A Year in Turkey

Steven Dutch, Professor Emeritus, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay

I got drafted and entered the Army (for the first but not last time) on July 22, 1970. I was shipped off to Fort Lewis, Washington for basic training. During initial testing, I was the top soldier in the company on the language aptitude test. So they called in the three top scorers and said "Such a deal we have for you. How would you like to be Vietnamese interpreters?" I just saw the blood drain out of the other two guys' faces, but I thought "I have a good chance of ending up there anyway. Anything that gives me control over the situation is probably a good thing." So we filled out the necessary paperwork....

...And that's the last I ever heard of it. I was picked for a totally different MOS (Military Occupation Specialty), packed off to Albuquerque for training, and shipped to Turkey. When we were asked to fill out our preferences for overseas locations, I had picked Alaska. So, it turned out, had a lot of guys I met in Turkey. We wondered if maybe the computers in the Pentagon (by today's standards, probably hamsters chewing holes in punch cards) were programmed to interpret "Alaska" as "Turkey." Or maybe they just were looking for people who wanted to go someplace off the beaten track. Anyway, I said "I all but volunteered to go to Vietnam. You sent me in the other direction. I am not going to lose sleep over it."

Getting to Turkey was interesting. After some leave time, I reported to the replacement station at Fort Dix, N.J. and after several days in processing I got a set of orders (they did have a phone number, except I had no idea how foreign phone systems worked) and a plane ticket for Istanbul. Essentially the Army told me "get off the plane in Istanbul and do Army stuff for a year." After stops in London and Frankfurt, the final leg took us over Belgrade, Yugoslavia and Sofia, Bulgaria. I was struck by the irony of flying to a military post over Communist territory, and I think Turkey was the only place in the world that happened on a regular basis apart from consulates. Later on I would visit both cities. Incredibly enough I would end up going to Sofia many years later on a military assignment. But for now it was all totally new. Fortunately there were some soldiers on the plane returning from leave who showed me where to go once I landed.

Turkey was not a highly regarded duty assignment. The good thing about it was that brass coming down from Germany didn't mess with us much. They spent a morning seeing if all the barracks were still standing, then went into Istanbul to shop for souvenirs in the Bazaar. You have to have a certain frame of mind to enjoy Turkey. If you like things a bit on the wild side you can have fun there; if you expect to be able to go to the mall whenever you get bored, you'll be miserable. I got my bachelor's degree from the University of California and later on my Ph.D. from Columbia University, so I have degrees from two of the finest universities on the planet. Nevertheless, I regard my year in Turkey as the single greatest educational experience of my life. My only major complaint is that Istanbul failed to live up to advance billing; in my whole year there not a single beautiful lady spy tried to seduce me.

I spent every weekend for a year prowling Istanbul with a guidebook and still didn't see it all. I can't think of another city, even Rome, where so many cultural layers are superimposed on each other. And I could easily spend another year visiting places elsewhere in Turkey that I never got to. But not everybody shares that perspective. I was in the enlisted club one evening when I heard a soldier snarling into his beer about how much he hated Turkey and couldn't wait to be out. I asked where he was stationed and he said "Erzerum." Erzerum was a tiny post in the middle of nowhere with few amenities and I could commiserate somewhat. I said "at least we can get into Istanbul." He replied "Aww, you can see everything there is to see in Istanbul in an afternoon." I mumbled something vaguely supportive and wandered off, thinking "I can have a more intelligent conversation with a tree stump than I can with this guy."

Although I was scheduled to spend a year in Turkey, tours were cut short because of the RIF (reduction in force) as the Vietnam War wound down. So my two year draft tour was cut to 19 months and I was released from active duty on February 29, 1972. After ten years of mulling things over, I realized that I had profited enormously from being in Turkey and had really had a rather interesting time overall in the Army. So after ten years, I joined the Reserves, retiring in 2001 with 21 years' service as a master sergeant (I ended up the same rank as the people who used to terrify me!). It took 20 years, but in 1991 the Army got its five months back in the First Gulf War. My second deployment, in Bosnia in 1996, was cutting into my own time.

Turkey doesn't have many friends in the U.S., mostly because of its tense relationships with Greece. Since I love Greece, too, watching this is a bit like watching two good friends go through a really ugly divorce. But I came to have immense respect for the Turks. Their history was indeed bloody and one cannot really blame Greeks and Armenians for their animosity. But when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, probably no government in history was as inept and corrupt. Turkey was all set to be carved to bits by the victorious allies. The Turks rallied behind Ataturk, fought off the attempts to dismember them (including a very serious invasion by Greece) and retained their independence. Then they consciously reoriented themselves from Middle Eastern to European. They are now under great pressure from Islamic militants, and the stakes could not be higher. Their human rights record is blemished and their democracy punctuated by military intervention. Nevertheless, as one observer put it: "If you want a Moslem country that is moderate, democratic, and pro-Western, Turkey isn't the best game in town - it's the only game in town."

Turkey desperately wants to be regarded as part of Europe, and every time I see some idiot (as National Geographic did a few years ago) justify excluding Turkey from maps of Europe because of "tradition," I want to scream "Turkey is the lone Islamic country that is unequivocally pro-Western and they are in danger. Get out your stupid marking pens out and color them part of Europe before we lose them!"

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Created 19 December 2003, Last Update 14 September 2018