As the Libyan conflict winds down, there are a number of Europeans who can call themselves veterans of this war.
European fighters have played a key role in the rebels bid to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and now look set to help bolster troops and assist rebel forces clear out the remaining Gaddafi loyalists. The role of European volunteers has remained widely unnoticed by observers of the conflict and the media have given the fighters little notice, but despite the absence of recognition they receive, foreign nationals have had, and will continue to have, a significant role in the liberation of Libya.
European citizens have a long history of volunteering to fight in far away conflicts which their national government are not at war with. The Roman Army relied heavily on the participation of non-citizens, recruiting them into Auxiliary Units with the offer Roman citizenship after the conflict was over. More recent examples of are also abundant; the Spanish Civil War for instance. From 1936 to 1939, an estimated 35,000 foreign citizens, from 53 different nations, travelled to Spain to fight for the Second Spanish Republic against Spanish Nationalist forces and played a hugely significant role in the war. The remarkable amount of prominent people who were foreign volunteers in the conflict led to much literature focusing on the experiences of non-Spanish combatants; most notably Ernest Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Foreign volunteers still have an active role for the French army in the elite Foreign Legion which consists of over seven thousand men, most of whom are not French citizens. In Russia, there is a popular urban myth of the ‘White Tights’; a group of blond Amazon-like nationalistic female biathletes who originate from Baltic states and since the late 1980’s have acted as snipers against Russia in a number of conflicts.
The act of young men deciding to fight in a foreign land, without the backing of their national government, often without military experience or training and for free may seem a strange concept, but many continue to do it. There are vast populations of Libyan Diaspora across Europe who are active in their home nation’s affairs. Many of these were forced to leave Libya, due to living conditions or actively by the Gaddafi regime itself; either way they will inevitably remain extremely bitter and actively promote the rebels bid for power. Furthermore, many descendants from Libyans living in Europe will hope for, and be willing to fight for, a brighter future in Libya, and allow them to possibly return to their native land.
It is worth also pointing out that there are many people offering to fight in Libya who have no Libyan ancestry. These people might be motivated by their belief in democracy as well as the hatred of tyrants. The desire for adventure (often naively) is too a major factor in non-Libyans desire to join the fight; even if this is not a primary motivation, the excitement of going to war is a crucial partner to ideology in many young men’s decision to take up arms.
The rebels are not alone in receiving support from non-Libyans; Gaddafi too has extensively relied on foreign troops, but instead of volunteers he has recruited mercenaries from African allies such as Chad and Nigeria as well as former soldiers from the Balkans and Ukraine. Gaddafi’s use of foreign mercenaries against his own people is detested by many Libyans, and has made it more problematic for foreigners to support the rebels.