Practically lost in the U.S. election news is the amazing progress that coalition forces have made to retake Mosul. Unfortunately, I have no doubt that folks — particularly Canadians — will eventually hear more from Dillon Hillier, the young man who earned so much media attention for running off to fight ISIS for several weeks last year as a volunteer with the Peshmerga. But Hillier is no hero. Here’s a sample from his newly released book, One Soldier. On page 100, he writes about his initial misguided time with the PKK:
“Despite the lack of valuables on the dead Chechen, I let my mind wander to a faint hope that the next body would yield something more than a passport.” Hillier was hoping to make a quick profit. “…I would have been happy picking up a weapon that could be resold at a local market, or even better, some cash, or maybe a gold ring or necklaces.”
Reported on by the CBC and called a “soldier of conscience” by Canada’s National Post, this darling of the media wanted to strip a corpse to sell a trinket.
You don’t learn much about the fight with ISIS from his book, and you sure as hell don’t learn anything at all about Kurdistan. Some of the assertions in his book border on the ridiculous, while other statements I sincerely hope will haunt him if he ever runs for political office.
Hillier writes, for instance, that when he flew over, he risked “being gunned down by ISIS agents at the baggage carousel inside the Sulamaniyah airport” — a statement that made me burst out laughing when I read it. Because even as late as June 2015, with Sulamaniyah reputed to be the centre of the counterfeit passport trade by ISIS operatives and other dangerous activities, his idea is comical. My fixers drove me to that same city on an open and quiet road through different check points that had minimal security.
That was only two months after the car bomb went off right outside the U.S. consulate in Erbil, the regional capital — where I stayed, in fact, at a hotel up the street. Most of the fighting took place at night or in early morning hours. After all, in summer it can get up to 50°C.
Hillier’s book contains other absurdities. He writes early on, “Thankfully, Kurdistan has been a de facto country, free of Iraqi overlords in Baghdad, since American fighter jets started patrolling the Kurdish skies during the first Iraq War in 1991…” True, it’s an autonomous region with even a consulate in Washington, D.C., but even Kurds would scoff at this massive oversimplification of their regional politics. And it tells much that Hillier doesn’t even bother to use the Kurdish spelling for Sulamaniyah, which is Suleimani.
That, of course, is small beer, but you still learn nothing about the ordinary Kurdish people: their culture, their aspirations for their homeland, or about the Iraqis who have fled into the region. And if you’re not focusing on those you’re supposedly fighting for (rather than making it all about you), what were you doing there in the first place?
The answer to this question perhaps lies in certain ugly passages in his book, such as this one about his visit to the lounge of the Grand Millennium hotel in Sulamaniyah, “which seemed to have attracted all the white women in the country. But we were getting shot down left, right and centre. It was a bit of a shock to us, because up to this point we had been treated like kings everywhere we went. You would assume that two robust white guys would clean up in a place like Kurdistan. Hell, I half-expected to be invited into homes to marry daughters. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Western women were an assortment of self-righteous liberal humanitarian workers who wanted nothing to do with Ethan and me.”
He then goes on to give out a young Kurdish woman’s phone number to his pal without her permission.
I have never met Hillier, so I don’t know why he is so preoccupied with race, especially since Iraqis and Kurds come in all shades and complexions, but it crops up repeatedly in his narrative: “… I was a lone white guy in a foreign land.” Wrong. And one wonders what his perverse obsession is with colour… especially in a region where everyone else is hung up on religion. The bigger mystery is how such lines slipped by his editor at HarperCollins.
Kurdistan deserves better. It’s relegated to a cardboard backdrop for his semi-literate descriptions of battle skirmishes, yet there’s an actual country waiting to be discovered. During my own brief stay, a kind imam allowed an aid worker friend and I to tour the Jalil Khayat mosque, a stunning work of architecture. The Citadel of Erbil is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, dangerously close to a war in progress.
I had my own chance to visit the Front on a day when it was 45°C, and I could see for myself that the Peshmerga deserve their reputation for being tough as nails. Behind a wall of sandbags, the commander and his men pointed out to me a village under the control of ISIS only two kilometres away. There was the enemy. The road was mined with IEDs, so no one was heading over there, and they certainly weren’t coming our way, because snipers would gun them down in the open plain within seconds.
As we left to return to the capital, one of the fixers shook his head and muttered, “Too close!” These young men were both seasoned fighters, but they didn’t like an operation parking right within waving distance of Evil.
The Bahraka refugee camp is located outside Erbil, where I spoke to several former Mosul residents determined to go home after ISIS is beaten. What will they find when they return? How much will they have left at home? Perhaps as many as a million people might be displaced from this latest fighting, and if so, that means many might have to resettle in Kurdistan, an influx which could badly destabilize the region all over again in terms of political and ethnic tensions.
Atheer, a 21-year-old Christian Iraqi I met in Erbil last year, has been one of the luckier refugees so far. He had been studying physics at Mosul University when ISIS captured the city. But the Kurdish educational authorities refused to recognize the credits Atheer obtained back in Mosul, so he was forced to work the reception desk of a posh hotel in the Ankawa district; he’s the sole breadwinner of his family. War put his life in limbo.
Does Dillon Hillier even think about the aftermath? Oh, I forgot — he thinks the humanitarian workers trying to help such folks are self-righteous. But then he also writes things like this: “Iraqis, whether they be Sunni or Shia, mostly hate the West.” Really? Iraqis for him only come in one religion with one viewpoint, and I suppose he hasn’t met many individuals like Atheer. I wonder, in fact, how many Iraqis Hillier had a substantial conversation with, if any at all. There are no nuances for him.
He thinks Raqqa in Syria should be bombed, pure and simple, never mind the “bleeding hearts” — his words for liberal critics. I can only presume he considers Aleppo just as simple.
Hillier also ran into “five white guys” in the Grand Millennium hotel, one of whom he recognized as from his old battalion who ended up with Canada’s elite Joint Task Force 2. “Grundle and his friends were not at all thrilled to see me… Arrogant bastards.” Hillier, who never rose above the rank of corporal, has a very big chip on his shoulder indeed.
As he admits, the JTF2 soldiers were rude to him because he had “busted their operational secrecy.” Hillier’s attitude? “In the meantime, screw them.” So even though he professes that he’s on this noble mission to beat ISIS, he’s not overly concerned that he just compromised the security of men he used to serve with.
Hillier also writes of how he spent a good portion of his down time checking on the media coverage about himself back home, which is also telling, and he vents against the “pointy heads in academia” and “left-wing activists” who disagree with his cause.
Well, I do believe in the fight against ISIS. I simply prefer that the guy who fights not be a culturally insensitive lout while he’s over there.
We have just marked another Remembrance Day, and the men who fought in the Second World War like my uncles knew killing was necessary, but they didn’t boast about it. They didn’t stick their hands out for drinks or have such an obnoxious sense of entitlement. They were truly humbled by the waves of gratitude from France and Holland. That quiet grace is part of the enduring legacy of such veterans. They were genuine heroes.
Our authorized Canadian Forces soldiers in Kurdistan should also get their due. But none of the acclaim should be shared by Dillon Hillier, who doesn’t really care about the Iraqis or Kurdish people; all he cares about is putting a spotlight on himself. While he likely possessed some physical courage, he is woefully bankrupt of moral and intellectual courage, and that’s the only kind that ultimately matters in life.
Hillier now reportedly works in investment banking. Trumps come in all shades of nationality and experience, and I personally dread the thought that this young man might one day use his dubious experience as a hired gun to help leverage himself into a political career. Please don’t forget who he really is.