Turkey: My experiences in the barracks

by Halil Savda

(15.05.2021) The history of conscription is a history of militarisation. It is a breathtaking story. And conscription is still effective today in countries like Turkey.

Development of conscription

Even though a practice of conscription developed with the French bourgeois revolution, it was not institutionally implemented on a broad scale in modern states until World War I.

It is a time when the modern state and its society are constituted through nationalism and military service. Military service is equated with love of one’s homeland. But only men could do military service. Therefore, the call to defend the homeland was a call to men. Patriotism and masculinity thus became a kind of synonym. Only men were entitled to heroism. Thus, heroism was distributed amongst men

The following picture emerges: The defence of the homeland is entrusted to the soldier, the man. Groups of society that are not recruited, such as women, are now in his debt and beholden to him. War and men’s participation bestowed on them status and prestige. Society owed them thanks and was obliged to show gratitude for their “sacrifice” every day. And the barracks turned into the domain for shaping and socialising men.

If a man is moulded, trained and his role as a man strengthened in this structure, he will forget his own self. He will forget so much that he will not even realise that he is being oppressed as an individual and his personality is being destroyed. He loses his own will and many a time lets go of his mind or even his conscience under the orders of an officer.

A man whose masculinity is formed in the military is no longer an individual, but a cog in the wheel of a deadly mechanism. As he becomes a man, he forgets that he ever was an individual.

Another factor that strengthens this mechanism is an effective use of a militarist social image and system: In England at the beginning of the 20th century, a group of women went out into the streets waving white feathers at men who were not doing military service. The white feather was a symbol of cowardice. Men who did not enlist were considered cowards by society. With their gesture of scorn those women exposed men who did not join the military.

If women had given roses to these men!

For an equal and free future, a practice of avoiding military service is essential. It is safe to assume that the development of universal human rights did not originate from military organisations and armed conflicts. The level of development of our societies in terms of peace, equality and freedom and the internationally agreed institutions and conventions are the result of the work and achievement of a civil democratic struggle.

Those who attribute the achievements of equality, peace and the libertarian development of societies to armies are lying. The right to life and integrity is one of the most fundamental rights, and escaping from the military is crucial to protecting this right.

Militarism manifests and reproduces itself throughout history in two ways: Firstly, as a political equation of power and the military. In this case, the army is either in power itself or has decisive influence. In societies with developed democracy, the military’s influence on politics is limited and not visible. In less developed societies such as Turkey, however, the military’s influence on politics is visible.

Secondly, reproduction in everyday life. This form exists in underdeveloped countries as well as in highly developed societies. A man who has not done military service is not considered a man. There is a discourse in which the soldier is declared a “hero” who is “altruistic, self-sacrificing and brave”. It is then said: “And what if you don’t join the army, if you run away from the military, if you don’t serve? Then you are a coward! You won’t get a girl.”

This language is very effective and metaphorically permeates society. In Turkey, a slogan says accordingly, “Every Turk is born a soldier!” In the army, fighting and wounding are canonised and rewarded with medals.

“Martyrs do not die and the fatherland, the mother, is indivisible”. Home and military service are equated. Where there is a homeland, there is military service. The converse is also postulated as true: If there is an army, the homeland is secure and exists; if the army is strong, the homeland will be secure and powerful. This is found again in the following slogan: “A strong army - a strong Turkey!” And the soldier who died in the war is glorified, eternity beckons: “Martyrs do not die, the country is indivisible!”

This is precisely why the homeland is closely linked, almost identical with military service. And this is compulsory for all male citizens who have reached the age of 20. Those who do not comply are subjected to a series of criminal proceedings.

I joined the army

In June 1996, I reluctantly joined the army. I had to go, as a man and a citizen in Turkey I had to become a soldier. While I was moving into the barracks in Manisa, I was looking for a way to live with this state and its traditional society despite everything.

For a fortnight, hundreds of people had to march and drill: “Stand still”, “turn right”, “turn left”, “go”, commands shouted across the square. Each time during the roll call, the slogans were “fatherland stands by your side”, “every Turk is born a soldier”. All the slogans were either directed at women or at Kurds. All groups and people who were not Turkish and not male were targeted. We would be sent to Şırnak and Diyarbarkır to make these places Turkish!

There was a roll call at least four times a day. Hundreds of men stood side by side in rows and were counted. Every time we sat down to dinner, a prayer was said. We were ordered to clean at least once a day. We picked up twigs or cigarette butts. The days were monotonous and boring. This went on for a fortnight.

I went to the barracks infirmary. Since childhood, I have had a bump on my head almost as big as a ping-pong ball. From there I was sent to the military hospital in Manisa. A few days later, I was transferred to the GATA military hospital in Izmir. I underwent an operation and the bump was removed. I was treated for 21 days.

During this time, about ten other soldiers were treated in this hospital. Most of them had been injured in clashes with the PKK in Kurdistan.

Among them were some who had limbs amputated in the hospital. But they did not stop blessing the war even after that. Maybe it is their way of coping with the price they had paid. How else could they survive?

One has lost his eyes, he can no longer see a flower, the woman he loves, a table or a street. Life will henceforth be dark for him. How can a person live in this way? The price he is paying is high and he is aware of it.

Another person does no longer have an arm. He will no longer be able to touch anything he loves. Yet another one lost both feet. These soldiers don’t know that the so-called homeland has lost limbs... The homeland is no longer there.

Maybe if these men had had a choice, they would not have joined the military. But they did not have a choice and they were damaged when they did the service and now they will be damaged forever. It is a haunting and terrifying image, a testimony to what war means in Turkey.

After 21 days, I was taken to a health examination board in GATA. They ordered me to rest for 20 days. I came back to the barracks in Manisa and was off duty there, with no drill, no training. I sat in the clubhouse and dining hall in the barracks for 20 days.

After two months they gave me boots, sports and military training were resumed. Once again military hymns were played, racist shouts were heard and orders given aiming at destroying the will. After 75 days I received a marching order and a short leave for transfer.

I never returned to the barracks!

I did not follow the order. I would no longer do military service. I didn’t follow the marching orders after leave and didn’t report to the new barracks. Years later I was caught.

In November 2004, I was caught and taken to a military barracks with my hands tied, this time to the Tekirdağ/Beşiktepe barracks. Nine years had passed.

They brought me a uniform and boots. I said, “I am a conscientious objector and will not wear a uniform.” They replied, “You have to wear it.” I replied, “I will not wear them.”

They took me to the company commander’s room. He looked at me and said, “Everyone has to do military service, you have to do it, too. If you don’t put on the uniform, I will make a report and send it to the military prosecutor. Then you will go to prison.” His voice was soft and gentle.

I answered him, “I am a conscientious objector. I am against war and I don’t want to be involved in any military organisation. That’s why I don’t want to wear a uniform. I will not put on the uniform even if I am sent to military prison because I am a conscientious objector.”

The commander was sitting at his desk. I was standing right in front of him. After a while he said, “Put on the uniform. I will put you out of service, then you don’t have to train and you don’t have to work. But put on the uniform and sit in the casino.” “I’m not in uniform,” I replied. Then he wrote a report.

Commanders came and gave me new orders every day: “Get up, go to physical examination, cut your hair, etc.” I didn’t follow any of those orders.

Disciplinary prison

They sentenced me to seven days’ disciplinary detention and took me to the military detention centre at Tekirdağ Central Command. There they put me in a solitary cell. It was cold and there was only one blanket. I was wearing a coat, but they took it away from me. The gate of the prison faced the sea. The door of my cell was locked and was right at the outside gate. The wind that came from the sea blew right towards the cells. I was cold. I asked for blankets and pillows. I did not get them. The prison guard, a high-ranking sergeant, answered me, “If you get cold, you will wear the clothes.” I never wore the clothes.

I stayed there for a week. Then they took me to the Çorlu military court, where I was arrested. I stayed in the military prison for about a month. At the beginning, there was the same ceremony: “Cut your hair” - “I won’t have my hair cut” - “Wear the uniform” - “I won’t wear the uniform” - “Stand up” - “I won’t stand up”.

After a month, on 28 December 2004, I was taken to the military court. Conscientious objectors and anti-militarist women from Istanbul came to the trial. I explained in detail my reasons for being a conscientious objector.

It was the first time I saw other conscientious objectors and anti-militarists. They came to support me. We have been friends for years and I still meet most of them.

That day I was released but taken directly to the military office in Çorlu. There they gave me a marching order and said, “Report to your unit in 48 hours”. Then they let me go.

I did not follow the marching orders. I went to Istanbul with friends instead. Since I didn’t report, the military decided to get an arrest warrant.

I tried to be visible like all other conscientious objectors. I did not hide. I became a member of the Istanbul Human Rights Association, and later a member of the board. With a conscientious objection committee and the local committee, we established a platform for conscientious objection in which many local parties and democratic organisations participated.

My trial was reopened when the Supreme Military Court overturned the verdict. I attended the trial at Çorlu Military Court in December 2006 because I wanted to make the conscientious objection visible. I was arrested again and sentenced. Two months later I was let out and handcuffed and transferred to the Tekirdağ/Beşiktepe military barracks.

And again the disciplinary prison... It was the same cell and February. In the middle of the night they sent a 20-year-old boy to me in the cell. His legs had been bandaged because they were sore and swollen. The cell was so small that he could only crouch down in a corner when I lay down. I gave him my blanket, said, “Lie down, lie down”. I went to a corner of the cell. I had already been cold with a blanket, and now I did not have any.

The young man’s name was Ferhat. He came from a nationalist family loyal to the state and enthusiastically joined the army. There he was beaten by officers and subjected to abuse. What he had hoped for he did not find there. When he received a marching order, he did not return to the army. He was caught sitting and drinking with friends. In Çorum, where he lived, he was stabbed in the leg with a knife.

After his leg was bandaged at the hospital, they kept him for a week. The bandage was not changed. I called the guard: “Ferhat is in pain, his wound is inflamed and swollen. He needs to go to hospital.” “There is no commander here,” the guard replied.

I asked for painkillers, but there were none. He groaned and lay there until morning. In the morning I called the guard again. Then the director of the prison, a sergeant major, came. I explained the situation to him. Around noon they took him out of the cell. He smiled as he left the cell. I hugged him, “Take care of yourself, you will be fine.” He thanked me. I did not see Ferhat again.

I was not in uniform and had not received a shave. As a civilian, I was not subject to military order. They had no right to force me. Turkey had signed the European Convention on Human Rights as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Both conventions guarantee freedom of conscience and expression and prohibit ill-treatment. However, Turkey did not respect the treaties.

I was to be forced to comply with military orders. When I refused, I was beaten and insulted. I was arrested four times and released each time. Each time after release I was transferred to the barracks again. In total, I spent 18 months in the military prison.

Before me, Osman Murat Ülke and Mehmet Bal had suffered similar treatment. After me, Mehmet Tarhan, İnan Süver, Enver Aydemir and other conscientious objectors were subjected to similar treatment.

Turkish armed forces become a professional army

The transformation of the army into a professional army has gained momentum. This is a new situation. The state is planning to professionalise the army.

In the neoliberal West, there has been a history of professional armies for a long time. By now, almost all of these countries have professionalised the army. A society committed to neoliberalism and its values is developing this form of military. Competition, the market and individualism are in the foreground. A different form of recruiting soldiers is now taking place there. For the Turkish army, however, this is a new development.

Two examples are worth noting:

1. Sweden: the Swedish army sees itself as a peacekeeping and auxiliary force. The aim is to create peace and bring solutions in crises and war zones. Those who join the army are therefore expected to help solve crises and bring peace.

2. England: here, a person who joins the army is promised they will acquire leadership skills as well as the ability to use weapons, and experience adventure.

In both cases, the military markets itself like a business. It tells people: you have the freedom to choose and it is you who decide. As a result, the responsibility of the state and society towards members of the military diminishes. Now you are like an employee of a company. It is your own decision to join the military. Being accepted into the military is like a reward: “Be part of the community and feel you belong.”

In both countries, we recruit mainly in poorer regions. Poverty is synonymous with exclusion from society. The way through the military is shown as a way to participate in society: “Come to us, stay away from gangs, alcohol and drugs, be part of the community and feel where you belong.”

If Turkey abolishes forced recruitment to defend the homeland today, it will inevitably change the future. In a professionalised army, the poor are the target group for recruitment, as in the two examples given.

But still military service is a chore. Thus, campaigning against the military continues to be of great importance. Demilitarisation and peace cannot be achieved without anti-militarist campaigns. Even if the number of soldiers is decreasing worldwide, the arms industry is getting bigger and deadlier. In this respect, an anti-militarist stance and the practice of conscientious objection are indispensable.

Halil Savda: My experiences in the barracks. May 15, 2021. Published in the booklet "Conscientious Objection in Turkey", May 2021. Editors: Connection e.V., War Resisters International and Union Pacifiste de France

Keywords:    ⇒ Conscientious Objection   ⇒ Europe   ⇒ Halil Savda   ⇒ Military   ⇒ Turkey