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Why Does The Turkish Military Exist?

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] The Turkish media spent the past week discussing the amazing adventures of the Supreme Military Council. During this annual meeting, which takes a few days, the top generals typically sit down and decide who among them will be retired, promoted, or demoted. They also often fire some fellow officers from the staunchly secularist organization, mostly for “retrograde activities,” such as doing daily prayers, refraining from alcohol, or having a wife who wears a headscarf. Usually, the generals just decide what to do about all these “internal” issues of theirs, whereas prime ministers and presidents, who are supposed to be above them, just put a signature on what they have agreed upon. Beyond the Ankaralogists But things were different this time. Nearly a dozen of the high-ranking officers primed for promotion were suspects in alleged coup schemes prepared against the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government. So, neither Prime Minister Erdoğan nor President Gül, a former AKP minister, were willing to let them be promoted. That’s also why this year’s Supreme Military Council took longer and got even more newsy than usual. Our “Ankaralogists,” a version of the Kremlinologists of the Cold War, kept on analyzing the intricate details of the four day long summit, trying to understand which “side” (civil or military) prevailed. Things were not fully settled as I was writing this piece, but it was obvious that the civilian side got the upper hand and blocked the promotion of the coup suspects. Of course, this ascendance of the elected leaders over self-appointing soldiers is a good step for the country. You might not like those elected leaders, and that’s just fine. Then you can support other politicians who challenge them. (And that is called democracy.) The problem in Turkey is that those who did not like the elected politicians have often relied on the military, which itself was more than willing to interfere with politics. What emerged from this alliance was a quasi-military regime, which has been in power since the first coup in 1960. Today, the gradual demise of this regime not just serves democratization but also allows us Turks to ask questions that did not occur to most of us before. One of them is almost an ontological one: Why does an institution called the military exist at all? In democratic countries, the answer to that question is a pragmatic one limited to self-defense: the world can be a dangerous place and sovereign states need some military force to repel potential foreign threats. In dictatorships, though, the military is not just about foreign threats. Its even more important job is to protect the regime from “internal threats” created by political dissidents. Take the North Korean military, for example. Its constitutionally defined job is to “defend the socialist system and the gains of the revolution.” Another of its official texts further explains that the institution exists “to annihilate those who dare to thrust their claws to the headquarters of the Korean Revolution.” To Turks, this must be very familiar. Our generals, too, speak about protecting a “revolution” and its “gains.” They, too, threaten the dissidents, real or perceived, who “dare to” oppose that revolution. And, in a way again similar to North Korea, they adhere to an intense cult of personality created around a deceased yet ever-present leader. Indoctrination at work One of the outcomes of that ideological nature of the Turkish military is that the institution keeps too many men – now around a million – under arms. It is not rocket science to see that in the age of terrorism and guerilla warfare, we need a much smaller yet better equipped and trained army. But our generals insist on keeping the national mandatory military service, for it is less about preparing soldiers for war than “educating” them with the official ideology. My personal experience in the military (which was exceptionally short for it was a partly “paid” one) was revealing enough for me: for four weeks in uniform, I dodged just three bullets in total, in a “training” which lasted for 15 minutes. But I then listened to dozens of hours of seminars on “Atatürk’s principles.” I even heard a long lecture from a two-star general on the glorious history of the pre-Islamic Turks, and the “darkness” that Islam supposedly brought upon them. All that indoctrination, as you can probably tell, failed to convert me, as it has many others. But it is still a problem that we Turkish men all have to spend many months in such military service which neither we nor our country really need. What we rather need is a professional military, which will just do its democratically defined job and be responsible to our democratically elected leaders. You may say I am a dreamer, but I am really not the only one.
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