WASHINGTON -- Thousands of pages have been written about Americans who personally took themselves to wars they shouldn't have fought.
Before World War II, the cause celebre for ideological purists was the Spanish Civil War. Americans poured into the deserts of central Spain and into the romantic south, most of them hoping to defeat the powers of upright, stern Catholic Generalissimo Francisco Franco. It seemed so beautiful, so transcendent, so RIGHT. Unfortunately for these homesick Yanks, their liberal side lost, although the fight was forever sanctified in the literature of Hemingway and the art of Picasso.
Many individual Americans have gone abroad, by themselves or with pals, to fight others' wars. Gringos fought on all sides of the revolutions in Latin America; Amerikanski fought by the legion next to the Russians for their precious Soviet Communism; and some &%#*&& even helped the Chinese Communists in their Civil War.
But now, we are witnessing a new kind of American "vacation" to fight for the radical terrorist Somali group al-Shabab, both inside that divided country and within the borders of its neighbors Kenya and Ethiopia. There are roughly 50 Americans who are now members of al-Shabab, having "joined up" in that desert country on the Horn of Africa.
Probably for the first time, Americans here became aware of the scope of these adventures when, last weekend, Washington sent special forces operations against specifically targeted al-Qaida targets in Somalia and Libya. The one in Libya was caught and removed for questioning; but in Somalia, the gunfire from the Somalis was too heavy, and the Americans retreated by sea.
These attacks, coming on the heels of the deadly terrorist attack on the big, beautiful Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, opened up another new story: the part those young Somali "Americans," most of them from Minnesota, are playing in the deserts of their homeland and the danger it might have specifically to us.
These young adventurers are called "Muhajirun," which means simply "emigrants" in Arabic, reports Oussama Romdhani, one of the best analysts on the region, for Middle East Online. But in this situation, it refers to the Prophet Muhammad's followers who went with him in the seventh century from Mecca to Medina. Today, a group of "Jihadis" or wannabe Jihadis even produced a video entitled, "Minnesota's Martyrs: The Path to Paradise," which glorified the martyrdom of going "home" to fight in Somalia.
Paradise in Somalia? Someone has been smoking something -- but that's not hard to find on the Horn of Africa, either.
As it happened, I was on a U.S. Information Agency-sponsored tour in 1980 to speak about journalism in Africa, and Somalia was one of the countries we stopped in. I found a strange country stretched along the seemingly endless sands between the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. The people were unusually tall Muslim tribespeople, many of them with long, thin, handsome faces and brown skin.
The capital city, Mogadishu, bore more marks of the Cold War than anyplace I had seen. Early on in the war for the Third World, Moscow had given Mogadishu the nod, and there were huge, spare buildings -- a sports arena, government buildings, educational buildings and, of course, the Russian embassy -- all over the city. Regular streets were unswept and dirty, with shops selling African ivory carved into every possible animal, and with the occasional tiny cafe for coffee.
Interestingly enough, as a correspondent, I was kindly invited to the Saudi ambassador's home for lunch, and then to still another ambassador's. They lived quite elegantly and artfully, far from the scrutiny of the mobs.
But the country was filled with security. When I went at 2 a.m. one dark, early morning in 1980 in Mogadishu to see then-president Siad Barre, we had to stop five times and keep the car, and ourselves, absolutely still. At each stop, a soldier fixed his machine gun on us until it was 2 feet from us and he was, for some reason, satisfied.
Then, in 1992, a civil war broke out. American troops went in and many were killed. One of our diplomats, who had been there in those years, watched one morning while a large group of young male Somalis was loaded onto a plane bound for America. They were supposed to be the "lucky ones," going to America with visas in hand. They were going to Minnesota.
The diplomat ruminated to me later: "Everybody was thinking those Somali boys were so lucky. They were going to America! I saw boys who were totally dysfunctional, who didn't know where they were going or why. I've never forgotten that. They just didn't want to go!"
There are others besides the Minnesota boys. One of al-Shabab's most famous internationalists was Omar Hammami. He was a Syrian-American, raised a Baptist and a native of Alabama. He wrote rap songs such as "Make Jihad With Me." He ended up being executed by his own al-Shabab leaders with a bullet in his head.
It may seem romantic during Minnesota's cold nights to fly away to fight others' wars, but the end result is more often tragic than transcendent.
(Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer(at)juno.com.)