"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
What provokes a young American man to leave his comfortable and relatively peaceful homeland to fight for Islam in a miserable, war-ravaged nation halfway around the world? In the case of John Walker Lindh, who on Monday pled guilty to felony charges related to his involvement with the Taliban, it was reportedly the end result of his disillusionment with what he saw as America’s profane, materialistic culture. For Aukai Collins, whose new book “My Jihad” provides a fascinating account of the trajectory of a Western mujahid, it was the guns.
To be scrupulously fair, Collins is an observant member of the faith he converted to during a stint in the California Youth Authority while a teenager in the late ’80s and early ’90s; in the course of his various adventures and misadventures in such dangerous places as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Azerbaijan, Kosovo, Chechnya and the wilds of Arizona, he often found occasion to fault his fellow warriors for drinking, eating pork and “screwing around.” Nevertheless, “My Jihad” is not the work of a deeply spiritual or reflective man.
Rather, it’s the work of a guy who frankly professes his “long-standing love for weapons,” who can describe a Russian T-72 tank as “one really neat toy” and write: “I have always enjoyed the sound of an RPG. It makes a tremendously loud, hollow boom as the rocket leaves the tube, like a shotgun but ten times louder. Then the rocket makes a shrieking sound as it flies through the air, which is followed by a sharp boom at impact.” Ordnance is far more lovingly detailed here than the particulars of faith.
So “My Jihad” doesn’t provide much insight into the appeal of Islam or the religion’s many subtleties and elaborations. What it does offer, though, is a self-portrait of a man of violence, someone who seeks out mortal peril and who wants to look his victim in the eyes as he’s cutting his throat. Since the people who write books are very seldom men of violence, and the ones who are usually don’t care to admit it, this makes “My Jihad” a rare thing indeed. On top of that, Collins offers a grunt’s-eye view of the underground world of the mujahedin: the training camps, the motley platoons fighting away in various global hot spots, the smooth-talking organizers gathering fighters, funds and arms in Western cities. Then there’s the FBI and the CIA; finally repelled by Islamist terrorism, Collins wound up working for both agencies for several years during which they earned his implacable contempt.
As a holy warrior, Collins picked his battles well, at least by his own (unverified) account. Except for a very brief interlude on the Pakistan/Kashmir border, he fought in places where Muslims were clearly the abused parties at the hands of non-Muslim persecutors: in Kosovo and, especially, in Chechnya, where he witnessed the horrific price the Russian army exacted from the republic for its efforts to achieve independence. (His description of the nearly ruined city of Grozny — dark, silent and haunted by hungry now-wild dogs — is especially chilling.) He sees himself as a “have gun, will travel” figure who heads out to battle whenever “a Muslim land is being attacked and Muslims are being killed.”
In Collins’ version of Islam, fighting jihad is not just the duty of every able-bodied Muslim, but the ultimate fulfillment of the faith. There is, of course, disagreement among Muslims about the precise nature of jihad — many define it as an internal struggle rather than armed conflict — just as Christianity encompasses a spectrum that ranges from St. Francis to David Koresh. Collins deplores the Sept. 11 attacks and maintains that “being an Islamic fundamentalist does not mean that you support or engage in terrorism. Fighting jihad as a mujahid doesn’t mean that you kidnap people or murder civilians.”
During his first expedition overseas in 1993, Collins trained at the Khalid Bin Whalid camp just over the Pakistani border in Afghanistan. The camp was sponsored by Osama bin Laden, among others, and was leveled by U.S. cruise missiles in 1998, in retaliation for the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa. Collins never met bin Laden, but he had an invitation to do so when he was working for the CIA and the agency forbade him to do it.
At Khalid Bin Whalid, Collins befriended and, much to the annoyance of the camp’s leaders, perpetrated countless frisky and potentially lethal pranks with a man he calls Umar, also known as Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was recently convicted and sentenced to death for his role in the killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Back in the day, Omar invited Collins to join him in a “hostage operation” involving British “tourists or journalists” in Kashmir. Collins declined because “the idea of taking hostages … didn’t appeal to me.” In short, he kept some nasty company, but says he steered clear of terrorism and concentrated on getting into Chechnya, where civilians were being wantonly bombed and used for target practice by the Russians.
Eventually, Collins became exasperated with the mujahedin organizers he got mixed up with. While cooling his heels in Baku, Azerbaijan, and trying to get back to the action, he was double-crossed, given the runaround and otherwise exposed to the “shady side” of the cause. (Collins attributes much of this shade to Arabs, of whom he has almost as low an opinion as he does of U.S. intelligence agencies.) Collins, who insists he only fought against military targets, was also disgusted by a series of Islamist terrorist attacks on tourists in Egypt in the mid-1990s. Feeling compelled to “defend Islam” against “a bunch of cowards [who] were killing old ladies and kids in the name of jihad,” he offered his services to the CIA. He was transferred to the FBI and returned to the U.S., where, according to him, both agencies wasted his time, bogged him down in red tape, disregarded his informed suggestions, endangered his life and wrecked his marriage. (His first marriage. At 21, Collins married a second wife, a 16-year-old Chechen woman, whom he spends much of the book trying to extract from the republic.)
Did Collins’ sense of religious devotion compel him to go to war, or did Islam give him a channel for his martial fervor? The latter, I think. “My Jihad” is an ode to the intoxication of battle; “I’d never felt so alive,” he writes many times in describing the thrill of it. “This was real. There wasn’t any other way than this.” Patrolling in Kosovo, he feels “aware of every sound and movement. Everything becomes sharper and clearer … Most fools love war until they experience it. On that day I realized that I was among the strange few who knew war and loved it nonetheless.” Many of the mujahedin Collins meets fall into this category, and Islam gives him and them a moral framework for consummating that love.
This craving for armed conflict, more than hatred of Western culture, seems to be what drives the author and many of his comrades. Collins sees his strange new world through a Hollywood lens. Walking into the mud “chow hall” at Khalid Bin Whalid and beholding the “strange-looking earthen ovens with open fire pits,” he instantly thinks “it seemed like a place where the Sand People from ‘Star Wars’ might like to throw a party, roasting Ewoks before eating them.” Russian bases remind him of “the bridge scene in ‘Apocalypse Now’”; the vengeful CIA, pissed at him for refusing to conduct a mission to Chechnya he deemed too foolhardy, is compared to “the crazy woman in the movie ‘Fatal Attraction’”; and solitary “wanderers” who roamed through the mountains of Chechnya fighting injustice bring to mind Clint Eastwood. This saturation in movies is of a piece with Collins’ displaced Americanness, with his refusal to eat the weird food (lentil dahl) in the training camp and his pique at the disorganization of the mujahedin groups who can never get it together to send someone to meet him at the airport. But his fellow holy warriors were also under the sway of silver-screen heroics.
After Collins has cheerfully undergone both an appendectomy and major leg surgery under primitive conditions in Chechnya, he recounts days spent in a hospital with other wounded rebel soldiers, “yelling and cheering at cheesy Hollywood action movies.” Bruce Lee was “always a favorite”; one group of mujahedin discussed “what would happen if we had Bruce Lee on our side. Most of them were of the opinion that it would turn the tide of the war in our favor simply because the Russians would be too scared to fight Bruce Lee.” (“Van Damme was always booed” for reasons that are never made clear.) The patients watch “Braveheart” many times, and “one Chechen fighter who had lost his arms would always jump up and demonstrate to all of us how he would swing a sword like Mel Gibson if he still had arms. ‘Look, I’m so fast you can’t see my hands,’ he would say as he swung his stumps around.”
Collins’ own leg is eventually amputated during one of his respites in the U.S. It doesn’t slow him down much, and soon enough he’s headed back toward “the action.” It’s impossible not to admire Collins’ astonishing physical courage — I finally lost count of the hair’s-breadth escapes recounted in “My Jihad,” — but it’s also unnerving. There’s a kind of imaginative poverty to Collins’ capacity for risk-taking, a bit like that found in people who never get jealous. Of course, those who think too much often find themselves unable to act at all, and both cowardice and jealousy are unsavory emotions, but to be so limpidly violent as Collins requires almost a willed lack of self-examination and self-knowledge.
Perhaps this what soldiers are made of — and young ones at that; Collins began to suffer more fear in combat situations once he got into his late 20s and had a son back in the U.S. But age does not seem to bring Collins much wisdom when it comes to his personal life. He blames the secrecy of his intelligence work for estranging his first wife (an American girlfriend who converted to marry him); the possibility that she got sick of a husband who spent long periods of time overseas trying to get killed, marrying another woman and needing to be wired money doesn’t occur to him.
There are even more disturbing contradictions in “My Jihad.” Collins describes his remorse after shooting, by necessity, an Azeri gangster who had been sent to assassinate him. The men’s eyes meet, and Collins thinks: “He had been trying to kill me only a second earlier, but I knew it wasn’t personal, and now I felt an incredible sense of compassion for him.” Compassion he did not feel, however, for the Russian soldier who he stabs virtually in his bed during one stealth attack on a barracks in the Chechen countryside. “An older guy, with a scruffy face, he reeked of sweat, cigarettes, and vodka. I pull back his head, looked into his eyes, and cut his throat.”
This victim, of course, belonged to a nation of people Collins refers to as “pigs.” Collins doesn’t seem to be aware that not all Russian soldiers in Chechnya perpetrate war crimes, that many of them are trapped in that nightmarish, dehumanizing conflict through no choice of their own, much as Collins’ own father was in Vietnam. To kill with such cool dispatch, you must be able to reduce the victim to his membership in a fraternity of subhuman swine. Or perhaps it’s just war, in other words “nothing personal.” Why a hired killer merits compassion in this context and an enemy soldier doesn’t is just the sort of paradox you must ignore to earn a place among the “strange few who knew war and loved it nonetheless.”
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)