Syria’s ‘White Helmets’: The life savers Putin calls terrorists

Michael Weiss writes: In one of the finer poems ever written about the twentieth century, W.H. Auden managed a careful balancing act between offering a brief, symbolized history of civilization (such as it is) and explaining the strange lure of a heavily internationalized conflict in the form of the Spanish Civil War:

Our moments of tenderness blossom
As the ambulance and the sandbag.
Our hours of friendship into a people’s army.

Here it may be worth noting that Auden originally had intended to fight on the Republican side against the Fascist forces of Francisco Franco or, at the very least, drive an ambulance to rescue those who did. (Perhaps fortunately for poetry, neither contingency came to pass, although he did turn up to broadcast anti-fascist propaganda.)

And what was “Spain,” exactly, but a revolutionary struggle against a foreign-backed dictatorship that was coopted and denatured by another murderous totalitarianism?

George Orwell, who didn’t much care for Auden’s romanticized (and slightly Communist-inflected) verses about Catalonia, knew first-hand about the firing squad and the bomb and what cynical agents of Moscow could do to a people’s army.

For these and other surface similarities, the Syria catastrophe has often been likened to the Spanish one, although no poet of distinction has yet emerged to capture the competing devastation and humanity of Aleppo (even if there are many brave Arab Orwells chronicling the catastrophe in real time).

It is also too soon to tell if revanchist imperialism, reactionary politics and waves of refugees will be able to curtain-raise an encompassing world war, although the prospect doesn’t seem as remote as it once did. For all that unpleasantness, we are not without a few moments of tenderness blossoming, as Auden would have it, among altruistic first responders.

“All lives are precious and valuable,” says Mohammed Farah, a former tailor. “A child, even if he is not my son, is like my son. I cannot explain it.”

As a matter of fact, he can, with the help his brother Khaled, a former builder, and Abu Omar, a former blacksmith. All three are volunteers with the Syria Civil Defense, more commonly known as the White Helmets, owing to the identifiable headgear all of these humanitarian rescue workers wear. [Continue reading…]

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