friend of mine left for the Army this past week. He’s going to do
his military service – for 18 days.
You can just hear the old-timers grumbling: 18 days? Lucky bastard! Hell, in my day …
“I’ve had vacations longer than that,” Eren concedes. He’s not apologetic about it though. Why should he be? He’s paying for it, but we’ll get to that.
Eren’s relieved to finally be getting it out of the way. At age 26, it’s been in the back of his mind for several years now. For many guys Eren’s age here in Turkey, compulsory military service is a bane of their young existence, an irksome obligation. But thanks to a new law, they now have another option: they can buy their way out.
“Have you done your military service yet?”
How many times have I come across Turkish men – friends, colleagues, students – faced with this inevitable question?
One of my other close friends, Gökhan, got so tired of hearing it that he actually left the country. He moved all the way to Kazakhstan – and still resides there – simply because he refuses to do his military service. If he came back tomorrow, he would immediately be detained by the authorities at passport control and put into the Army. So don’t expect him back anytime soon.
But most, such as yet another friend, Mustafa, simply resign themselves. They just get it done. Mustafa was a guy I shared an apartment with in Kadıkoy years ago, before I was married. He’d just finished university with an engineering degree, and following graduation, received his orders.
As the time for his departure neared, we talked about it a lot in the evenings. He listened with interest to my stories of serving in the US Navy.
“You’re a young man,” I reassured him. “Trust me,” I said. “The days will seem like forever, like you’re in hell. But the weeks and months will fly. Then it will all be over.”
“That’s what everybody tells me,” Mustafa said.
“That’s what everybody told me too!”
We clinked glasses, and opened another bottle of Efes.
I’ve given the impression perhaps that all young men in Turkey view their compulsory service merely with dread. That would be inaccurate, of course. Without question, there are many who proudly perform their service as “soldiers of Ataturk,” the great Gazi M. Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish Republic.
There is a great tradition here called asker uğurlaması, or soldier’s send-off. On the eve of departure the young man is paraded though the streets of his neighborhood. He walks along, tall and proud-looking, while friends and relatives follow behind in their cars, and everyone regales the departing hero with waving Turish flags and the tut-tut! march blaring car horns. I’ve personally witnessed such scenes many times, and they are always energizing, arresting. Even as a foreigner, your heart goes out to the zeal of their patriotism and courage, and you wish them well.
The length of the compulsory service in Turkey varies according to your level of education, but generally it’s six months to a year. That doesn’t sound so bad, except that it is unpaid, and of course your fate is at the mercy of the military. You don’t know where you’ll end up serving your time or what you’ll be doing.
I’ve known guys who spent their whole tour with cushy jobs, such as serving tea in a cantina or working in the cafeteria, and others (former colleagues) who were able to teach English. On the other hand, one of my former students, now in upper managment at a supermarket chain, spent his tour in Iraq in the early Nineties, working alongside U.S. forces.
“That’s how I learned my English,” he says. “From your soldiers.”
From what I’ve gathered, your chances of ending up in a war zone these days – say, south of the border in Syria, fighting the remains of ISIS, or somewhere in the east of Turkey fighting Kurdish militants, are unlikely, as these assignments are generally given to the “professional” soldiers, the guys who voluntarily sign up for the army as a career. Like their U.S. counterparts, these soldiers receive extra combat pay.
Those who wish to defer their service do so by prolonging their college careers. My friend Eren, for example, completed a master’s degree.
“Yeah, I basically did a master’s degree just so that I could put off going into the Army as long as possible,” he said.
Others go so far as to complete PhDs.
Still, no matter what, if you are a man in Turkey, it’s a step you have take sooner or later. And they check, believe me. Routinely, you see police standing outside metro stations, or in the squares, stopping young men randomly. In many cases, it’s just to see if they have completed their military service (which they can easily check nowadays by simply running their ID in a handheld device that looks like a debit card scanner).
Also, potential employers ask if you have completed your military service. If not, most likely they will not hire you. Why hire a guy when somewhere down the line you will end up losing him for six months to a year?
In the center of Taksim Square stands the Independence Memorial, marking the Turks victory in the Greco-Turkish War and the establishment of the modern republic in 1923.
Such statues are a reminder that the Turks are proud of their long military history, one that goes back to Fatih the Conqueror’s taking of Constantinople in 1453. Ask any young Turk about the great Fatih Sultan Mehmet, or about the Gallipoli campaign during the First World War. You will see the pride in their eyes, the swelling in their chests. They are fond of recanting the great Ataturk issuing to his soldiers at Gallipoli the command, “I do not expect you to fight, I expect you to die!”
The days of national victories are public holidays here, and you can see historical re-enactments of famous battles all the time. I attended one for the battle of Gallipoli last year. The young men, dressed in their World War I uniforms, riding around on horses, played to great appreciative crowds, and afterward they were glad to pose while a yabancı like me took photos.
What happened to the great Turk’s fighting spirit, you ask? Why are today’s generation so content to find victory only on a virtual battlefield? Are they just spoiled millennials?
Well, don’t forget that at present, Turkey still has second-largest army in NATO, with a standing force of about 640,000 personnel. And if you’ve been reading the news in recent years, then you know that the Turks have played a big role in the fight against ISIS, as well as in the efforts to end the civil war in Syria. So the Turk can still fight, trust me. As the old saying goes, “Angels in peace, devils in war.”
But times are changing, thanks to a new national law.
These days. Turkish men can (pretty much) avoid this compulsory service by paying money (15,000 Turkish lira, or 3,000 dollars). So those who can afford it, like my friend Eren, are cashing in on that opportunity.
So why then does he still have to go and report for 18 days?
Good question. I suppose it’s some kind of bureaucratic formality. Matters involving the military always involve such formalities.
So does this now mean that all Turkish young men will choose to avoid the army? I doubt it.
Not everyone has that kind of money – 15 grand is a lot here, especially for those from poor Anatolian villages. And perhaps for others, completing one’s military service remains rite of passage, a duty their fathers and grandfathers performed, and one they will expect their own children to perform as well.
Nevertheless, we’re talking about millennials. Here in Turkey, this new generation is the same as elsewhere – wired in, clued in, especially in all matters tech. They’ve grown up with the Internet, with smart phones, with Netflix. Their World-view is in many cases different from their parents. They have more options and alternatives than their fathers and grandfathers had, and they’re exploring them.
I know – probably in some dusty village in eastern Anatolia, there are many, many young men right now receiving their orders to report for duty in the mail who don’t have the luxury that my friend Enes has. They too would like to buy their way out of serving, but their families just don’t have the money. Like the old song goes, “It ‘aint me! I ‘aint no fortunate son!”
With respect to those men, I wish them well. May their tour of duty go swiftly and safely. But I also ask myself: What would I do, were I in Eren’s shoes? Probably the same, to be honest.
As I said before, Eren is not losing any sleep over it.
“Basically, I’m buying six months of my life,” he told me before he left. “I’m paying for my time. Time is the one thing you can’t ever get back.”
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.