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The Armed Forces and Society

The armed forces traditionally have enjoyed a distinguished position in Turkish national life. Soldiers receive widespread respect as symbols of Turkish national identity and as legatees of the country's long martial traditions. A leading Turkish journalist has written that "the army is always praised, never criticized, and, in an emergency, it is seen as the nation's savior." Over the centuries, the army has been perceived as a civilizing and humanizing factor in society. In the modern era, it is considered the embodiment of the enlightened, progressive forces that inspired the revolution of 1908 against Ottoman rule and later prevented the nation's dismemberment by driving out the occupying armies after World War I. The army also has received credit for rescuing the nation from the turmoil and violence of the late 1970s.

Turks recognize that a career in the armed forces provides the opportunity for a quality education at no cost, followed by a lifetime of secure and respected employment. Although some members of the middle and upper classes hold the view that the specialized education and isolated life of the officer produce individuals inflexibly committed to a set of values remote from the real world, such criticism is rarely expressed openly. In any event, a career in the armed forces has become less of a lifetime commitment than in the past. Because of the superior technical education it provides, military service is often seen as an avenue to a successful civilian career.

Because of the large number of applicants for places in the military high schools and service academies, the standards for officer candidates remain high. In the course of their military education, students learn the values of Kemalism (the precepts of Atatürk) and are taught to take pride in the role of the military in protecting the democratic state against the extremes of left and right and the appeal of radical Islamism. Officers tend to develop an outlook that is nationalistic and hierarchical. In the early 1960s, a minority of junior officers had left-wing sympathies, but strict background checks, together with the emphasis on cohesiveness and discipline, are believed subsequently to have produced an officer corps immune to radicalism. The military maintains intense vigilance against the infiltration of leftist thought, as well as against Islamic activism (also seen as fundamentalism).

The officer corps enjoys certain privileges, but the military makes efforts to keep these from becoming conspicuous enough to provoke civilian criticism. Officers consider clubs, attractive housing, vacation resorts, and sports facilities as necessary to compensate for the modest pay and other disadvantages of career military service. Officers are also expected to meet high standards of personal probity.

Most individuals entering the service academies are drawn from the lower-middle and middle classes. The results of one survey showed that about 40 percent of army and air force cadets and 55 percent of naval cadets were sons of military service members, gendarmes, or civil servants, in particular teachers. This suggests, one analyst has noted, a perpetuation of the sense of kinship with the spirit of Atatürk and the revolution of 1908. Less than 10 percent of those entering the army and air force academies in the early1980s were from rural families; naval cadets with an agricultural background were almost unknown. Geographically, central Anatolia and areas adjacent to the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmara were overrepresented, whereas southeastern Turkey was most underrepresented, supplying only 1 to 2 percent of cadets (see fig. 1). Resistance to assimilation by Kurdish- and Arabic-speaking minorities in the southeast and strict political screening may account for the limited recruitment from this area to the officer corps.

In contrast to officer candidates, enlisted personnel, especially conscripts, are preponderantly from peasant households. At least 80 to 85 percent are ethnically Turkish, and the vast majority are Sunni (see Glossary) Muslims. Once rare, efforts to evade the draft or obtain unjustified deferments apparently are becoming more common (see Conditions of Service, this ch.). Nevertheless, for a young soldier facing doubtful employment prospects, active duty means a nutritious diet, access to medical care, and perhaps an opportunity to further one's education and acquire a useful job skill. Military service offers an interlude from the unvarying pace of village life and is a source of pride, linking one to the warrior tradition of Turkish society.

Politics and the Military

Since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, six of the nation's nine presidents have had armed forces backgrounds. Until 1950 Atatürk and his successor and closest military associate, Inönü, ruled what was an essentially a one-party political system with a strong martial flavor. Atatürk encouraged the military to abjure politics, but the armed forces intervened on three occasions--in 1960, 1971, and 1980. Although they did so under different circumstances in each case, their justification was their sworn duty to uphold national unity and the democratic order.

The military regime of 1980-83 was the longest lasting, and represented the armed forces' most serious effort to transform traditional political behavior. The changes the regime introduced were intended to break what had become a cycle of decennial military interventions. The constitution introduced by the coup leaders in 1982, which forbade political activism in the universities and trade unions, abolished pre-existing parties, and banned political activity by pre-1980 party leaders, was the centerpiece of the military's efforts to curtail the factionalism and polarization that had stalemated the previous civilian government (see Political Developments since the 1980 Coup, ch. 4).

The leader of the 1980-83 junta, General Kenan Evren, remained as president after the return of civilian government, but the generals disavowed any desire for a continuing political role for the military. The public failed to respond to Evren's appeal to vote for the party favored by the generals, the Nationalist Democracy Party (Milliyetçi Demokrasi Partisi--MDP). A new grouping of retired officers and other leading citizens, the MDP had the same interests and goals as the military regime. Although disappointed by the party's lack of success, military leaders established good working relations with the victorious Motherland Party (Anavatan Partisi--ANAP) of Turgut Özal. By promptly relinquishing control over public life, the military preserved its reputation as the ultimate protector of Turkish democratic institutions.

On two occasions, Özal prevailed when differences arose with the armed forces. In 1987, as prime minister, he overrode the military's choice of an army commander as the new chief of the General Staff, reportedly out of dissatisfaction with the conduct of the campaign against the Kurdish insurgency. In 1990, after Özal became president, the chief of staff resigned as a result of undisclosed disagreements assumed to have sprung from Özal's activist stance against Iraq's takeover of Kuwait but did not make a public issue of his difference with Özal.

Imbued with the concept that its mission is to safeguard Atatürk's heritage, the military establishment has often shown its impatience with political bickering and compromises that appear to slight Kemalist objectives. Civilian politicians indifferent to those goals or embracing other ideologies are viewed with suspicion or even as subversive. Much of the military education system is concerned with instilling the Kemalist spirit through study of the 1919-22 War of Independence, the concept of patriotism as embodied by Atatürk, and the values and principles of Kemalism, particularly the "Six Arrows" of secularism, republicanism, populism, etatism (see Glossary), reformism, and nationalism, as guidance for the future of the Turkish state.

A democratic system is fully accepted as the best form of government by the professional military. However, young career officers are indoctrinated with the view that the proper working of democracy demands discipline, organization, constructiveness, unity of purpose, and rejection of self-interest. Thus, the military has little tolerance of politicians whom it perceives as putting personal ambition before the good of the state or of political parties or groups acting in ways it considers to be dictated by a struggle for power and economic advantage.

From a career point of view, it is said to be unwise for an officer to express opinions that can be construed as liberal or otherwise unorthodox. The armed forces have shown particular sensitivity to the threat of radical Islamism to military order. In 1991 the general staff disclosed that in the preceding decade 357 officers and seventy-one noncommissioned officers (NCOs) had been dismissed on charges of involvement in extreme leftist or separatist (presumably Kurdish) activities. During the same period, thirty-seven officers and 188 NCOs were discharged for involvement in extreme rightist or Islamist activities.

Data as of January 1995

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