A Year in Turkey

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

I got drafted and entered the Army (for the first but not last time) on July22, 1970. I was shipped off to Fort Lewis, Washington for basic training. Duringinitial testing, I was the top soldier in the company on the language aptitudetest. So they called in the three top scorers and said "Such a deal we havefor you. How would you like to be Vietnamese interpreters?" I just saw theblood drain out of the other two guys' faces, but I thought "I have a goodchance of ending up there anyway. Anything that gives me control over thesituation is probably a good thing." So we filled out the necessarypaperwork....

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

Getting to Turkey was interesting. After some leave time, I reported to thereplacement station at Fort Dix, N.J. and after several days in processing I gota set of orders (they did have a phone number, except I had no idea how foreignphone systems worked) and a plane ticket for Istanbul. Essentially the Army toldme "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 wasstruck by the irony of flying to a military post over Communist territory, and Ithink Turkey was the only place in the world that happened on a regular basisapart from consulates. Later on I would visit both cities. Incredibly enough Iwould end up going to Sofia many years later on amilitary assignment. But for now it was all totally new. Fortunately therewere some soldiers on the plane returning from leave who showed me where to goonce I landed.

Turkey was not a highly regarded duty assignment. The good thing about it wasthat brass coming down from Germany didn't mess with us much. They spent amorning seeing if all the barracks were still standing, then went into Istanbulto shop for souvenirs in the Bazaar. You have to have a certain frame of mind toenjoy 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 bemiserable. I got my bachelor's degree from the University of California andlater on my Ph.D. from Columbia University, so I have degrees from two of thefinest universities on the planet. Nevertheless, I regard my year in Turkey asthe single greatest educational experience of my life. My only major complaintis that Istanbul failed to live up to advance billing; in my whole year therenot 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 shortbecause of the RIF (reduction in force) as the Vietnam War wound down. So my twoyear draft tour was cut to 19 months and I was released from active duty onFebruary 29, 1972. After ten years of mulling things over, I realized that I hadprofited enormously from being in Turkey and had really had a rather interestingtime 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 thesame rank as the people who used to terrify me!). It took 20 years, but in 1991the Army got its five months back in the FirstGulf War. My second deployment, in Bosniain 1996, was cutting into my own time.

Turkey doesn't have many friends in the U.S., mostly because of its tenserelationships with Greece. Since I love Greece, too, watching this is a bit likewatching two good friends go through a really ugly divorce. But I came to haveimmense respect for the Turks. Their history was indeed bloody and one cannotreally blame Greeks and Armenians for their animosity. But when the Ottoman Empirecollapsed, probably no government in history was as inept and corrupt. Turkeywas 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 seriousinvasion by Greece) and retained their independence. Then they consciouslyreoriented themselves from Middle Eastern to European. They are now under greatpressure from Islamic militants, and the stakes could not be higher. Their humanrights record is blemished and their democracy punctuated by militaryintervention. Nevertheless, as one observer put it: "If you want a Moslemcountry that is moderate, democratic, and pro-Western, Turkey isn't the bestgame in town - it's the only game in town."

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

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Created 19 December 2003, Last Update 12 January 2020