Turkey's Military and its Role in Politics

Bosphorus Watch favorite, Gareth Jenkins, has authored yet another intriguing piece about Turkish society. Jenkins' most recent essay concerns the professionalization of the Turkish military. Currently, only one in six members of Turkey's military is a professional soldier. While the military's total size is 600,000, the operational effectiveness of its conscripts has been repeatedly called into question especially during the recent operations in northern Iraq. In particular, Turkish conscripts have demonstrated a penchant for being abducted by the PKK, undoubtedly causing great embarrassment to the leaders of NATO's second-largest member force.

Starting in May 2008, the army will begin to phase out the use of non-professional soldiers for its six commando brigades, which comprise approximately 10,000 soldiers. By the end of 2009, the commandos will operate as an entirely professional fighting force. Although unlikely to be accomplished in the short-term, the commandos may only be the beginning of a military-wide effort to transform the Turkish military into an exclusively professional force.

(For further details, please refer to this article in Today's Zaman.)

The strength of Jenkins' piece is his in-depth exploration of the army's past and present relationship with Turkish society. His consideration of the military's role as an "educator" is particularly important:

It is unclear, however, what impact the increased professionalization of the Turkish military will have on its relationship with society as a whole. Many in the higher echelons of the TGS favor the complete professionalization of all of the country's armed services, although they acknowledge that cost considerations make such a change unlikely in the near future. But there is also a concern that the abolition of conscription would sever what they regard as a sacred bond between the Turkish nation and the profession of soldiering.

Turkish school textbooks still portray the military as something akin to the essence of the Turkish nation, although the intensity with which it is inculcated has declined in recent decades. Indeed, until the 1960s and 1970s, when more Turks began to have access to formal education, the country's military was itself frequently referred to as "a school." It was often during their military service that conscripts from poorer backgrounds first learned to read and write and become familiar with social niceties such as the use of a knife and fork. Even today, for the mass of the male Turkish population, military service remains a rite of passage into manhood. Although it is frequently overlaid with resentment at the often haughty manner in which they are treated by the members of the officer corps, many retain an emotional attachment to the institution, if not necessarily to all of its members, long after they have completed their military service. Particularly outside the Turkish elite, the inculcation of the identification between the military and the nation, together with the personal experience of military service, undoubtedly have an impact on public willingness to tolerate the Turkish military's occasional attempts to influence the political process; especially in times of perceived risk or crisis.

The identification between the military and the nation is, however, already being eroded by the spread of literacy and developments in communications, which have meant that Turks now have access to many more sources of information than the state-controlled educational system and what they are told by their commanding officers during their military service. Similarly, the gradual professionalization of the army, even if it is initially only in certain units, is likely to weaken the emotional bond formed by military service; raising the possibility that the requirements of improved military efficiency may come at the cost of a reduction in the TGS's ability to influence the political process in Turkey.

In relation to the lower and rural echelons of Turkish society referenced in Jenkins' article, the army arguably maintains a degree of influence greater than that exercised by the country's traditional primary and secondary school apparatus. In particular, it is relatively unknown to what level this demographic actually completes traditional education. Therefore, military service can be viewed as the last opportunity for the Turkish state to create an "emotional link" among the more disenfranchised, poor or rural members of Turkish society.

The poor or rural male demographic has proven quite significant to contemporary Turkish political proceedings; the number of AKP supporters who hail from this segment of society is substantial. As a result, the Turkish military's ability to apply an emotional stamp on the "hearts and minds" of these poor or rural young men would clearly have great appeal to those in Turkey who advocate a strict secular, Western line, such as country's generals. Professionalization of the military would not only involve a stiff financial cost, but it would also eliminate an important means of ideological influence.

There would also appear to be a second approach to analyzing the
military's pursuit of an entirely professional force. With his comment that, "the identification between the military and the nation is, however, already being eroded by the spread of literacy and developments in communications", Jenkins makes the tacit suggestion that the Turkish military may be coming to grips with the fact that the secular state's ideological influence is waning. There is arguably no greater proof of this fact than in the repeated democratic election of the the AKP.

By foregoing the traditional opportunity to shape the hearts and minds of young conscripts, the military could instead concentrate its resources on creating a secular elite through the ranks of a professional army. It is widely known that those soldiers who are allowed to move up the ranks of the military are able to do so as a result of both professional and ideological merit. Those who profess beliefs other than the traditional Ataturk-inspired secular Western line encounter a professional dead-end. With a completely professional army, Turkey's generals could better guarantee that the desired ideology is maintained from the high command all the way down to the troops chasing the PKK on the ground.

While such improved ideological efficiency, paired with more reliable combat training, would ideally strengthen the Turkish military's operational capabilities, it would also reposition the military's role in society as Jenkins demonstrates.

Despite its much feted "e-coup" in the spring of 2007, the Turkish military's role in politics over the course of the AKP era has been steady, but remarkably restrained compared to past eras. It is conceivable that the generals have in fact bought into the need to practice good public relations vis-a-vis the EU, the Western media, and possibly even Turkey's regional peers.

Rather than diluting its resources in order to more widely interact with the masses, the professionalization of the Turkish military would be a philosophical shift towards the strengthening of elites. Although this might be a rather unfair comparison, a more PR-savvy Turkish military philosophy may hope to develop personalities from within it ranks, who ultimately play a role in Turkish politics similar to the one played by Dwight Eisenhower, Colin Powell and now John McCain in America.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

May 12, 2008 @ 11:26 pm CEST

Conscripts do not ever rise in the army. The best prospect the few interested amongst them can create for themselves is to stay as specialist sergeants (i.e., continue as professional soldiers, rather commandos). The officer corps is already drawn overwhelmingly from separate military schools from ninth grade level and up. Creating an elite corps should therefore not worry us much.

The gradual transition discussed would have other advantages. One, for example, is to start better accommodating consciencious objectors, and getting women to serve, too, in uniformed or non-uniformed areas of need. Like social services, education, health care, etc. in addition to military as needed. If the term of service can be decreased to six months, it can even be applied universally to everyone within the age window of 18 to 21. There is your better way for the national institution to keep its influence over hearts and minds.