‘Soldiers waiting for the barbarians’: discouraging military service?

I was sitting in my room in the Human Rights Agenda Association’s Ankara office. Günal Kurşun, secretary-general of our association, in a matter-of-fact voice said to me, “I think you were considering it from an Article 301 point of view, but they may consider it under Article 318.”

Of course I immediately understood what he was talking about. I paused a moment and reflected upon how this conversation would possibly be seen by an outsider. Why were we referring to these numbers? What were we talking about? Okay, let me tell the story from the very beginning.

This Monday, a piece I wrote titled “Soldiers waiting for the barbarians” was published in the Turkish-language Zaman newspaper. You can read a shortened version below. It has been kindly translated into English by the Today’s Zaman staff. It is an essay and criticism on how our soldiers position themselves in Turkish social and political life. My friend Günal knows very well that the “legal disaster prevention device” (or perhaps call it my “self-censorship machine”) in my mind is always on duty when I write this kind of article. He also knew that Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) (on “insulting Turkishness”) was in my mind when I wrote this piece. He essentially said, “Ok, you considered your article under Article 301; however, if the military prosecutor decides to push for prosecution against you, he may try to use another article that you haven’t considered: Article 318, which bears the title ‘Discouraging people from performing military service’.”

This discussion is difficult for outsiders to understand. First of all, how could a peculiar thing such as “discouraging people from performing military service” be a crime? If there is such a crime, what does it have to do with a newspaper column? Even if we assume that the first two questions have understandable and reasonable answers, how can a military prosecutor press charges against a civilian? Let me answer these questions: In a normal democratic country, in which citizens may use their freedom of expression unless they provoke violence, there cannot be such a crime. Again, in a democratic country, military officials focus only on military responsibilities. They do not scan the newspapers every day, looking to bring charges against intellectuals for their criticism of military institutions. Of course, we debated whether any article of the penal code could be cited against my article. This is something we always must do in the back of our minds! Because writing an article criticizing a state institution in Turkey is like walking through a minefield. You never know when and where a mine will explode. In the TCK, there are at least 40 articles that can be used to limit freedom of expression; Articles 318 and 301 are just two of them. If you criticize the military, you always risk being prosecuted. However, when Günal and I discussed the details, we concluded that prosecuting my article under Article 318 would only be possible if the limits of Article 318 were expanded beyond their reach, although this is not a rare occurrence. The article below, I believe, also sheds a light on why we have such difficulties with freedom of expression. Here is “that” article I’ve been talking about:

Soldiers waiting for the barbarians

With their own private hospitals, prisons, houses, shopping centers and many other institutions, organizations and facilities, our soldiers live behind high walls, isolated from society. Our soldiers are like the Romans who wait for barbarians to attack from outside the walled cities. Everything beyond these high walls means threat or danger to them.

These walls they built for their protection have turned into the walls of a prison that imprisons their minds. Now, they no longer understand the society beyond these walls. The life flowing and humming beyond these walls frightens them to death. This society is no longer the one they know: groups, layers, classes, everything so interwoven, so complicated…

The soldiers must have everything under tight control. But the means available to them are no longer sufficient to exert such control. We can sense their fear of society in the ritual speeches they pompously and ceremonially give, and our hearts ache over it. How has it all happened, how have we ended up so alien to each other? How has our military come to be so afraid of its own society? Obviously, they fear that society, i.e., “those who are outside,” may tear down those high walls and enter “in.” This is the phobia of being conquered. But from their own fear, they create a fear so great in the people outside that the people outside, it seems, find no other solution than “conquering” the inside in order to live freely outside. Thus, an ever-growing, self-reproducing paradox is created.

The only option for the survival of the people outside turns out to be penetration into this power that could crush them at the first available opportunity. In response, the insiders crush the outsiders in order to prevent their penetration. In return, outsiders try to penetrate into the inside in order not to be crushed. Fear grows. As it grows, conspiracies and plots are successively put into force.

Our soldiers never understand the society beyond the high walls that surround them. For them, there are allies and enemies. They view the society as such: black or white, those who are with us and those who are against us.

They do not realize that their “psychological warfare” books are no longer useful. They are not aware of the fact that all the walls around the world are coming down. They refuse to understand that the “Field Manual” they use for psychological warfare was destroyed with the Berlin Wall when it came tumbling down and that it no longer serves any use. They cannot discern the fact that the phenomenon of being at war against one’s society melted away with the Iron Curtain and is now discussed in history textbooks.

They just wait for the barbarians to attack. This is really a heart-rending situation. Indeed, we have only two options: either our soldiers will destroy the walls and go out to embrace their society or they will rush out with a final madness and crush society like an aluminum can. It seems that some of them are obsessed with the second option. It seems that there are some who, if they could find suitable conditions, would go for the implementation of this ironing-out-all-unwanted-obstacles plan. In the past, before the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the world did not care much about what the soldiers were doing behind their walls. But things have changed. The world has changed, and the society beyond the walls has changed.

 If only they could go out from their allocated homes… If only they could leave their Orduevi and mingle with everyone else in the places where ordinary people entertain themselves… If only they could understand that being a soldier is just one of many jobs and that they don’t have to spend 24 hours a day as a soldier… If only they could abandon their love of manipulating and controlling society… If only they could stop regarding themselves as above everyone who is not a soldier… If only they could understand that staying within the boundaries of their profession is already an important achievement… If only they could realize that the only antidote to all sorts of extremism is a full-fledged democracy… If they could agree to be the military of the entire society, not just of a certain group, all these walls would be destroyed. When they leave the prison in which they have locked themselves away, they will see that the real threat has always been the very walls they built around themselves. For us to be free, these walls around our soldiers must be destroyed.