PissPigGranddad, the Punk-Rock Florist Who Fought ISIS in Syria, Is Coming Home

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Brace Belden can’t remember exactly when he decided to give up his life as a punk-rocker turned florist turned boxing-gym manager in San Francisco, buy a plane ticket to Iraq, sneak across the border into Syria, and take up arms against the Islamic State. But as with many major life decisions, Belden, who is 27 — “a true idiot’s age,” in his estimation — says it happened gradually and then all at once.

For several years, Belden had been reading about Rojava, a large swath of northern Syria that had been carved out by a Kurdish political party and its military wing, the YPG (or People’s Protection Units), in the ruins of Syria’s civil war. The YPG had become one of the most effective bulwarks against ISIS, so much so that the Pentagon had offered support, and Western volunteers, many of them military veterans, had started enlisting. But Belden was less interested in the YPG’s battlefield victories than in what it was trying to build: a semi-autonomous region operating under a more or less socialist system. To Belden, who’d identified as a Marxist since he was a teenager, Rojava looked like Spain in 1936: Capitalism reigned supreme, and fascism was on the march, but here was an opportunity to halt the latter and foment revolution against the former. After several months of wondering whether he was truly prepared to kill for his political beliefs, and several more figuring out how to actually join a Kurdish militia, Belden told his girlfriend that he was going to Syria to do humanitarian work and got on a plane.

When I first talked to Belden, in November, he had been in Syria for two months and was looking forward to his first shower in weeks. “Incredibly filthy right down to the bone,” he said via text message. It was Thanksgiving Day in America, but Belden wasn’t celebrating. His tabor, or platoon, had spent the past three weeks advancing on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital, clearing villages of ISIS fighters along the way. They were resting in an abandoned grain silo near Ayn Issa, where a U.S. Navy officer had just been killed by an IED. “Part of me knew what I was getting into,” Belden said. “But when I got here, it sort of hit me: Oh, shit, I joined a Third World army that’s fighting ISIS.

Belden was an unlikely recruit. He had spent most of the previous decade working in flower shops in the Bay Area and had LIFE STINKS / I LIKE THE KINKS tattooed on his left bicep. The Kurds in his tabor had taken to calling Western volunteers by their nearest celebrity doppelgängers, which made Belden, who is Jewish, with floppy brown hair and black-rimmed glasses, glad that they hadn’t noticed any resemblance to Woody Allen — nor had they seen the Annie Hall parody, Annie Crawl, that Belden had posted online several months earlier, in which he played Allen’s character as if he were a dog. Instead, the Kurds called him “Mr. Bean.”

But by the time we spoke, Belden had become — at least to American leftists — a prominent figure in the Syrian Civil War, to his surprise as much as anyone else’s, thanks to the humorous and often crass dispatches he posted to Twitter under the handle @PissPigGranddad: photos of himself giving a peace sign in front of a tank or holding a grenade with a cigarette dangling from his lips, jokes about how difficult it was to find a place to masturbate, and occasional analysis of the political and military situation. Belden, who had gone from a few hundred followers before leaving San Francisco to more than 33,000 by the end of March, was less the war’s George Orwell than its digital Hunter S. Thompson. “Sorry I haven’t tweeted I’ve been (lowers shattered sunglasses revealing empty, bleeding eye sockets) killing ISIS guys,” he wrote, after returning from his first trip to the front.

Belden had put himself at the heart of one of America’s most vexing foreign-policy concerns. The battle to eradicate ISIS from Syria, on the heels of a similar campaign in Mosul, Iraq, involves a dizzying array of interested parties, from the Assad government to Russia. The YPG, which barely existed before 2011, had been so successful in battling ISIS that the Pentagon wanted to give the Kurds and their allies more support to aid the assault on Raqqa, but Turkey, which considers the YPG a terrorist organization, has strongly objected to the idea. Belden, for his part, offered this assessment: “ARM 👏 THE KURDS 👏 SPECIFICALLY 👏 PISS 👏 PIG 👏.”

Belden’s irreverence is steeped in the values of what has come to be known, by its own description, as the Dirtbag Left — a digital community centered on the ideas that Bernie should (and would) have won, that America’s professional political and journalistic classes are rotten, and that if the world is doomed, we might as well laugh about it on the way down. But when I asked Belden why he’d ultimately gone to Syria, he texted right back and made it clear it wasn’t a joke. “Oh, easy. All of us young people are going to fucking choke to death on the disgusting air vomited out from hideous machines worked by poor, sick, and hungry workers,” Belden said. “I came here to defend an alternative to that.” Even in liberal San Francisco, the leftist campaigns he had joined only ever produced minor victories: You could stop one longtime resident from getting evicted, but the newest start-up would eventually need a place to put its employees. Rojava promised something else. “This is the closest thing we’ve got to a socialist revolution right now,” Belden said. “I guess I figured it would be nice to see what it looks like when the left actually wins.”

Belden during his San Francisco florist days. Photo: Courtesy of Brace Belden

Belden grew up in Corte Madera, 15 minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge. His father is a journalist at a local TV station, and his older brother works in tech. His mother committed suicide when Belden was 6. While his family and friends describe him as smart and an avid reader, he was also, as he put it, a “troubled teen.” He went to five high schools, including an out-of-state boot camp from which he ran away before getting arrested for public intoxication in Mission Dolores Park.

In 2005, when Belden was 15, he and three friends started a punk band. “The bass player came up with an idea for us to get popular really quickly, which was, basically, ‘What if we did something really boneheaded?’ ” Belden said. The band members all leaned to the left — Belden protested the Iraq War at 13 — so the most boneheaded thing they could come up with was to become San Francisco’s leading right-wing, pro-war punk band. They called themselves Warkrime and adopted stage names like Adolf Edge and, in Belden’s case, President Chaos. Their first album, Give War a Chance, had a peace sign crossed out on the cover.

Warkrime broke up in 2008, by which point Belden had graduated from high school with little interest in college. (During a show in Berkeley, preserved on YouTube, he wore leather gloves and a ripped T-shirt and yelled at the crowd, “Who here goes to college? What the fuck is that bullshit?”) Belden got a job at Brothers Papadopoulos, a flower shop in San Francisco, which he says spurred his interest in leftist ideologies as he came face-to-face with life at the lower end of the labor market. “Like everyone else, once the system started to affect me materially, I woke up,” Belden says. By 19, he identified as a communist.

But in his early 20s, Belden descended into what he called a “dark period”: drugs, petty theft, and brief stints in jail for possession and fighting. “I don’t know if you’ve ever shot coke into your hands,” Belden said. “You think it’s gonna be awful, but it turns out to be great.” A heroin overdose left him with an $1,800 ambulance bill.

After several turns in rehab, Belden declared himself sober in August 2014. He gave up the leather jackets and bandannas in favor of the urban hipster’s uniform of collared shirts and blazers, and he started dating Jen Snyder, a political organizer. On their first proper date, Snyder says they sat by the Pacific Ocean as Belden told her “much more about the Spanish Civil War than I ever cared to know.” He was especially interested in the thousands of Americans and Europeans who went to Spain to fight as part of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

Belden had always been political, but he emerged from his dark period with a renewed purpose. “When you’re in rehab, you’re looking for an organizing principle around your life — whether it’s God, or Marx, or Öcalan,” said Joe, his father. Abdullah Öcalan is the Kurdish leader who, in the 1970s, helped found the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish government in the name of Kurdish autonomy. Turkey arrested Öcalan in 1999, with help from the CIA, and sentenced him to life on an island prison. There, Öcalan started reading the work of Murray Bookchin, an obscure political theorist who lived in the Vermont woods, and developed an ideology that mixed anarchism, communism, feminism, and environmentalism and has since become the governing principle in Rojava.

Belden kept Rojava in the back of his mind as he started getting more involved in local politics. (He quit floristry to work at a boxing gym, where he sometimes got into the ring in a suit before fights to announce, “Let’s get ready to rumble!”) He helped stage tenants-rights protests, wrote a letter to the San Francisco Chronicle defending the Black Lives Matter movement from centrist critics, and supported Bernie Sanders, albeit with limited enthusiasm for his brand of democratic socialism. “As a communist, in 2016, you gotta take what you can get,” he said.

He also became a participant in the Dirtbag Left, whose adherents were then emerging alongside the Sanders campaign, mostly to joke on Twitter about the news of the day. Belden said he largely used Twitter to “send pictures of my asshole” to liberal journalists he believed were betraying the cause. His username was LENIN_LOVER69, and his handle was @PissPigGranddad, inspired by an elderly man Belden had seen sitting in a kiddie pool on the sidewalk at a bondage fair as people urinated into a funnel in his mouth. (A “piss pig” is someone who gets off on drinking other people’s urine.)

Belden also started writing more, mostly for Maximum Rocknroll, a venerable Bay Area punk zine, where he earned a devoted following for his offbeat essays. (Maksim Podpolschik, a punk fan who ran his own zine in Moscow, even translated the columns into Russian.) In the fall of 2015, the Willamette Week, an alt-weekly in Portland, Oregon, hired Belden as a freelancer after an editor saw a humorous online petition Belden started to “Cancel Goddam Prairie Home Companion.” In one article, Belden began what was ostensibly a review of an indie-pop album titled I Want to Grow Up by writing: “A child dies in the ruins in Syria and no one is alive to cry for them because they’re all gone. On the other side of the planet, a teenager peruses Tumblr, sighing.” He asked his readers, “Who doesn’t desperately want to grow up, leave behind the slacker bullshit, and make a mark on this quickly vanishing world?”

Around that time, Belden told Snyder he was serious about going to Rojava. He started learning Kurmanji and reached out to David Graeber, a founder of Occupy Wall Street, who had recently visited Rojava, for tips on getting there for “journalistic” purposes. Belden quickly discovered that the simplest way was as a soldier. In late 2014, a steady stream of Western volunteers started joining the YPG after it successfully defended the city of Kobani from an ISIS siege. A number of websites had cropped up to guide recruits, and Belden eventually connected with a group called YPG International. “What we need are people who want to be part of this for the right reasons,” the group’s website declared. “We don’t need people who think that they are Rambo or people seeking fame.” In August, after Belden answered a few questions about his political affiliations and why he wanted to fight, the group told him to book a flight.

Over the next month, Belden quit the boxing gym, told the Willamette Week he had “accepted a position out of the country,” and, as a precaution, turned the Star of David tattoo on his middle finger into a spade. He told his friends and family he was going to build houses or start a radio station. When he asked Snyder for something to remember her by, she gave him a cheap silver band he wears on his left ring finger (she wears one too). On one of his last nights in town, Belden went to karaoke with a few friends, including Snyder, to whom he dedicated a rendition of Kiss’s “Beth”:

“Just a few more hours
And I’ll be right home to you
I think I hear them calling
Oh, Beth, what can I do.”

Brace Belden, “PissPig Granddad.” Photo: Courtesy of Brace Belden

Four days later, Belden landed in Sulaymaniyah, a Kurdish-controlled city in northeastern Iraq. The YPG had given him a phone number and not much else. “It was kind of a shitshow,” Belden said. He spent the night in a safe house, where a man tasked with vetting new recruits offered some advice: If Belden focused all his mental energy on a particular goal, the psychic force would manifest itself in tangible results. He told Belden to make a vision board. “I realized that he was just fucking explaining The Secret,” Belden said, referring to the best-selling self-help book.

The next day, Belden and a small group drove across Iraq to a bucolic mountain camp near the Syrian border, where he received his code name, Rashid Fouad. “Everyone else has a cool one that means like ‘Lightning’ or ‘Cyclone,’ ” Belden said. “Mine’s just a shitty Arabic name.” That night, they hiked several miles through the darkness, crossing the Tigris River into Syria in an inflatable boat hidden by some vegetation on the shore.

In the morning, they arrived at the Academy, where the YPG trains its recruits. The Western volunteers who had been joining the YPG made for a motley crew: Many were former soldiers, but there had also been a 53-year-old British actor who had played a deckhand in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, and a man who came to be known as Tim the Cannibal after he bit into the severed foot of a dead ISIS fighter and gnawed on a fellow YPG soldier who had been injured but turned out to still be alive.

By the time Belden got to the Academy, however, most of the recruits were there out of sympathy for the YPG’s leftist cause. “The Kurds asked us if we were for Trump or Hillary, and it was sort of a surreal moment to be explaining who Bernie is to these guerrillas in the mountains,” Belden said. He and his class of nine recruits began each morning with a run while carrying a Kalashnikov. Most of the weapons were ancient, and ammunition was in short enough supply that Belden was allowed to take only a dozen practice shots during training.

Instead, much of the monthlong boot camp focused on ideological indoctrination into the system espoused by Öcalan, whose portrait hangs in practically every building in Rojava. There was little personal property, meals were prepared and eaten communally, and even the YPG’s generals did their own laundry. Öcalan’s ideology has a strong feminist bent. There are all-female fighting brigades, known as the Women’s Protection Units, and the YPG has a roughly equal number of male and female commanders. “It’s hard to describe in anything close to detail the seriousness in which (some) of the people here take the ideology,” Belden tweeted. “Of course, I’m still cynical, but while things are frustrating in some aspects, when I take a step back, it’s amazing how some people have taken to it.”

This was a rare moment without the armor of irony for Belden, who had already begun to build a following on Twitter, as the Dirtbag Left started to realize that one of its own really had gone to Syria to fight ISIS and began retweeting his outré reports:

“Should be attentive on this guard duty but my duty to absolutely never log off supersedes that so uh hope ISIS is having a sweatpants night”

“War changes u … Two weeks ago I was an idealist … now all I desire is Wi-Fi good enough for 30 seconds of Bang Bus”

Belden turned 27 at the Academy. To celebrate, his commanders let him take several shots with a Soviet sniper rifle and have a few hours on the internet, which he used to log on to Twitter and tell a liberal with whom he disagreed, “I want you to eat my ass until the sun explodes.”

On November 6, a few days after Belden left the Academy, his tabor loaded into a caravan of trucks, minivans, and bulldozers heading south toward Raqqa. The YPG had just announced the start of Operation Euphrates Wrath, an offensive to take the ISIS stronghold. Belden had joined a heavy-weapons tabor but had been given almost no training on the machine gun he was manning on the back of a jerry-rigged tank. Before leaving, he posted a photo of the tank with the caption, “Your Uber driver here … am outside.”

Belden’s tabor was advancing on Tal Saman, an ISIS-controlled village north of Raqqa; Belden spotted a car racing toward them, likely loaded with explosives, but a fighter jet blew it up before he could even take aim. His tabor then “bombarded the shit out of” Tal Saman, Belden said, and later found the city strewn with corpses that were so disfigured they didn’t notice some until it was too late: “Technically, I did a war crime, because I peed on a dead person,” Belden told a Rolling Stone reporter writing about Westerners fighting with the YPG. “I didn’t mean to.”

Belden’s Twitter followers, not to mention his loved ones, were largely unaware that his tabor had fired some of the first shots of Operation Euphrates Wrath. The Dirtbag Left rejoiced, then, when Belden texted news of his whereabouts to an editor at Jacobin, a socialist magazine. “Tell Twitter that I am not only alive but we’re taking villages like crazed hounds,” Belden wrote. Someone was firing mortars at them, “but he’s a dipshit and keeps missing.” A Syrian news outlet also posted an interview with Belden in which he admitted that his family and friends didn’t really know what he was doing. “I hope they’re thinking that I’m doing something good,” Belden said. “There’s sort of a split over it.”

“I was pretty fucking pissed,” Snyder, his girlfriend, told me. She had been supportive of the trip when she thought it was for humanitarian work, but Belden had deflected her questions about why he kept posting pictures of himself holding rifles by insisting that it was simply standard issue for civilians in Rojava. He had tried to make up for his absence by devising a scavenger hunt for her: One of the clues instructed Snyder to open a book in their apartment to a particular page, where she found a Whole Foods gift certificate — for $69.

Snyder, who kept a rose and a pair of Mao’s books on their nightstand to remind herself of Belden, was largely resigned to the fact there was little she could do to stop him. “When he says, ‘I wanna help people not die from fascism,’ it’s really hard to say, ‘You selfish son of a bitch,’ ” Snyder said. His friends and family all agreed that Belden’s decision made a certain amount of sense, which left it to Podpolschik, his Russian fan — who unhappily remembers life under communism — to ask Belden’s friends how this had happened. “They all said, ‘We support him. We’re glad he’s fighting ISIS,’ ” Podpolschik told me. “It was weird to me that nobody said, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ ”

When I talked to Belden the day after Christmas, he seemed to be asking himself the same question. “It’s boring as hell,” he said of life at the front. In the first two months of Operation Euphrates Wrath, the YPG and its allies had captured 800 square miles of territory without much resistance. There was danger — a suicide bomber blew himself up in a house where Belden had been staying a few days earlier, and a British YPG volunteer had shot himself in the head to avoid capture after being surrounded — but the only fighting Belden had been involved in occurred at a distance. He said that he had grappled with the moral complications of killing and was ready to do so, but thus far the YPG seemed more interested in keeping Belden and other Western volunteers alive for publicity reasons. Plus, whenever he saw ISIS fighters in his binoculars, they were running away.

Looking for more action, Belden had transferred to an assault team and was now the tabor’s designated RPG gunner. But as with the machine gun, he had received no training in how to use it. “A machine gun is like a woman,” he said in a video he posted on Twitter, mocking his lack of battle preparation. “I don’t understand it, I’m afraid of it, and one day I’ll accidentally be killed by one.”

Belden hadn’t known what to expect in Syria, but life in a war zone was proving far from glamorous. “There’s a reason there ain’t a lot of Kurdish restaurants, I’ll tell you that,” he said of the food, adding that he had developed some empathy with Tim the Cannibal. “We don’t get a lot of protein.” He had brought a laptop and a flash drive with the first three seasons of Seinfeld, but his computer broke, leaving him with a half-dozen books — an anthology of Soviet short stories, some science fiction, The Collected Works of John Reed — most of which he had already finished. His tabor had hooked up a television, but Syria offered few programming options. “Seeing Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties six and a half times is gonna give me worse PTSD than anything else,” Belden said. I asked if he missed anything from life in America. “I do miss teats,” he said. “Sorry, that was juvenile, but I’m going insane here.”

His iPhone offered an escape, at least whenever he could get Wi-Fi. On Inauguration Day, as his Kurdish comrades kept mocking him by chanting “America cu,” which translates as “America’s over,” Belden spent most of the day online, trolling Barack Obama (“lol dog u can’t drone Yemen anymore”) and white nationalist Richard Spencer.

A few weeks later, Belden’s tabor returned to the Academy for extra training, and when Belden walked into a room where several new European volunteers had arrived, one of them immediately pointed at him and said, “PissPigGranddad!” The man was one of several foreign volunteers who told him they had been inspired to join the YPG partly by him. “This is weird,” Belden told me. “I think I’m a famous leftist now.” (Snyder admitted to minor jealousy watching some of her boyfriend’s new followers ask if there was a PissPigGrandma.) In February, Belden appeared on Chapo Trap House, a podcast that serves as a kind of Meet the Press for the Dirtbag Left. Belden needed no introduction to the audience, and the hosts spent much of the next hour making masturbation jokes and talking about the fight against ISIS as if it were a video game. His followers ate it up. “You are not alone, comrade,” @MarxNotNarcs wrote. “I am listening to this episode and rolling a blunt in solidarity. Fuck to ISIS.”

Belden’s growing audience had produced a few tangible benefits. In February, he posted a fund-raiser for medical supplies and a number of his followers contributed. (“Nice,” one of them wrote when the campaign got to 69 donors.) But his following also came with added pressure. “Now I have to be political, and political is not my thing, because it’s corny,” Belden said. Part of him wanted to stop tweeting entirely, but his commander told him to continue because “it makes good propaganda.”

His sudden celebrity also brought critics. Some Chapo listeners objected to his admission that he had gone to Syria in part “wanting to actually fight and see if I can,” while others balked at the flippancy with which he sometimes seemed to approach life in the Syrian civil war, during which as many as 500,000 people have died. The conspiratorial fringe of the Dirtbag Left even intimated that there might be something sinister to the story of @PissPigGranddad, claiming that a photograph supposedly from a CIA camp showed a man who looked like Belden, which was true, in that the man was white with brown hair.

Belden suddenly found himself at one of the mini fault lines emerging within the left itself. People with Marx and Lenin avatars debated his ideological purity on the Full Communism subreddit — “We shouldn’t be praising him, comrades” — and criticized him for unwittingly aligning himself with the American military, which reportedly killed 30 civilians in an air strike near Raqqa last month. Other leftists wondered if perhaps Belden was being too idealistic. One left-wing activist who had become friendly with Belden told me he worried Belden and others who had come of age in the era of the Dirtbag Left would become disillusioned by the slow pace of leftist movements in the United States, and might ultimately be disappointed by the siren song of a pure revolution in Rojava. “When I look at Rojava, I see a desert and a lot of broken-down buildings,” he said. “To me, that doesn’t look like the complex socialist society Marx and Engels were talking about.”

Belden accepted some of the criticism. He was uncomfortable with American military involvement in Syria and aware that his tweets often didn’t reflect the conflict’s most important concerns. At the same time, he subscribed to the Dirtbag Left’s philosophy that vulgarity could be politically effective, that humor in the face of the world’s horrors had its uses — and, in any event, more people retweeted pictures of him with stray puppies than the serious news items he posted.

Belden had also never confused tweeting for the hard work of actually fighting for his beliefs and had no patience for couch jockeys who wrote him to ask whether the YPG had a cyberwarfare division. “Technically fucking up some Pepe dork isn’t anti-fascist action,” Belden said, referring to the alt-right frog meme. “It’s just bullying a nerd.”

In early March, Belden still hadn’t engaged in any close-quarters combat. But his mood was more sober as he detailed the various threats that were now ever present. A volunteer from California had been killed by a Turkish air strike. ISIS had begun using drones to drop homemade explosives. And Belden had recently experienced “the worst moment in my entire life” when he and several other YPG volunteers were looking for mines in a recently liberated city. He was walking behind another soldier when he heard a click and realized that his colleague had stepped on a mine. “For a heartbeat, I just stood there thinking, This is it,” Belden said. The explosive, luckily, hadn’t gone off.

Belden had switched tabors again, still in search of real fighting, and was spending a few weeks getting “advanced training” as preparation for the final assault on Raqqa: four hours a day of running along walls with a heavy pack and a gun and hitting the deck as preparation for what to do in case a bomb did go off. He had heard a rumor that they would be asked to put on a helmet and get shot in the head so they would know what it felt like. The Pentagon, meanwhile, had been sorting out what to do. Turkey remained opposed to arming the Kurds — a Turkish newspaper referred to Belden, in an article about his Chapo appearance, as a “U.S. terrorist” — fearing further Kurdish territorial expansion. But after a lengthy debate, the Trump administration seemed to offer its answer in March: Several battalions of Army Rangers and Marines were sent to provide support for the YPG and its allies.

Belden was leaving for the front the next day. “I’m hoping to be in the next part of the offensive,” Belden said. But when we spoke a few weeks later, the offensive had yet to fully begin. (It is expected to start this month.) His tabor had been in a defensive position, exchanging occasional fire with ISIS fighters, but the most danger he’d encountered was a long-distance rocket attack. It had been six months since Belden left San Francisco, and Snyder had set a late-March deadline for his return. “Otherwise I burn all his belongings and destroy his life,” she told me. So, Belden made his way back to the Academy. He was smuggled into Iraq at the end of March, back to Sulaymaniyah, where he spent a few days in a safe house — without his iPhone, which had been confiscated by his minders — waiting to catch a flight back to the United States. Belden admitted that he was glad to be getting out just as the American military presence was ramping up, and was now worried about what extreme vetting might await him. Homeland Security agents had visited the family of an Indian-American YPG volunteer to ask what he was doing in Syria, according to Belden. Meanwhile, a British YPG volunteer who returned home last spring is currently under investigation for possibly violating that country’s terrorism laws.

But most of all he seemed to be worrying about what life would be like at home, especially now that his celebrity had begun to grow beyond Twitter. The Democratic Socialists of America, which has seen its membership nearly triple in the past year, has a custom emoji of Belden’s face in its internal chat system, and students at the University of Glasgow nominated him for rector, an honorary position currently held by Edward Snowden, plastering the campus with posters of Belden holding a rifle and puppy alongside the caption “Sometimes anti-social, always anti-fascist.” (He lost to a Scottish human-rights lawyer.) In March, Jake Gyllenhaal attached himself to a movie about leftists who had joined the YPG, which upset Belden out of a fear that the film would ignore his socialist principles for the sake of telling a war story about young men finding themselves. “I want to ruin it,” Belden said. (“I don’t even look like Jake Gyllenhal [sic],” he tweeted, with a picture of Jared Leto.)

Belden said that he wanted to write more, possibly a book, but not about Syria because it would “validate all the people who say I was just here for myself.” Plus, he had read Hemingway and Orwell and didn’t know what he would add to the genre. “It’s kind of like For Whom the Bell Tolls, except I don’t get to have sex,” Belden said. “I mean, what am I gonna write about? ‘I tried to find a place to jerk off, and I couldn’t.’ The end.”

After Orwell left Spain, he went to the Mediterranean with his wife, planning to do some fishing, but he quickly found life there “a bore and a disappointment.” When I asked Belden what he was looking forward to at home, aside from seeing Snyder and his family, he replied, “Honestly, that’s about it.” He planned to get back into domestic politics and was encouraged by the rise of activism in America, but he was still wary that the Trump resistance was being co-opted by mainstream liberals. “I want to use the small amount of social capital I now have to bridge the gap between a lot of the bickering far-left organizations,” he said. But late one Friday night, Belden texted me unprompted. He was in a reflective mood and said that serving in the YPG had offered a “kind of solidarity I haven’t felt elsewhere.” The closest thing he could come up with was touring with Warkrime — the crappy food, the cramped spaces, the fact that everybody smelled bad. Most important, however, was the sense of common purpose. He knew there were fights to be fought at home, but even as he prepared to leave, he was finding it hard to let go of Rojava. “I’m selfish and want to participate in real revolution,” Belden said. “It’s just this real amazing feeling, like an energy that I can’t muster up in the day-to-day — like you’re actually living.”

*This article appears in the April 3, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

The Punk Florist Who Fought ISIS in Syria Is Coming Home