Military service and manhood in Turkey

IssueJune - August 2002
Feature by Emma Sinclair-Webb

Close to and almost surrounding the Turkish parliament in Ankara are the various headquarters of the military establishment army, navy, airforce, and gendarmerie. Diagonally opposite looms the office of the General Chief of Staff.

It is well known that the armed services have played a very central role in modern Turkey, since the foundation of the Republic in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, himself a military leader. Three democratically elected governments have been ousted by military coups - in 1960, 1971 and 1980 - and in 1997 an army-led intervention euphemistically called the “28 February process” brought about the demise of the then Islamist-conservative coalition government.

It has been calculated that the country has seen nearly 26 years of martial law: in other words, that for a third of the life of the Republic, military governance has been imposed in one part of the country or another and sometimes throughout.1 And this does not take account of the period since 1987 which has seen provinces in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey designated an emergency zone and, in the context of the war in that region through much of the 1990s, placed under a more stringent form of martial law.

The institutionalised relationship between the armed forces and the government and state is enshrined in the 1982 constitution, prepared under the military regime of that period: specific provision is made for a body known as the National Security Council, composed of members of the government in office and senior military personnel and meeting regularly to discuss, behind closed doors, issues pertaining to governmental decision-making of all kinds. The constitution inscribes the Council's function as one of taking decisions “imperative to safeguard the peace and security of society” and providing “advice” to be given “priority consideration” by the government.

But beyond this, there is little doubt too that the armed forces as an institution commands the support of much of the Turkish population and in general tends to be viewed as trustworthy rather than over-powerful in relation to a political class characterised as corrupt.

Closely related to this favourable view of the military are many indications of strong social endorsement for compulsory military service, regarded by probably most people in Turkey as central to the socialisation of men - the discharging of a debt or duty to the homeland that brings with it maturity and, in symbolic terms, the right to full membership of the nation.

A deeply embedded culture

In Turkey, as elsewhere, militaristic values are not simply imposed from above but are also an established part of the dominant culture and thus reproduced and perpetuated within the (civilian) society via institutions and social practices of different kinds. Military service and the rituals and social meanings with which it is invested give perhaps the clearest indication of this and form the subject of this article.

A deeper understanding of the social power of such an institution may serve towards showing why in Turkey it has proved extremely difficult to elicit mass support for a conscientious objection campaign and why, even in a climate of war, the CO movement has remained so marginalised.

There is currently no possibility in Turkey of opting to do civilian service in place of military service and conscientious objection is not recognised (the case of Osman Murat Ülke and others who have organised the CO campaign in Turkey are by now well known to PN readers and internationally). The normal period of military service is 18 months as a private, though for those (for example, university graduates) who are eligible to do service as a reserve officer there are slightly shorter periods of service (currently 16 months) and for those who are eligible to be reserve officers but nevertheless opt to do their service as a private, the duration of military service is reduced to eight months.

Punishments for evasion of service, non-compliance or flouting of regulations are many and may entail prison sentences of varying lengths. In this context, it should be mentioned that public criticisms of the armed services also constitute punishable offences and potentially entail prison sentences.

Defining masculinity

Some clear aspects of the social meaning of military service for males can be traced in the combination of practical and notional sanctions that apply to those who have not undertaken their service. One important restriction operates in relation to formal fulltime employment, since employers in different fields consistently seek employees who have completed their military service.

A social restriction of a different and less formal kind also operates in the case of marriage. While it is much harder to generalise about this, many families - and women themselves - would not favour marriage until the prospective husband has completed his service.

Failing to perform military service can pose a limit on the ability to travel out of the country by legal means and, more significantly still, efforts to evade military service generally mean avoiding various kinds of registration of residency and, as a result of this, make the obtaining or renewing of various documents, like passports, a virtual impossibility.

The implications of this issue are many but, in short, some of the most basic rights of the citizen are withheld: with no officially registered residency, inclusion on the electoral register, and hence the right to vote, is denied.

Rites of passage

The moment of departure for military service has for many years been the familiar stuff of Turkish films and soap operas. Like everything else, how it gets marked depends on the social position of the family. The popular and less inhibited lower-class version sees the gathering at bus stations all around the country of great family parties, sometimes with musical accompaniment in the form of davul (drum) and zurna (a wind instrument), the waving of Turkish flags, and the boy hauled up and swaying on the shoulders of elder brothers and uncles, looking like the overwhelmed and bemused adolescent that he usually still is.

As far as the attention he suffers and the energy of the occasion, he will probably not have experienced anything like this since the hours before his circumcision (known in Turkey as sünnet), some twelve to fifteen years earlier, when he was paraded around relatives and shrines in the embroidered finery of his “little prince” costume with turban-like hat, fake fur-trimmed satin cloak and sash proclaiming in big letters “Masallah” (“As God wishes”), clutching a toy sceptre in one podgy hand and a bag of sweets in the other and, before facing the terrifying moment of mutilation, encouraged to feel his full importance over his sisters in the eyes of doting parents and senior relatives.

The night before departure to the army is often spent with friends, and resembles nothing so much as a stag night before marriage, with a nationalist flavour to it, or an ecstatic group of football fans after the match. Large groups of young men hanging out of the windows of cars which race dangerously through the centre of town decorated with huge Turkish flags and hooting their horns, shout “En büyük asker bizim asker” (meaning both “our army is the greatest” and “our soldier is the best soldier”, since asker means both army and soldier), or more ominously, “He is going to the army and he will return.”

Among many petty bourgeois and middle- class families in big cities today the send-off is passed in more restrained ways. Indeed, in describing the ways departure for military service is marked and the social meanings the institution is inscribed with, social divisions are inescapable.


As has been shown in various studies of masculinity, class background is highly significant when it comes to questions of how different images of masculinity are valued: physical endurance and stamina which go with labouring or factory-floor jobs are inevitably more valued qualities among working-class men, for whom their bodies and the skill of their hands are their main economic assets, than they are for white-collar men working in office environments where knowledge of certain technologies and organisational principles are what are valued.

Interviews with young men of different backgrounds in Turkey, however, would seem to indicate that in fact the associations of masculinity with militarism are generally so powerful that endorsement for military service cuts across social divisions.

And yet this endorsement is clearly an ambiguous one. While military service is publicly celebrated and strongly associated with manhood, “manly” duty, and a sense of self-sacrifice for a nation whose very existence is said to be under threat (from Kurdish separatism), in private it would seem that many young men's feelings about it are much more ambiguous, with significant numbers simply avoiding service. Some of those who are evading are against it for political reasons of varying shades, though almost no political party that wants to survive has dared openly advocate resistance to service.

Generating consent

Perhaps the ultimate success of the army in controlling responses to and inducing con-sent among much of the population becomes evident in the lack of criticism of the army by even those who have lost conscript sons in combat. Indeed with the trial of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, the “relatives of the martyrs” (sehit yakinlari) as they came to be known, began to be systematically organised and used to voice anti-PKK sentiments at every opportunitymost notably in the court where some of the families sat while Öcalan was being tried.

The increasing focus in the course of the 1990s on the relatives (particularly mothers) of soldiers who died in action was also in some sense perhaps an attempt by circles close to the army to match and counteract the visibility that the relatives and friends of the “disappeared” had commanded in their “Saturday Mothers” (Cumartesi Anneleri) campaign, based on the Argentinean Mothers of the Plaza di Mayo campaign, and treated at least by the Turkish police and courts as a front for “separatist” activities. The image of a mother grieving for her dead son should be emphasised as carrying a resonance and impact in Turkish society, as in other places, that favours its appropriation for political ends.

The political climate in Turkey since the late 1990s has been characterised by a rising tide of ultra-nationalism, in part a backlash among some circles against potential European Union membership and the threat to certain interests it would entail. One of the institutions most likely to lose out if membership does ever materialise would be the armed forces, but in the present there is little evidence to suggest that the power of this institution is being significantly challenged from within Turkish society.

This article has attempted to give an account of the continuing social endorsement for, and investment in, military service as a rite of passage to manhood. The space for challenging the popular equation of militaristic values with exemplary masculinity has remained limited. While powerful institutions do not forsake their position willingly, less tangibly the culture which they have helped to create, and which in turn reinforces and sustains their authority, does not find expressions of resistance easily.