There’s nothing nice about it, there’s nothing glorified about it – essentially, you’re taking another person’s life.” This is how Jason Haigh describes his experience of combat. Formerly a soldier in the British Army, he is now an independent contractor, part of the ever-burgeoning private sector, and has just returned from an assignment in Syria where he fought with the Kurdish YPG against ISIS. As one of the few Westerners with first-hand experience, he is more than qualified to give an account of the current military situation there, and also of the current state of the defence industry given the increased impact of private security firms on it. I met Haigh after the talk he gave to Oxford International Relations Society (IRSOC).

Immediately, Haigh wanted to discuss the realities of war and particularly of fighting ISIS. He described in detail their ‘barbarity’, having regularly witnessed their suicide missions and use of hidden explosives on roads, such as IEDs, even in people’s homes. Worse still, they would regularly use civilians as shields to stop enemy forces from attacking them. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of their brutality was their practice of forcing locals to fight for ISIS after having “gone into their village, killed their family and said, ‘ISIS or die’.” This evidence informs Haigh’s view that in 90 per cent of cases, “ISIS is being imposed” on the local population with very few of its subjects actually supporting it. Given these examples, it is not hard for us to see why.

Haigh explains how the savagery of ISIS is made possible by its military strength. He stresses that they are far better equipped than the Kurds, whose biggest issues were a lack of heavy weapons and basic supplies such as water. Haigh sometimes went without drinking anything for over 24 hours. However, the reason why ISIS are able to better equip themselves militarily than the Kurds is obvious; according to Haigh, they are “making around $1 million worth of illegal oil sales a day through Turkey.” This provides them with the funds to purchase superior weapons on top of those they had already captured after routing the Iraqi army. But why would moderate, democratic Turkey help ISIS? Haigh says it is simply due to their antipathy towards the Kurds. Given that ISIS are fighting the Kurds, their enemy’s enemy is their friend.

Yet despite the power and savagery of ISIS, as a trained frontline medic Haigh still would be willing to treat an ISIS fighter. Whilst his Kurdish hosts this time prevented him from doing so, he knows that “if they’d asked me to I would have done: as a medic you treat them as a patient.” He is conscious, however, that ISIS would not have afforded him the same privilege, accepting that if he was captured, injured or otherwise, they would not only have killed him, but first tortured him and then used him for propaganda. Given this reality, Haigh is keen to point out that if he came across an injured ISIS fighter and decided to “put a bullet in his head, that would make me as bad as him.” He is eager to emphasise that “the difference between us and the terrorists is that we’ve got an ethos, a code – the Geneva Convention.” So despite having to face such an enemy, Jason has still been able to maintain his own moral compass. He attributes this almost entirely to his training. It permits him to not have to stop and think on the battlefield as he instinctively knows what to do. Stopping to think requires a second or two, but “in a conflict situation, a second or two is death.” As far as Jason is concerned, “You don’t think, you just do,” as your actions in battle “are literally just a muscle memory” from the intense, repetitive training which ensure that you always do the right thing, both from a tactical and a moral point of view. The Kurdish simply “don’t have that training”. It is for this reason, combined with their lack of heavy weapons, that Jason believes, “If they were to advance on Raqqah, they would all be killed.”

It seems that the current stalemate, in Jason’s eyes, is unlikely to change very soon. One of the only things he suggests which could achieve that change would be to put boots on the ground. He admits he would be “not too sure” of the political impact both here and in Syria if the West did this, but he argues that in terms of ISIS, “We would clear them out straight away – ISIS would be gone.”

Given, though, that putting the British Army on the ground would be impossible in the current political climate, governments have to find a way of placing some troops into Syria without conventional forces. This is exactly where Jason and the companies he works for come into play – a subject about which he is slightly more coy.

He does describe himself a mercenary and even admits that he does not think it necessary to believe in the cause which he is fighting for. Rather, as we saw earlier, his primary concern is the way in which he fights and the professionalism he displays when going about it. 

Nonetheless, Jason does admit that there is a line; he would never fight for ISIS. So while he does not have to agree entirely with the cause he is fighting for, equally he could not fight for something with which he fundamentally disagreed. This principle is the basis upon which Jason works and he always considers it when deciding which firm he should work for. Each “have their own agenda,” although most are “geared towards protection, and against terrorism”. Governments use those companies which share their objectives as a way of putting troops, like Jason, on the ground without the political fallout of deploying their own armies. Whether or not this would help Syria in the long term is a different question, but if the aim is still to “degrade and destroy” ISIS – in Obama’s words – then boots on the ground, by whatever means, will be the most effective method as militants “are adapting to the air strikes.” Still, the point that Jason makes most clearly is the simple fact that “war is hell.”