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November 28, 2010, Sunday

Our fragile manhood and military service

When the 3H Movement, a young libertarian organization, invited me to give a lecture on “Power-Military Affairs and Mandatory Military Service in Turkey,” I found myself indulging in an interesting stream of free association, which I would like share with you.

A part of this lecture, inevitably, would be on the military’s involvement in power politics, but the more I have thought on the subject, the clearer it becomes in my mind that the military’s relationship with “power” goes well beyond political involvement.

Well, in my opinion, in the construction of male identity in Turkey, the military and militarization play quite an interesting role.

It would be really fascinating to put the following social phenomenon before Sigmund Freud and Michel Foucault and to hear their explanations. Borrowing some concepts of theirs, I would say, in Turkey, male identity is constructed through a series of symbolic castrations. The most important step in becoming a “real man” in Turkey is to enlist in the military. Military service plays quite an interesting role in the construction of male identity. You cannot get married, for example, in the most parts of rural Turkey, if you have not completed your military service. Because a man who has not completed his military service cannot be a real man.

The symbolic value of military service is so important -- starting, finishing, everything about it -- that is surrounded by many rituals and cults. You could and still can see in provincial bus terminals, young men dancing “cheerfully” as drums are beaten and a crowd chants, “The best soldier is our soldier.” This celebration is done because the son is going to join the military and everyone around him is proud of this event. Mothers put their sons’ military photos in the most visible parts of their homes.

In exchange for complete and unconditional subordination-obedience to the father figure (the military), a Turkish man gains his manhood. In acceptance of a kind of symbolic castration in which you are stripped of every kind of power you may have as an individual, your socially recognized manhood is constructed.

These men, who join military service quite cheerfully and with much celebration, have to follow extremely strict rules and orders to complete their military service. They cannot use cell phones; their access to the Internet is forbidden. Day in, day out they have to live in military barracks. Most of these young men work as chauffeurs, porters and waiters without being paid even a penny. It is estimated that 100,000 conscripts work in officers clubs (ordu evleri) or as errand boys for high-ranking military commanders and their wives. These young men who have to give their services free of charge are the lucky ones. The unlucky ones are sent to hot conflict zones to fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) after just a few months’ military training.

When I started to think all of this, I also started to question the relationship between violence and this kind of “manhood,” which is gained through military service. Could there be any relationship between the fact that every man has to go through military service in Turkey (and the strong idea of manhood attributed to it) and the extremely high rates of domestic violence in this country? In the same vein, is there any relation between our men’s general inclination towards violence and this militarized manhood? Does complete obedience to “father” bring a need to have complete domination over women? Does having to gain part of our manhood through total surrender in the military play any role in an extremely fragile masculine identity in Turkey?

Well, I can continue to ask many other questions, but I have to stop this free-thinking session here in order to prepare for the conference. Why do we have the second-largest army in NATO? Why has Turkey not taken any steps to honor the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, which condemned Turkey for its treatment of conscientious objectors? Why can’t civilians be allowed to oversee or inspect military expenditures? Why do we have some sayings like “The army is the house of Prophet”? As you see there are so many questions that need to be answered for the liberal youngsters. Have a good weekend.

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