endure and the challenges you need to overcome if you ever find yourself fighting a determined adversary in an urban environment. For despite all the advances in technology that define our age, at its most basic war remains violent and chaotic, with outcomes shaped by friction and chance.
Long Shots will also open your eyes to a side of the Middle East you have probably not previously read about. It will introduce to you a proud people who stood up when all seemed lost; who did the fighting and dying on the streets of Kobani while Western nations dropped bombs safe from their aircraft thousands of feet above; who sought to prove to the rest of the region that women can live as equals, that self-determinations and governance need not come at the cost of oppression, and that hope for a better future is worth fighting for.
So, on reflection I do not mind the title of the book or the quote on the back cover. For if either causes one person to pick it up who otherwise wouldn’t have done so, then the publishers have served the author well. For that is one more person who will read the story of the defenders of Kobani and they deserve to have their story heard.
Greg Colton is Director of The Cove, the Australian Army’s online professional military education portal – www.cove.org.au
You can follow him on twitter at @colton.gregoryj