Morale: Don't Get Taken Alive


November 12, 2007: On November 4th, eight soldiers, that were captured by Kurdish PKK rebels on October 21st, were released. Kurdish members of the Turkish parliament were on hand to safeguard the release. The captured soldiers were part of a twenty man unit ambushed by the PKK. Twelve men in the unit were killed.

When news of the release got out, the reaction of the Turkish government, media and people was sort of an embarrassed silence. What was causing this was an unspoken discomfort that those eight soldiers did not fight to the death. What was coming to the surface was an ancient Turkish military tradition of, well, "death before dishonor" sums it up pretty well. Some have even suggested that one or more of the soldiers was a Kurd who betrayed his comrades. But that's just rumor.

It's not that Turkish soldiers don't surrender. Many did in the last century. When the situation seems hopeless, really hopeless, just surrender. But to the surprise of many Turks, the involvement of the PKK, a separatist organization seeking to turn a quarter of Turkey into a Kurdish nation, aroused some attitudes about the Turkish way of war that many contemporary Turks believed lost.

For over a thousand years, the Turks have dominated the area now occupied by the nation called Turkey. The Turks came from the north, and are an East Asian people originally from the vast plains of Central Eurasia. They were warrior people, but a minority among the teeming population of Anatolia (what the region was called before it came to be known as Turkey). The Turks imposed their customs and the language on the conquered peoples, and most accepted it. One of those customs was a fierce attitude towards military matters. The Turkish empire was created, and maintained for a thousand years, on the backs of Turkish soldiers. The Turks were clever and innovative troops, but they were also fierce and uncompromising.

All of Turkey's neighbors respect Turkish fighting abilities, if only because all the neighbors have been on the receiving end of it for centuries. Now, the Turks are reminded of it themselves in the way everyone reacted to the release of the eight captured Turkish soldiers. It should have been an occasion of joy. Instead, there is an embarrassed silence. It makes the neighbors nervous, because it reminds them of what kind of soldiers the Turks are, and what kind of culture they come from.


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