Q&A: Journalist Seth Harp on anarchists, ISIS, and Jake Gyllenhaal

Harp pictured with a PKK fighter. He was dressed in camouflage by the Iraqi Peshmerga in order to sneak through the blockade. Courtesy: Seth Harp

The true story of a ragtag group of Western radicals volunteering to fight in a raging, multi-front conflict, stirring echoes of the famous Abraham Lincoln brigade of the Spanish Civil War. It’s a plot made for movies, and now the story will find its way to Hollywood thanks to the actor-director team of Jake Gyllenhaal and Daniel Espinosa’s decision to adapt the Rolling Stone article “The Anarchists vs. ISIS.”

That article, published in February, was written by Seth Harp, a soldier-cum-lawyer-cum-journalist, who embedded with the Kurdish militia known as the YPG, with whom the Western anarchists are fighting. The YPG controls a region of four million people in northern Syria known as Rojava, a stateless democracy run as an anarchist collective. Harp writes that the YPG is “not your typical ethnic or sectarian faction. Its fighters are loyal to an imprisoned guerrilla leader who was once a communist but now espouses the same kind of secular, feminist, anarcho-libertarianism as Noam Chomsky or the activists of Occupy Wall Street.”

To report the story, Harp flew to Iraq and was smuggled over the border into Syria. He made his way through Rojava to the frontlines and spent time with American and European volunteers–who spoke about their alienation with Western society while fatalistically laughing, “We’re definitely going to die.”

Harp spoke to CJR about his path to journalism, the challenges of reporting on the war in Syria, and his hopes for the filmed adaptation of his story. This interview has been edited for clarity.

You’ve had a pretty unique path into journalism–soldier, lawyer, and now freelancer. Can you talk about your background and how you got into writing?

I first wrote for The Daily Texan while deployed to Iraq as an Army Reservist during the first years of the war. I spent five years practicing law but it wasn’t for me, so I quit and went to journalism school. That was the best decision I ever made.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

 

Do you think your experiences in the military give you insight into the sort of war reporting you’ve done? Do we need more journalists with military backgrounds?

You definitely don’t need to have been in the military to be a war reporter. It does help to build rapport with soldiers, but they’re usually so bored they’ll talk to anyone. I think it would be more helpful to be an attractive woman. They would tell you anything.

 

How did you get hooked up with this story? What was the process that ended with you in Raqqa?

The Kurds were on my radar ever since I served in Iraq, and I followed the Rojava Revolution as it unfolded in 2012. About two years ago I started hanging out at anarchist collectives in Brooklyn and Queens, and I would meet these guys coming back from Syria, hardcore leftists who had fought ISIS with the YPG. I was amazed, but it took me a full year to find a magazine editor who believed in the story. That was Rob Fischer at Rolling Stone. I was already on my way to Iraq when someone showed me Brace Belden’s Twitter feed. [Brace Belden, formerly of San Francisco, has become one of the most well-known Americans fighting with the YPG due to his Twitter feed]. Most of the volunteers over there stay off of social media. Some of them don’t even own phones.

 

It’s one thing to embed with US forces; it’s another to tag along with a decentralized militia. Can you talk through the preparations you made and precautions you took to report the story?

Syria is a dangerous country for journalists, but trying to get through the blockade was so frustrating that once the Iraqi Peshmerga were able to sneak me across the border, I felt nothing but relief. Inside Syria there were few precautions I could take other than to stick with the YPG. Actually, nothing scared me more than the way those guys handled their weapons. They were always locked and loaded and had no muzzle discipline, riding around in these bouncy trucks. But the most terrifying moment of all was when my fixer’s brother-in-law walked in the room. He was about seven feet tall, looked like a Syrian version of Danny Trejo.

Some were happy adventurers, full of Emersonian bonhomie, and some were Facebook narcissists who spent all their time taking selfies. Some had a passion for justice, and a few just wanted to kill someone.

What was your impression of the Western anarchist fighters you met? Do they have an influence? Did you walk away from the story thinking they were crazy? Admirable? Something in between?

I definitely do not recommend joining the YPG, but I’m fascinated by people who act on their most romantic impulses, those “unto whom folly speaketh most sweetly,” as Nietzsche put it. Everyone I met over there was some kind of eccentric. Some were happy adventurers, full of Emersonian bonhomie, and some were Facebook narcissists who spent all their time taking selfies. Some had a passion for justice, and a few just wanted to kill someone. On the whole, the Kurds were glad to have them there. That’s not for me to gainsay.

 

How did you hear about the story getting optioned by Jake Gyllenhaal? Were there conversations you were involved in, or did you just hear along with everyone else? And how are you feeling about the fact that your story is going to be given a Hollywood treatment?

 I did know the story was getting optioned, though the amount of press coverage took me by surprise. I spoke to Jake Gyllenhaal by phone beforehand and I could tell that we were attracted to the story for the same reasons, including subverting the notion that leftists can’t or won’t fight. I hope they do something dark as hell, maybe a little bit funny. If it turns out half as good as Jarhead, I’ll be happy.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.