“Forward, the Light Brigade! ‘Charge for the guns!’ he said: Into the valley of Death. Rode the six hundred.”
This was part of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem about how much of a cluster f*** the Battle of Balaclava truly ended up being. It is also the subject of Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper.”
The song directly states, “And as I lay forgotten and alone. Without a tear I draw my parting groan,” as a tribute to unnamed troops who were killed that day. In the many years that have since passed, letters have been discovered of first hand testimony of the ill-fated battle.
From 1853-1856, French, British, and Ottoman forces fought against the Russian Empire in the Crimean War. Conflict began after the Russians occupied Ottoman territory in modern day Romania. Within this war, the most infamous battle was at Balaclava where “The Charge of the Light Brigade” took place.
Under the command of Maj. General James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, the light cavalry brigade consisted of roughly 670 men. Lord Raglan, the Commander of the British forces, intended to prevent Russian troops from maintaining their guns on Ottoman positions.
There are many historical discrepancies on who ordered the actual charge, but the fact remains: the cavalrymen charged directly into enemy cannons, killing roughly a sixth of brigade and another sixth wounded, totaling 271 casualties.
It was later discovered that the Russians numbered 5,240 strong.
An unknown officer of the 17th Lancers wrote in a recently discovered letter, “We all knew the thing was desperate before we started, and it was even worse than we thought. However there was no hesitation, down our fellows went at a gallop — through a fire in front and on both flanks, which emptied our saddles and knocked over our horses by scores. I do not think that one man flinched in the whole Brigade — though every one allows that so hot a fire was hardly ever seen.”
The loyalty of the British cavalry became well respected. The London Gazette wrote of the charge weeks after. While the commanders became despised, the troops were revered for their courage in the face of certain death.
Private Pearson of the 4th Light Dragoons wrote to his parents, “I shall never forget the 25th of October — shells, bullets, cannonballs, and swords kept flying around us. Dear Mother, every time I think of my poor comrades it makes my blood run cold, to think how we had to gallop over the poor wounded fellows lying on the field of battle, with anxious looks for assistance — what a sickening scene!”
Roger Fenton is regarded as one of the first war photographers and was present at the charge. Fenton refused to photograph dead or wounded as to not upset Victorian Era sensibilities, but he did capture troops and many moments after.
This photo that J. Paul Getty Museum called “one of the most well-known images of war” shows the aftermath of cannonballs that littered the landscape. The photograph titled “Valley of the Shadow of Death” has been on exhibition with the over 300 other images of the Crimean War
Today, the Light Brigade is remembered in the song “The Trooper.” Bruce Dickinson frequently on tour wears the British “red coat” smock as he waves a war-torn Union Jack. There has never been a more appropriate time to form a wall of death in the mosh pit.
Check out Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” here, in all its glory:
A dramatic video released by the Saif Al Sham Brigades fighting in southern Syria shows an Islamic State guided missile ricocheting off a T-55 tank with a hard metallic smack.
It was close … seriously close. For whatever reason — a dud or a bad shot — the ISIS missile failed to explode. Had it, the blast could have blown up the tank, killed the crew and the rebel filming the incident. The camera operator, stunned by the blast, captures the tank backing off. The T-55 later returns and fires its cannon in a “shoot and scoot” maneuver.
The tank — almost certainly captured from the Syrian army — had no discernible “active protection” systems which can scramble a missile’s guidance systems. The ISIS missile was almost certainly captured … but the origin is unknown.
The Saif Al Sham Brigades is a Free Syrian Army group active in southern Syria and has appeared on lists of CIA-vetted rebel factions. Saif Al Sham counts itself as part of the Southern Front coalition of rebel groups, but this is a loosely-knit organization at the best of times.
The Front has also received support from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It’s unclear if Saif Al Sham specifically has received any funding or weapons from any of these nations.
What the video does demonstrate is the intense pressure anti-tank guided missiles can put on armed combatants in the Syrian civil war. Despite failing to knock out the tank, which was quickly back in action, the close call was enough for the rebels to back up — fast.
Tank-killing missiles have proliferated so much, they’ve effectively halted armored breakthroughs and contributed to a five-year-old stalemate.
The US Army is finally set to phase out one of the most consistent images of modern American military power: the Humvee.
Earlier this year, the US Army announced the three finalists for the massive contract to replace the iconic Humvee, which has been in service for almost three decades.
Oshkosh Corporation, defense contractor Lockheed Martin, and Humvee-maker AM General each delivered 22 prototypes of their Joint Light Tactical Vehicles (JLVT) to military evaluators, who are running elaborate tests on the vehicles to determine the best fit.
Since the 1990s, AM General’s Humvee has been the US military’s workhorse, first seeing action in the Gulf War.
Despite its ubiquity, the Humvee has caused some serious headaches for American forces. As Wired notes, the Humvee was designed in the 1980s as an off-road carrier to transport troops and equipment quickly across Eastern Europe in a theoretical ground war against the then Soviet Union.
But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Humvee’s mission changed. It was deployed to the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan, where US commanders quickly discovered that it was dangerously under equipped to protect troops against close-combat urban fire and improvised explosive devices.
With this problem in mind, the vehicles in this summer’s competition are all far more resistant to explosive blasts. The new vehicles are smaller, so they can be more easily airlifted and transported. They’re also light and better equipped to deal with the urban and off-road patrol duties that the Humvee took on in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The winning payout for the contract will be huge. As the Dallas Morning News reports, the US Army plans to spend billions on at least 20,000 vehicles, and the Marine Corps will likely buy around 5,000. If the vehicle is more successful, it could be an even greater windfall — since the ’80s, the AM General has produced 250,000 Humvees for the US military.
Here are the three vehicles that could replace the Humvee:
Oshkosh’s entry into the competition is the Light Combat Tactical All-Terrain Vehicle.
The company has one advantage. After the Army realized in the early 2000s that the Humvee left troops vulnerable to blasts, the Pentagon ordered thousands of Oshkosh’s Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles for deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As the name suggests, Oshkosh’s MRAP was much better suited to transport troops through these environments. Wired notes that the MRAP was so successful at sustaining blasts that some troops reportedly didn’t realize when they ran over bombs.
Oshkosh’s entry in the JLTV contest attempts to expand upon the MRAP’s success. The L-ATV is a lighter, smaller vehicle than the MRAP and can be more quickly and easily airlifted. This makes the vehicle preferable to the MRAP, which is large and can’t be deployed to areas where it needs to maneuver in crowded spaces.
Oshkosh believes that since the company demonstrated its proficiency with the MRAP, the JLTV is a natural transition.
“The Oshkosh M-ATV is the only vehicle performing the JLTV mission profile in operations today,” Oshkosh Vice President of Business Development Jennifer Christiansen told Business Insider in an email.
“This is where Oshkosh is truly unique because no other company has successfully transitioned more new military vehicle programs into production for the US Department of Defense,” Christiansen said.
The vehicle also has some unique features. If the military wishes to make their vehicles a little greener, Oshkosh threw an optional hybrid-diesel engine into the mix to help increase fuel efficiency.
Lockheed Martin’s JLTV
Designed with anti-guerilla combat in mind, Lockheed is playing on somewhat unfamiliar ground in the ground fight. Oshkosh and AM General both have troop carriers in use by the US military, while Lockheed is still more widely known for its high-tech aircraft and missile systems.
Like the other competitors, Lockheed aimed to make its slightly boxier vehicle lighter and tested it for blast-resistance.
“It can take a soldier everywhere, but can survive everything that they could survive in an MRAP,” Trevor McWilliams, a former soldier whose truck was hit with an IED, said in a Lockheed promotional video.
Lockheed is also hoping that the vehicle’s price tag will persuade the military to adopt its proposal. The defense contractor’s website touts the vehicle’s gas mileage, low production cost, and easy adaptability in case mechanics want to add on or upgrade the car in the shop.
“We are providing the most capable vehicle to our soldiers and our Marines, and we’re going to do it a very affordable cost,” Lockheed Martin program director Katheryn Hasse told Army Recognition in 2014.
AM General’s BRV-O
Though the Humvee itself may be on the way out, the lessons it learned have been passed on to AM General’s 21st century version.
This time around, AM General has built the Humvee’s largest weakness into the vehicle’s name: the Blast-Resistant Vehicle Off-Road. The company is highlighting the renewed safety of their BRV-O, touting its blast-resistant frame and space for amour add-ons.
“The Humvee was not designed for underbody protection, so the BRV-O has a higher ground clearance and is able to apply a protection kit to the bottom of the vehicle,” AM General Vice President of Business Development Chris Vanslanger told CNN in 2012.
According to AM General, the BRV-O is also the only vehicle equipped with a system that allows all passengers to connect to the military’s C4ISR network, which helps troops, aircraft, and commanders link up and coordinate movements on the battlefield.
You’ve probably heard of the term “backpack nuke” before — perhaps in the context of a video game like Call of Duty, or an action-packed television show like “24.”
But what you may or may not have realized is that backpack nukes are the farthest thing from fiction, and from the 1950s to the fall of the Berlin Wall in the 1989, they sat ready to be deployed by America’s black-ops nuclear hit squads — dubbed “Green Light Teams” — should the unthinkable happen and the Cold War turn hot.
Only members of the US military’s elite were selected to join GLTs, where they would be stationed near Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe, inside South Korea, and even near Iran in the late 1970s.
Navy SEALs, Force Reconnaissance Marines, Army Special Forces and more were all among the top recruits for the GLT program. If a candidate’s application to the GLT program was successful, they were sworn to secrecy, unable to tell even their own spouses of their mission. Had the Soviet Union heard of the existence of these teams, it would have likely created a similar program of its own as a counter, removing all value of possessing GLTs.
These operatives were trained in local languages and dialects, and told to dress like ordinary citizens, allowing them to blend in without anybody the wiser. The vast majority of their training, however, came in the form of instruction on how to use backpack nukes at the Atomic Demolitions Munitions School at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia.
There, GLT selectees were taught how to detonate nuclear weapons, and how to bury them or disguise them so that these weapons wouldn’t be discovered and defused before they could do their job.
The weapon of choice for each GLT was the B-54 Special Atomic Demolition Munition. The warhead used in each SADM was taken from a US Army program dubbed the “Davy Crockett Weapon System.” The Crockett was actually a recoilless rifle-fired projectile tipped with a W54 nuclear warhead with a yield of 10-20 tons of TNT.
The W54 was modified to detonate with a yield of anywhere between 10 tons of TNT to 1 kiloton, though in testing, it was proven to be able to achieve over 6 kilotons. Weighing just 51 pounds when nestled inside the SADM, it could be hefted onto an operative’s back and carried for long distances almost inconspicuously.
Should the combat environment or the mission change, GLTs could also parachute or swim their SADMs into enemy territory without fears of the backpack nuke prematurely blowing up. And when the nukes were in their detonation zones, they could be disguised as anything.
Citizens of Eastern Europe or North Korea could potentially walk by beer kegs, trash cans, or even mailboxes without being any the wiser that a primed SADM sat in side, ready to unleash unholy hell upon them. Operatives were also trained to bury their backpack nukes as deep as 9 ft underground to make them undiscoverable.
SADMs could be placed near lakes or rivers to create artificial dams as obstacles for advancing Soviet forces, or in cities,
Though the SADM came with a timing mechanism to allow for a delayed detonation sequence so operatives could escape the region, GLT operatives knew that should they be called into action, they were essentially running a suicide mission. They would still have to protect the device from being detected by enemy forces, and that would necessarily involve the GLT staying nearby, armed with submachine guns, grenades and pistols.
The US military was able to keep the existence of its GLTs a closely-guarded secret until near the end of the Cold War, when their mission was somewhat accidentally disclosed to the public. Upon finding out that a number of GLTs were positioned in West Germany, local officials immediately asked the US government to remove all SADMs from German sovereign territory.
By 1989, the SADMs were retired altogether and permanently deactivated, never having been used in combat. All active GLT operatives were brought in from the cold and returned to the US, and just a few short years later, the fall of the Soviet Union signaled the end of the Cold War – thankfully, with nary a nuke being detonated in anger by either side.
Russia is saying that their fighters chased off the U.S. Navy’s USS Ross Monday while it was operating aggressively in the Black Sea, but the U.S. is calling B.S. According to Navy officials, the encounter was no big deal and they haven’t changed any of their operational plans.
“From our perspective it’s much ado about nothing,” Navy spokesman Lt. Tim Hawkins told USNI News.
The Russian fighters had overflown the ship before with no incident. The Navy has released video of two of the SU-24 flybys, including the June 1 encounter. The USS Ross is leaving the Black Sea today, as scheduled.
The first video released is of one of the flyovers in late May.
In a 1989 incident, the Air Force crew of a B1-B bomber found itself unable to lower the front landing gear during a training flight and was forced to execute an emergency landing in the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base, California.
Investigators later blamed a hydraulic failure, but the crew in the air just knew that they had to reach the ground safely. The Air Force routed the plane to a dry lakebed in California that was often used for landing the space shuttle.
The dust of the Rogers Dry Lake bed is more likely than most surfaces to allow for a safe skid, reducing the risk to the crew and plane. The full landing is visible from a few angles in this video from airailimages:
Feature image: screen capture from YouTube/Airrailimages
Retired Staff Sgt. David Jonathan Thatcher, one of two last surviving members of WWII’s Doolittle Raiders, passed away in Missoula, Montana from complications of a stroke on June 22, 2016. He was 94.
On April 18, 1942, Thatcher was involved in the Doolittle Raid – United States’ first retaliation to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor four months earlier. The raid involved 16 B-25 Mitchell Medium bombers, 2 aircraft carriers, 4 cruisers, 8 destroyers…and 80 brave souls – all of which had volunteered and trained for the “extremely hazardous” secret mission under the command of the famous Colonel James “Jimmy” Doolittle.
Thatcher’s aircraft, nicknamed the “Ruptured Duck”, was seventh to launch (is that ok to say because I say ‘take off’ in the next sentence) and was piloted by Ted W. Lawson. The goal for all 16 bombers was to take off from the USS Hornet and bomb military targets in Japan. It was not possible to land back on the Hornet, so the plan was to continue west for a landing in China.
The mission ended up launching 170 miles further out than anticipated, and all of the aircraft ran out of fuel before reaching the areas in China that were not occupied by the Japanese. As was the fate of two other bombers, Thatcher and his crew were forced to ditch their plane at sea. Lawson, the Ruptured Duck’s pilot and his co-pilot were both tossed from the B-25. Miraculously, all 5 crew members survived with serious injuries, with the exception of Thatcher. After regaining consciousness, he was able to walk and helped the others survive.
Doolittle would later tell Thatcher’s parents “… all the plane’s crew were saved from either capture or death as a result of his initiative and courage in assuming responsibility and in tending the wounded himself, day and night.”
Thatcher was one of three awarded the Silver Star for acts of valor during the Doolittle Raid.
“Beyond the limits of human exertion, beyond the call of friendship, beyond the call of duty, he – a corporal – brought his four wounded officers to safety,” Merian C. Cooper, a logistics officer for the Doolittle Raid, wrote of Thatcher after debriefing the Raiders who survived.
In a 2015 interview with the Associated Press, Thatcher said: “We figured it was just another bombing mission,” only later did he realize that “it was an important event in World War II.”
“The Doolittle Raid was a pivotal point in the war and ‘very necessary,’ said Thatcher’s son-in-law, Jeff Miller in an interview with local paper, Missoulian. “But nobody talks about the rest of the story. These guys weren’t put on the sidelines. Too often, the story stops at the Doolittle Raiders.”
Thatcher went on to train in Tampa, Florida on B-26 bombers, and was “one of 12,000 troops to ship out of New York Harbor on the Queen Mary, which zigzagged its way across the North Atlantic to avoid detection by German U-boats. In the next several months, Thatcher flew 26 bombing missions over North Africa, the Mediterranean, and Italy. He participated in the first bombing of Rome in July 1943.”
After retiring from the military, Thatcher worked for the USPS as a Postal Clerk. He is survived by his wife of 70 years, three of their five children and seven grandchildren.
The remaining Doolittle Raider is 101-year-old retired Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” Cole – Jimmy Doolittle’s co-pilot.
During his time in the Corps, Hackman was demoted three times for leaving his post without proper authorization.
After Hackman had been discharged, the San Bernardino native went on to study journalism and TV production at the University of Illinois. By 30, he had broken into a successful acting career and would be nominated for five Academy Awards and winning two for his roles in “The French Connection” and “Unforgiven.”
Hackman is credited with approximately 100 film and TV roles and is currently retired from acting.
Once dubbed “the world’s most dangerous road,” the 7.5-mile stretch from Baghdad’s Green Zone to the airport was called “Route Irish” during the American-led occupation of Iraq.
It was a fitting introduction to the country during the height of the war. For years, Route Irish was a trial by fire: if you survived the drive from the airport, you would be ready for anything.
The Americans and British had a hard time controlling the road for nearly two years. Most taxi drivers refused to go anywhere near it and those that did sometimes got caught up in the mix between the insurgency and the occupation forces. It wasn’t just dangerous for troops; it was dangerous for everyone.
1. It was an easy target.
Irish was the direct airport road, connecting the International Zone (aka the “Green Zone”) with BIAP and the Victory Base Complex. Insurgents of all brands, from loyalists to al-Qaeda in Iraq terrorists knew coalition forces were based along the road and knew they would have to use the road and the areas adjacent. Irish became a magnet for bullets, rockets, mortars, VBIEDs, and hidden IEDs.
Suicide bombers lurked on the exit ramps and road crews repairing holes from previous attacks buried IEDs. It became so bad, that by December 2004, State Department personnel were banned from using Irish and troops began calling it “IED Alley.”
2. The road was a bumpy ride.
All those explosive impacts created craters in the asphalt and littered the road with husks of destroyed vehicles. Besides making the trip seem like you were riding a bucking bronco for miles on end while dodging obstacles, the hastily filled-in holes created by explosions made the trip much longer than it had to be. The craters and garbage also made it easy for insurgents to hide IEDs.
Riding in a Bradley in 127-degree heat with little light and less air flow makes the 8-minute ride seem like it takes hours. Bumping your head on the side of this hotbox a few times will make anyone appreciate a foot patrol or IED sweep.
3. Getting aboard “the Rhino” was intimidating.
“The Rhino” was a Rhino Runner, a 22-seat bus with heavy armor, designed by Florida-based Labock Technologies. Troops, contractors, and VIPs traveling to and from Victory Base, BIAP, or the Green Zone had to mount up into the belly of this behemoth. Looking at this veritable mountain of a vehicle made the first time fobbit on his or her way to Iraqi Freedom’s nerve center think twice about whether or not they could conduct their business via email.
In November 2004, a three Rhino convoy was ambushed on Route Irish with a 250-pound suicide VBIED that made a crater 6 feet wide and 2 feet deep. A dust cloud over 1,000 feet long could be seen for miles around the city. There were no injuries to the 18 people in the vehicle.
4. The road required constant patrols.
Eventually, Irish would be secured by American troops using concrete obstacles, Iraqi Army units, and taking control of the neighborhoods adjacent to the road. Until then, Coalition forces had to keep the road as clean as possible and remove the blown-up car carcasses.
At one point, the Boston Globe reported the U.S. Army dedicated an entire battalion of the 10th Mountain Division to keeping the road as clear and safe as possible. This opened the troops up to constant attacks from suicide bombers, a tactic the military could do little to prevent short of destroying the car before it reached the target.
5. If the attacks weren’t dangerous enough, the Iraqi drivers were.
Because of the frequency and severity of attacks on American and other Coalition personnel (and sometimes sectarian violence) drivers in the city put the pedal to the metal while driving along the road. They so slow down for U.S. vehicle convoys because the turret gunners have no problem taking a few shots at a tailgater.
Iraqis drove the highway at high speeds, veering away from the median (a potential source of IEDs) except when they were veering away from the exits (a source of suicide VBIEDs), and randomly weaved while driving under overpasses for fear of someone dropping something on them.
Civilians who wanted a ride from the Sheraton to the airport could easily hire their own armored shuttle service – for the deeply discounted price of $2,390 each way.
The military has very talented photographers in the ranks, and they constantly attempt to capture what life as a service member is like during training and at war. Here are the best military photos of the week:
Airman 1st Class Ian Wilkerson, a 718th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron communication navigation specialist, checks the radio systems of an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter during a preflight inspection April 26, 2016, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Maintenance and inspections are conducted before and after every mission to ensure aircraft safety and longevity.
Pararescuemen assigned to the 57th Rescue Squadron use the Jaws of Life to tear apart a vehicle’s roof to remove a mock victim during a combat search and rescue demonstration at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, April 21, 2016. Pararescuemen and members of the 48th Security Forces Squadron demonstrated the rescue during a Chief of Staff of the Air Force Civic Leader Program visit.
U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Emerson Nuñez
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s the US Army.
A helicopter crew, assigned to 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, based at Fort Wainwright, transport supplies and equipment with a CH-47F Chinook helicopter during high-altitude mountain operations at Denali base camp, Alaska, April 24, 2016.
FORT WORTH, Texas (April 22, 2016) U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, Solo pilots perform at the Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base Air Power Expo 2016. The Blue Angels are currently celebrating their 70th show season and are schedules to perform 66 demonstrations at 34 locations across the U.S. in 2016.
GULF OF ADEN (April 26, 2016) Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Levi Horn observes as Operations Specialist 3rd Class Monica Ruiz fires a 50-caliber machine gun during a live-fire qualification aboard amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4). Boxer is the flagship for the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group and, with the embarked 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, is deployed in support of maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations.
A U.S. Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion is staged during a Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command night raid exercise at Tactical Air Combat Training System Airfield, near Yuma, April 21, 2016. This exercise was conducted during Weapons and Tactics Instructor (WTI) course 2-16. WTI is a seven week training event hosted by Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1) cadre. MAWTS-1 provides standardized advanced tactical training and certification of unit instructor qualifications to support Marine Aviation Training and Readiness and assists in developing and employing aviation weapons and tactics.
U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Christopher D. Robson, water purification specialist with Combat Logistics Battalion 24 practice drills during a Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command night raid exercise at Tactical Air Combat Training System Airfield, near Yuma, Arizona, April 21, 2016. This exercise was conducted during Weapons and Tactics Instructor (WTI) course 2-16. WTI is a seven week training event hosted by Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1) cadre. MAWTS-1 provides standardized advanced tactical training and certification of unit instructor qualifications to support Marine Aviation Training and Readiness and assists in developing and employing aviation weapons and tactics.
A U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Houston helicopter aircrewman looks out from an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter while conducting an overflight assessment and search for anyone in distress after recent flooding in southeast Texas, April 19, 2016.
Good Samaritans and U.S. Coast Guard Heartland crews rescued nine mariners after their boat rapidly began taking on water.
Hunkered down in sniper positions on the top floor of an abandoned building in the Syrian city of Raqqa, two Americans and a British volunteer face off against Islamic State snipers on the other side of the front line. The trio, including two who were battle-hardened by experience in the French Foreign Legion and the war in Iraq, have made the war against IS in Syria their own.
They are among several US and British volunteers in the decisive battle against the Islamic State group for Raqqa, the city in northeastern Syria that the militants declared the capital of their self-proclaimed caliphate in parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq.
The men joined US-allied Syrian militias for different reasons — some motivated by testimonies of survivors of the unimaginable brutality that IS flaunted in areas under its control.
Others joined what they see as a noble quest for justice and a final battle with the “heart of darkness,” in a belief that violence can only be met with violence.
Taylor Hudson, a 33-year old from Pasadena, compares the fight for Raqqa to the 1945 Battle of Berlin in World War II that was critical to ending the rule of Adolf Hitler.
“This is the Berlin of our times,” said Hudson, who doubles as a platoon medic and a sniper in the battle against the militants. For him, IS extremists “represent everything that is wrong with humanity.”
Syria’s war, now in its seventh year, has attracted foreign fighters to all sides of the complicated conflict.
Islamic extremists from Europe, Asia, and North Africa have boosted the ranks of the Islamic State group, as well as rival radical al-Qaeda-linked groups. Shiite Iranian and Lebanese militias have sided with the Syrian government, deepening the sectarian nature of the conflict that has killed over 400,000 people and displaced over 11 million, half of Syria’s pre-war population.
On the anti-IS side — though far less in numbers than the thousands of foreigners who swelled the IS ranks — most Western foreign volunteers have been drawn to the US-allied Kurdish militia known as The People’s Protection Units, or by their Kurdish initials as the YPG. The US military has developed a close relationship with the YPG and its extension, the Syrian Democratic Forces, in the war against IS.
Some Western volunteers have died in battle — earlier in July the YPG announced that 28-year-old Robert Grodt, of Santa Cruz, California, and 29-year-old Nicholas Alan Warden, of Buffalo, died in the battle for Raqqa.
Since launching the push on Raqqa on June 6, the US-backed forces have conquered a third of the city.
Hudson, who has been fighting in Syria for the past 13 months, said he was moved to tears by stories in the media of Iraqi Yazidi women who were enslaved by IS militants and looked for a way to help. A pharmacy student who learned combat medicine in the field, he said he had treated some 600 wounded ahead of the march onto Raqqa.
The presence of Western anti-IS volunteers in Syria has created something of a conundrum for their governments, which have often questioned them on terrorism charges.
“I am not a terrorist,” said Macer Gifford, a 30-year former City broker in London, who came to Syria three years ago to volunteer first with the Kurdish militia. Now he is fighting with an Assyrian militia, also part of the US-backed forces battling IS militants.
“I am here defending the people of Syria against terrorists,” he added.
Gifford has been questioned by both his British government and by the US government. At home, he has written and lectured about the complex situation in Syria, offering a first-hand experience of IS’ evolving tactics.
He believes the militants can only be defeated by sheer force.
“The Islamic State (group) is actually an exceptional opponent,” Gifford said. “We can’t negotiate them away, we can’t wish them away. The only way we can defeat them is with force of arms.”
For Kevin Howard, a 28-year old former US military contractor from California who fought in Iraq in 2006, the war against the Islamic State group is more personal.
A skilled sniper who prides himself in having killed 12 IS militants so far, Howard said he is doing it for the victims of the Bataclan Theatre in France, where the sister of one of his best friends survived. The Nov. 13, 2015 attacks claimed by IS killed 130 people at Paris cafes, the national stadium, and the Bataclan, where 90 died.
“This is a continuation of that fight, I think if you leave something unfinished, it will remain unfinished for a lifetime,” he said, showing off his 1972 sniper rifle.
On his forehead and neck, he has tattooed the “Rien N’empêche” — or “Nothing Prevents”— words from the song of the French Foreign Legion in which he served, and “life is pain.”
“For me this is a chance to absolutely go to the heart of darkness and grab it and get rid of it,” he added.
From his sniper position on Raqqa’s front line, he peeked again through the rifle hole. For Howard, the orders to march deeper into the IS-held city can’t come soon enough.
According to Disney, princes are the most charming, handsome men in all the land. Historically, that’s far from the truth. Royal families were typically pretty obsessed with power. No matter how much they had, they wanted more, and they wanted to keep it. One way to do that was by keeping it in the family; AKA, they slept with their cousins. Back then, incest wasn’t so taboo. Marriages between uncles and nieces and other close relations happened frequently.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t just power that was passed down to future generations. Genetic disorders that were uncommon among the general population were condensed in royal bloodlines to the point that sickness was as much of a royal inheritance as wealth. The result? A ton of really weird royals, including the infamous Henry the 8th who was known for his paranoia and tyrannical behavior. Keep scrolling to discover all the strange effects that inbreeding had on the royal families of yesteryear.
The Habsburg Jaw
The German-Austrian Habsburg family had an empire encompassing everything from Portugal to Transylvania, partially because they married strategically to consolidate their bloodline. Because of their rampant incest, the Habsburgs accidentally created their own trademark facial deformities, collectively known as the Habsburg jaw. Those who inherited the deformity typically had oversized jaws and lower lips, long noses, and large tongues. It was most prevalent in male monarchs, with female family members experiencing fewer external deformities. Charles II had such a severe case that he had trouble speaking and frequently drooled…yikes.
For most people, cuts and bruises are no big deal. For those with hemophilia, a scraped knee can turn serious. Hemophilia is a rare blood disorder in which your body doesn’t produce enough clotting factor. When someone with hemophilia starts to bleed, they don’t stop. The disease is recessive, so it’s very uncommon; both of your parents must carry the gene for you to develop symptoms. Unfortunately, it was easy for inbred royals to produce unfortunate gene combinations.
Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Consort Albert, both carried the gene for hemophilia, as they were first cousins. Their son, Leopold, struggled with the disease until it eventually killed him when he was only 31. Hemophilia was passed down to Russian Czar Nicholas II’s family. His son and heir, Alexei, suffered from hemophilia, inherited from his great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. Even in the early 1900s, the life expectancy of someone with hemophilia was only about 13 years.
Spanish royalty was particularly prone to the genetic condition of hydrocephalus, in which fluid builds up deep in the brain. The extra fluid puts pressure on the brain and spinal cord, causing everything from mild symptoms to death. It occurs most frequently in infants, which was often the case in inbred royalty. The royal children who suffered from it were born with abnormally large heads and often suffered from growth delays, malnourishment, muscular atrophy, poor balance, and seizures.
Hydrocephalus also affected British royalty, including Prince William, the oldest surviving child of Queen Anne and Prince Consort George of Denmark. The two royals were cousins, and they were so genetically similar that they struggled to reproduce any healthy offspring, losing 17 children to genetic disease. You’d think they’d figure it out after the first few, but they were determined to produce an heir. Prince William made it until age 11, when he died of hydrocephalus combined with a bacterial infection.
Royal inbreeding existed before the European monarchy was even a thing. Ancient Egyptians practiced marriage within the royal family with the intent of keeping their bloodline pure, and it backfired big time. King Tutenkhamen, AKA King Tut, was one of Egypts most famous pharaohs, but he was a bit of a genetic mess. Modern-day studies showed that he had a cleft palate, a club foot, and a strangely elongated skull. Some researchers believe King Tut’s mother wasn’t really Queen Nefertiti, but King Akhenaten’s sister. Sibling-sibling inbreeding tends to have severe effects, giving poor King Tut a compromised immune system that led to his eventual death.
King Charles II married twice, yet he never successfully fathered an heir. Like many other royals, he struggled with fertility, likely the result of his inbred heritage. Queen Anne, the first monarch of Great Britain, was a great ruler, but not so great at producing healthy children. Only one of 18 of her offspring made it past their toddler years, with eight miscarried and five stillborn. Considering the great pressure to produce heirs to inherit the throne, infertility caused a great deal of royal strife. In some ways, however, it was a boon. Since Charles II never had children, his laundry list of genetic issues, including the infamous Habsburg jaw, died with him.
Speaking of Charles II, he didn’t say a word until he was four and didn’t learn how to walk until he was eight. He was the child of Philip IV of Spain and Mariana of Austria, who were uncle and niece. His family’s long history of inbreeding was so severe that he was more severely inbred than he would have been had his parents been siblings. While inbreeding doesn’t automatically lower intelligence, it does make it more likely to inherit recessive genes linked to low IQ and cognitive disabilities, resulting in a royal family with just as many mental challenges as physical ones.
George III was King of England at the time of the American Revolution, and many wonder if his mental illness had something to do with his failure as a ruler. Another member of Queen Victoria’s highly inbred family, George III was known for his manic episodes and nickname of “The Mad King”. Initially, historians believed that he had porphyria, a chronic liver disease that results in bouts of madness and causes bluish urine. Today, it’s believed that George III actually suffered from bipolar disorder, causing his sudden manic episodes and rash decision making.
Other royals suffered from mental illness as well, including Queen Maria the Pious. She was so obsessively devout that when her church’s confessor died, she screamed for hours about how she would be damned without him. She shared a doctor with King George III, who employed all kinds of strange and ineffective treatments, like ice baths and taking laxatives.
Joanna of Castile, also known as Joanna the Mad, also struggled with irrational behavior and uncontrollable moods. Like most women, she was furious when she discovered her husband’s mistress. Unlike most people, she proceeded to stab her in the face. She remained obsessed with her husband after his infidelity, however. She loved him so much that she slept beside him even after he died. You read that right. She snuggled a corpse. M’kay then.
Monarchs have a reputation for reckless, harsh, and sometimes cruel behavior. Is it possible that many of their worst deeds were tied to inbred insanity? Totally. Does that make their tyrannical reign any less terrifying? Not even a little bit. While their stories are fascinating to read about, let’s keep the inbreeding and dictatorships in the history books, okay? Okay.