‘Long Shot’ Review: Triggering a Revolution
A memoir by an Iranian deserter turned Kurdish sniper who picked off 250 Islamic State ﬁghters during the battle of Kobani.
A view of the Syrian town of Kobani in 2014. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
By Graeme Wood
Feb. 18, 2019 2:52 p.m. ET
For the past seven years, in the northeast wedge of Syria abutting Turkey, Iraq and Islamic State, a band of zealous Kurds have built an unrecognized state called Rojava and tried to keep it from being overrun. Rojava is governed like a 1980s Berkeley dorm discussion whose participants have acquired automatic weapons. They are anarcho-leftist, environmentally conscious, secular, socialist and radically devoted to equality of the sexes. One manifestation of this last commitment is a coed guerrilla force, including male and female snipers (féministes fatales, if you will) who have been picking off the male jihadists of Islamic State with gusto for the past five years.
A new memoir, “Long Shot: The Inside Story of the Snipers Who Broke ISIS,” tells the story of the group’s sniper battles against Islamic State, with a heavy dose of the group’s leftism. The author, writing under the name Azad Cudi, is a Kurdish sniper now in Europe. Iranian by birth, he deserted his post in the Iranian military and fled to exile in Yorkshire, England, in 2004. There he read the work of Abdullah Öcalan, the terrorist-intellectual founder of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and found that man’s turgid Maoism enchanting. At the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Rojava was founded on an Öcalanist model, and in 2013, when confrontation between Rojava and ISIS became inevitable, Mr. Cudi traveled to Syria to defend it.
‘Long Shot’ Review: Triggering a Revolution
By Azad Cudi
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 253 pages, $26)
He fought with great distinction. In the city of Kobani, site in 2014-15 of what may be remembered as the battle that arrested Islamic State’s expansion, he spent months punching holes in the walls of abandoned houses so he could peek out and shoot ISIS fighters in nearby buildings. He killed about 250 of them in total, he says. The number is high but plausible. Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL depicted in the film “American Sniper,” had 160 confirmed kills, more than any other American in history. Mr. Cudi claims that others tallied as many as 500—a number that would rank them next to a few World War II snipers at the top of the all-time list, world-wide.
The first thing to note about Mr. Cudi’s memoir is its prose. The genre of military memoir produces more stinkers than average, often because the authors imitate only the worst aspects of Hemingway, or cannot contain their own machismo. Mr. Cudi’s revolutionary feminist training sessions must have paid off: He is observant and restrained, and totally lacking the swaggery male insecurity that disfigures so many of these books. Instead, his is filled with practical, simple descriptions of combat and sniping. The figurative language, because it is deployed sparingly, tends to work, as when he describes the frozen face of a would-be suicide bomber (shot “through his mustache” by a female sniper) as looking “like a stopped clock.”
“Any competent soldier can learn the basics of sniping in an hour,” he claims, before proceeding with great clarity to explain how to read and adjust a scope. The explanation takes about a page, not including later tips about where to nest to avoid detection by other snipers and which weapons have which effect. An M-16, firing a slender 5.56mm round, drills tight holes in its victim, who feels little effect at first but bleeds out in minutes or dies from infection in days. A Barrett M82 takes a cartridge the size of a carrot and will just about carry off your whole leg. (For its immediate and decisive effect, Mr. Cudi says the Barrett is the “more honourable” weapon.) Keep your index finger pampered for fine sensitivity while pressing the trigger. “After a while, I learned to recognise other snipers by their whiter, cleaner, smoother forefingers.”
Much of the narrative is unnerving, as it should be. Snipers are unusually comfortable with death, much more so than the 99% of soldiers who are not snipers. Snipers are said to kill at a rate of one death per 1.3 rounds fired. In Vietnam, the kill-ratio for ordinary soldiers was about one per 50,000 rounds fired. Peering through Mr. Cudi’s reticle, we see victim after victim fall, and the relentlessly factual prose makes even the death of a terrorist vivid and tragic. One unsettling aspect of sniping is that the sniper sees his prey up close, through a highly magnified lens—but the prey does not see the sniper at all. Sniping is an act of voyeurism and homicide all at once. At one point Mr. Cudi shoots a man, once in each lung, and sees the mortally wounded man turn to face him, “composed and unafraid.” “In that moment I was being taught a lesson in dignity by a jihadi.”
Of course, he then shoots the jihadi between the eyes. Mr. Cudi’s commitment to Öcalanism is ultimately beyond mercy. Only by comparison to ISIS do these snipers seem well-adjusted. The principal defect in this book is, indeed, its devotion to Öcalan—whom Mr. Cudi always calls “Apo,” or “uncle,” following the cult-like custom of the PKK. Öcalan has been imprisoned in Turkey since 1999 and has moderated his politics. Mr. Cudi emphasizes Öcalan’s turn toward “environmentalism, feminism, anarchism, communalism, social justice and self-determination,” which I suppose are all better than Stalinism and murder. But Öcalan has stood for these latter things too.
When I last visited the PKK military and ideological training camps in Iraq, about the same time that Mr. Cudi was inducted, I found the campers besotted with political theory and feminism, and the crankish radicalism of Mary Daly and Murray Bookchin. What’s worse, they were reading these texts as scripture, rather than as subjects of debate and analysis. They were learning to think in unison—and, of course, to kill.
Against ISIS, Rojava is our ally, and its snipers our sisters and brothers in arms. The liberation of women, on their own terms, remains the core social struggle of the Middle East. But the credulous repetition of Öcalanist propaganda is as a failing of this otherwise striking and memorable book.
Mr. Wood is author of “The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State” and a staff writer at the Atlantic.