Attrition: Too Tough Turks Taken To Task

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May 15, 2013: A growing number of Turkish parents are openly protesting the use of conscription and the often fatal abuse their sons receive because of traditional Turkish attitudes towards military service, leadership, and stoicism. The basic problem is that Turkish NCOs and junior officers traditionally use violence against soldiers who will not, or cannot, carry out their duties as expected. This means that sergeants will slap, punch, or kick subordinates who disobey or cannot perform as expected. It has been this way for centuries. But culturally acceptable behavior changes over time and in most of the world conscripts, and their families, are less willing to accept this sort of thing. That’s one reason why conscription began disappearing after the Cold War ended.

Such traditions of brutality are difficult to eliminate, something the Turks are about to discover. For over a decade Russia has been seeking ways to eliminate its traditional brutality towards new recruits. This hazing originally developed after World War II, when Russia deliberately avoided developing a professional NCO corps. They preferred to have officers take care of nearly all troop supervision. The Soviets failed to note that good NCOs were the key to highly effective troops. The Soviets felt that officers were more politically reliable, as they were carefully selected and monitored. The NCOs that did exist were treated as slightly more reliable enlisted men but given little real authority. Since officers did not live with the men, slack discipline in the barracks gave rise to the vicious hazing and exploitation of junior conscripts by the senior ones. This led to very low morale and a lot of suicides, theft, sabotage, and desertions. The hazing has been one of the basic causes of crimes in the Russian armed forces, accounting for 20 to 30 per cent of all soldier crimes. This has caused a suicide rate that is among the highest in the world. Poor working conditions in general also mean that Russian soldiers are nearly twice as likely to die from accidents or suicide than American soldiers. Long recognized as a problem, no solution to the hazing ever worked.

Turkey always had a tradition of NCOs but it also had a long military tradition that tolerated the use of physical punishment against troops who did not measure up, or simply annoyed their sergeants. Americans who served alongside Turkish troops in Korea were amazed to see Turkish sergeants line up their men, yell at them for some infraction, then knock the worst offenders to the ground with his fists, continuing to speak angrily (if incomprehensibly to those who did not understand Turkish). American troops knew about sergeants who would get physical but this was technically forbidden in the American military, and when it did occur it was never in public.

The Turks are not alone with this problem. South Korean troops suffered from the same brutal customs. In addition to the brutality, life was long regimented 24/7 in the South Korean army. Living conditions were not all that great and pay is minimal. For years there were suggestions from some veterans that South Korea adopt practices similar to the Americans. This was because, since the Koran war, over half a million South Korean soldiers have served in American units as KATUSAs (Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army).

South Korean conscripts who speak passable English are still eligible for this, and it is a much sought after assignment. The KATUSAs remain part of the South Korean army but report to American units and are given a job that would otherwise have to be performed by an American soldier. The KATUSAs are treated just like the American troops, living in the same barracks, eating in the same mess halls, and getting the same medical care. However, there are South Korean officers and NCOs available for any disciplinary problems and to administer pay and other personnel matters (like leave). There are few disciplinary problems. The KATUSAs are usually smarter than the average 18 year old conscript and see service in an American unit as an excellent opportunity to improve their English skills and learn more about Americans. This helps later on, for getting into college and/or getting a good job. Also, the living conditions are much better in the American army and the work generally more interesting. On the downside, KATUSAs come to their American units right out of basic training, without any specialized training. So KATUSAs generally don’t get any high tech jobs and have to be trained for whatever work they do get assigned. But since most of the KATUSAs are good students to begin with, and ambitious, there are often opportunities to train them for some pretty complex jobs.

The South Korean Air Force was the first service to listen to the KATUSAs and lighten up. Air force troops were given more control over their free time and less rigid discipline from the NCOs and officers. It worked. The troops were happier and more effective. Since the 1990s, the army has been adopting similar practices, despite fierce opposition from many of the older officers and NCOs. To solve the bullying problem among the troops themselves, platoons are formed right after basic training, with all the troops having the same time in service. Any troops who bullied another soldier were punished. As a result, hundreds of deaths a year have been avoided. Military service has also become less stressful, and many commanders have noted an increase in effectiveness among their soldiers. Living conditions are being improved and eventually the South Koreans hope to have the money for an all-volunteer force.

The South Korean army is still a much more violent and scarier place than the U.S. Army, or most other armies on the planet. But South Korean combat units are considered tough, competent, and able to handle anything U.S. troops can. The Turks might find some solutions to their brutality problems in the reforms the South Koreans carried out.

 


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