Brothers in arms?
“These mist covered mountains are a home now for me”
The Ahmet Davutoğlu government’s recent attempt to change the conscription system in Turkey may be the beginning of a change in the military's culture, but it is also the end of an era in terms of equality.
When first introduced, the “paid-conscription” system was aimed at millions of German-Turks living outside of Turkey who were deprived of certain rights, like employment, simply because of their lack of military service. I recall the days when Prime Minister Tansu Ciller’s sons were the talk of the town because of their choice of short-term vs. paid military service.
Two decades ago, banks would not lend you 18,000 Turkish Liras if you did not have a proper job and had not completed your military service. Now, after two decades, they will actually give you money only to pay back - to not join the army.
The army was not just a symbol of Turkish power for decades; it was also a place of equality. For the majority, it did not matter if you were a high school graduate or a Harvard alumnus. Young men were subject to the same difficult training, some mundane ceremonies, and good and bad stories from the barracks. Some of my good banker friends would tell how good of friends they had become with a farmer from Mersin or a construction worker from Ordu during their days in uniform.
The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) had expressed reluctance in the “paid-conscription” system during the talks with the government. Sources close to the General Staff told me that the results of this system would be felt after February. As the security situation on the Iraqi and Syrian borders gets more tense, there is a need for a better equipped and educated force in uniform. “But this system will unfortunately deprive the TSK of the mid-level practical personnel that is urgently needed in the smaller troops," they say.
Then there is the philosophical debate. This week, the IHA news agency reported a story about a son beating his old father for not contributing to his “military payment.” If military service becomes something like a car you can buy, or a dowry you have to pay, there will be much less opportunity to professionalize it in the end.
Attempts to change military service with such drastic speed remind former soldiers of the old and declining days of the Ottoman Empire. Many felt they had to take the burden of the country not because they had chosen to do so, but simply because they were too poor.
Yes, Turkey’s military does not consist of professional, well-paid soldiers; nor does it consist of rich guys. And poor little privates are not the ones who launch coup attempts. Now, the ones in uniform - like the one who recently committed suicide and killed two of his comrades near the Syrian border - will feel totally detached from civilian life.
To build lasting peace, we have to heal the wounds of our men first.
“We are fools to make war on our brothers-in-arms,” Mark Knopfler – Dire Straits.