There are probably a lot more people who hold strong opinions about Matthew VanDyke than there are who have bothered spending any time listening to him explain himself.
Branded variously as an adventurer, war tourist, terrorist, and freedom fighter, one of the curious features of VanDyke’s story is that if he wore a U.S. military uniform and described himself as having fought for what he believes in, he would probably have avoided much of the criticism. Opponents of war are much more comfortable blaming U.S. governments for America’s military misadventures of the last twelve years than holding individual soldiers responsible. VanDyke, on the other hand, is supposedly guilty of some unconscionable form of recklessness for having involved himself, of his own free will, in wars in Libya and Syria.
While VanDyke’s original decision to go to the Middle East emerged out his desire to make adventure films, his knowledge of the region was already much more advanced than the average American reporter who got sent out to cover the war in Iraq.
[In 2002] VanDyke entered Georgetown University’s prestigous Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in Washington, D.C., where he says he was a bit of an oddity. “There were people who were in the military, in the CIA, working for the State Department,” he explains, “and there I was, riding my skateboard to class.” VanDyke, too, wanted to work for the CIA, explaining that he “was mesmerized by the Hollywood aspect of it, my fictitious image of what the CIA does. Now I know it’s more like a mixture of James Bond and the U.S. Post Office, as one of my friends who works in U.S. intelligence has told me.”
While in the process of applying for a summer internship at the CIA, VanDyke’s problems with authority came to the fore. “I went to my first CIA interview, and that day, after the interview, I went to my first Iraq War protest,” he recalls. “I didn’t really see a conflict at the time. I nailed the interview and I got pretty far through the process.” But his polygraph test kept getting delayed as his anti-war activism grew, and ultimately, he decided against reapplying. “With a concentration in Middle East security studies, they were going to put me on the Iraq War,” he explains, “and I didn’t want to work on a war I didn’t believe in.”