Ömer Taşpınar
Nov 27 2017

What next for the Turkish military?

Turks love their military. In Turkish mythology, the country is the ultimate warrior nation, and to this day, compulsory military service remains a rite of passage for most Turkish males.

In my case, military service was more like short-term immersion into a sociology experiment. “All Turks are born soldiers!” was our battle hymn during military drills, often performed with dubious efficiency. I will never forget the patriotic pride that most of my brothers-in-arms displayed when they put on their uniform for the first time.

Military service – together with the education system – is also where nation-building takes place. For class after class we learn of enemies destroyed and lands conquered, from Central Asia to Anatolia…

It is a relentless and heroic march, only to be stopped at the gates of Vienna. To our delight, those “pesky” Europeans are often on the receiving end of Turkish wrath.

There is, to be sure, a mirror image of all this history in Western eyes. The infidels had a considerably less charitable view of Turkish military prowess.

The “Terrible Turk” was surpassed only by ungodly Mongols in his ferocity. Nomadic belligerence, dexterity on the horse and a short temper were common traits of the Turkish and Mongolian curse visited upon Western lands.

What is remarkable in Turkish political culture is the enduring nature of the military cult. Despite countless defeats during agonisingly long centuries of Ottoman decline, the military found new glory with Atatürk. The Kemalist Republic was born on the battlefields with an epic heroism that upset much stronger foes. In our modern political culture, the army once again became the most trusted institution.

Well, at least this was the case until last year’s failed military coup.

It is too early to ascertain whether the traumatic, bloody debacle of July 2016 changed the positive image of the army in the eyes of the warrior nation.

No doubt what happened was deeply humiliating for an institution that prides itself on its discipline, professionalism, and iron-clad chain of command.

The images of young soldiers shooting approaching civilians on the Bosphorus bridge, F-16s bombing the parliament, soldiers lynched by angry crowds, generals lined up after being brutalised by the police, and the utter chaos and embarrassment of that long night is likely to haunt future generations.

It will take more than just a few years for the nation to heel, forget and forgive.

My sense is that the Turkish army is still traumatised, demoralised and broken. It certainly helps that the followers of Fethullah Gülen were immediately identified as the main culprits. But the numbers of flag officers involved and implicated in the coup generated many unanswered questions.

Close to half of the generals and admirals in the armed forces have been discharged. This is an astonishing number.  Were they all Gülenists? If so, the military must be undergoing an existential crisis. This is an admission of monumental failure.

What happened to the highly effective vetting mechanism within the military? Why was it so easy for an Islamist movement to infiltrate the most impenetrable institution in the country?  

Turkey is a country of conspiracy theories. There are many different accounts of what exactly happened on July 15.  No one knows for sure.

The main opposition party, for instance, believes this coup was half-orchestrated by the leadership of the country.  They call it a “controlled-coup.” The Western media is also skeptical about the government’s official account blaming everything on Gülen.

It doesn’t help that the parliamentary investigation of the failed coup was like a farce. It looked more like a hasty cover-up.

But one thing is certain: it is in the interest of the military and Erdoğan to maintain a façade of respectability by absolving Kemalist officers from any kind of responsibility in the coup.

It is absolutely critical that the core ideology of the military and the republic – Kemalism—had no role to play in this “illegal” or “terrorist” mutiny perpetrated by traitors to the nation.

In other words, the identification of “FETÖ” (the ''Fethullah Gülen Terrorist Organisation'' of official parlance) as the one and only perpetrator serves a major purpose: to restore a much-needed sense of Kemalist unity, cohesion, discipline and esprit de corps to the military.

There will be no daylight between Erdogan and the top brass in terms of demonising “FETÖ” as an existential threat to the Republic and the root cause of all problems.  

This is also why the failed coup at least partly paves the road for Erdogan’s new love affair with Atatürk.

Erdogan may still dream about a more pious (read less Kemalist) generation in the army. But politics is the art of compromise. For now, he will settle for a middle of the road formula.  

An Islamic kind of pious Kemalism, targeting the Kurds, the EU, America and “FETÖ” creates common ground.

Not surprisingly, the Kemalist generals will be more than happy to oblige. This list of enemies has their full endorsement.

In short, Erdogan and the military have found their common platform and this marriage of convenience is likely to endure.

In the long run, then, the Turkish love affair with the military will survive the “FETÖ” coup (!) of July 2016.