When Valerie Carder answers the phone to hear a writer asking to talk about her son, it's evening in southern Ontario. It hasn't been a week since his death, but she has spent nearly every day doing interviews and handling media requests. It's a burden no grieving mother should bear, let alone an anonymous English teacher who lives in the countryside. She'd rather have her privacy than a Facebook account.
But Valerie talks for nearly 90 minutes about John Robert Gallagher, whose body is still making its way from Syria to Iraq and eventually to Canada, carried by the rebel fighters he volunteered to join. She talks because she wants the world to remember her son — the first Canadian volunteer fighter to die in the war against the Islamic State (IS) — and to understand his motivations.
Depending on our individual prejudices, any number of glib labels could be applied to John, who died last Wednesday aged 32. Was he a thoughtful warrior? Misguided idealist? War adventurist? The ultimate activist?
Beyond these, he is worth considering as a man with exceptional potential in life who felt utterly compelled by a moral choice that led to his death.
Raised in rural southern Ontario by a single mother attending university, John Robert — as he was called as a boy — displayed intellectual gifts from an early age. He loved science, reading informational children's books about dinosaurs and hanging a poster of the periodic table on his wall. He wanted to be a physicist and spent his childhood summers reading high school physics textbooks.
John Robert joined the air cadets in elementary school and expressed an interest in becoming a military officer around age 12. By the time he was in high school, he called himself J.R. and wanted to be an infantryman.
His family — mother Valerie, two sisters, a step-father and step-brother — was politically-minded, though more in terms of issues and causes than party allegiances. Valerie recalls explaining to her children why they were boycotting Shell stations because of the company's policies in Nigeria.
It was no surprise, then, that J.R. became politically aware in his teens. Coupled with his natural curiosity and intellect, he soon immersed himself in learning about world affairs, social issues and history. At age 18, J.R. was now John, and he joined the Canadian Forces.
John served in Bosnia and spent three years with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry before leaving the military. Ever the intellectual, he completed a double major of political science and gender studies at York University, followed by a masters degree in political science. He sought acceptance into a Ph.D program, but much of his adult life seems to have been spent searching for purpose. He ran for Toronto city council in 2010. He spent time working in Australia. Last year he lived in Calgary for a few months, trying to make political connections while working as a pizza deliveryman.
A bright and educated young man could surely have found work in any number of fields. But John needed to make a difference. He cared deeply about things like serving one's country and standing up for what you believe in.
"The adjective 'earnest' is sort of out of favor, I think," says Valerie. "But he really did have very strong ideas of right and wrong, moral and ethical ideas. And he tried his whole life to make sure that he was doing what he perceived to be the right thing."
It would be unreasonable to boil down John's political thinking to the subjects of theocracy and fundamentalism that took him to the Middle East. But these were among the issues that he was most passionate about. He began looking online for ways to volunteer in the fight against IS. Once he made connections, it all happened quickly, and he said good-bye to his mother at O'Hare airport in Chicago in April 2015.
He fought for the Kurds, first in Iraq with the Peshmerga militia, then crossed over into Syria to join the rebel YPG, or People's Protection Units. He communicated with the world, and his family, on Facebook. John's posts were sardonic and witty, making light of his dangerous situation with dark or silly humour.
"I have a fine ass," is the caption for a photo of John on a donkey.
"That moment when you realize your AK is so old, it could have been used in Vietnam… and it probably hasn't been cleaned since then. #SyrianCivilWarProblems" reads another post.
Last Wednesday, Valerie returned home from work and found her worst fears realized: John had been killed. It would be a week before the circumstances and cause of death — blood loss due to a single gunshot wound near his hip — would be confirmed.
But more important than how John died is why he was there risking his life in the first place.
Before he left, John wrote an essay titled 'Why The War In Kurdistan Matters'. Initially posted on Facebook, it has been reprinted in publications around the world, including Canada's National Post and the Wall Street Journal.
"First, let me get the obvious out of the way: I do not expect anyone to agree that it is a wise course of action to volunteer to fight against ISIS," he begins, going on to mention the catastrophic results of past Western interference in the region.
John writes about the evolution of Western social values like justice and human rights, and the historical opposition to those values that arose with forces like communism and fascism. This leads him to the current existential threat to our fundamental beliefs: theocracy.
"There is nothing uniquely Islamic about this trend, except that it just so happens that the most violent proponents of theocracy today happen to be Muslim. In the 1500's, it was the Christians. By hard fighting and a brave defense of our principles, the forces of secularism managed to wrestle control of European society away from the theocrats, and we have been fighting the regressive movements that have tried to take their place ever since. The Muslim world has been dominated by theocratic politics for decades now, and that war has overflowed to engulf the rest of the world."
The essay is intelligent, informed, well-reasoned. Whatever your politics, you cannot deny that the writer is a bright, thoughtful, passionate person. He is no fool. He draws his own conclusions, but his arguments are based on a solid knowledge of history. John's decision to go fight was clearly not the rash impulse of an idealistic young man unaware of the realities of the world.
"He was happier than he's been in a really long time," Valerie says. "You could just tell that from the messages that we received back… He had been angry and frustrated and feeling impotent about effecting change, so to be able to go there and do that, he really was glad to go. And it wasn't that he intended to die. He wasn't going off on some sort of, glory-bound … he didn't have a live fast, love hard, die young kind of philosophy."
Valerie observes that people are interpreting John's story in different ways: political, philosophical, or merely sad.
There's no doubt that the death of a young, intelligent, passionate man is a terrible loss. Some might call it a waste of a good life.
But the story of John Gallagher is far more than mere tragedy. Here was a bright mind who through educating himself on the state of the world found it to be a quagmire of right and wrong, moral and amoral forces. His life's cause became a search to find a way of satisfying his desire to be a force for good, as he conceived it. He was determined to pursue that cause to his death.
"I'm prepared to give my life in the cause of averting the disaster we are stumbling towards as a civilization," John wrote in his essay. "A free Kurdistan would be good enough cause for any internationalist, but we are fortunate enough to be able to risk our necks for something more important and more righteous than anything we've faced in generations. With some fortitude and guts, we can purge the sickness that's poisoning our society, and come together to defeat this ultimate evil.
"I've been fighting this battle in one way or another for my entire life. I hope for success. The rest is in the hands of the gods."
Follow Taylor Lambert on Twitter: @TS_Lambert
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