Pageviews last month

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


For a year and a half I served in the Turkish army, and I consider it one of the great experiences of my life.
In my days, being in the army was not voluntary. Every male was drafted either as an ordinary soldier or, if you had a college degree, as an officer. In my case, after I got my law degree from the University of Istanbul in June, 1959, I was sent to a military school in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, as an officer-in-training. I remained there for six months, and assigned to the tank corps. My studies at the academy included strategy, use of firearms as well as boring practices, such as learning how to salute an officer--an exercise that took a whole week! But, being a college grad, I was also given an opportunity to teach classes to soldiers. The subject, if I remember correctly, was Turkish history.
After graduation as a second-lieutenant, I was sent to Babaeski, a small village near the Greek border, and was assigned to the repair shop, an assignment which surprised me, because I knew nothing about repairing a tank. But soon I learned that my responsibility was only to administer the shop, something I could handle easily. I was also given five tanks under my command, and often participated in military exercises in full gear.
I did not live in the military compound, but had rented a room in the only hotel in town. Every morning my Kurdish driver would pick me up and take me to my office. There I made charts, created inventories, recorded the number of tanks that came in for repair etc.
As an ally of the US, we had a number of American personnel who stayed at my hotel, including two sergeants who knew how to fix our USA-made tanks. Once in a while, I interacted with them and practiced my English, but they got drunk so often that my contacts were useless.
In May, 1960, there was a military coup in Turkey, and my brigade commander was one of the instigators. We were ordered to march to Istanbul to take over the main radio station. At dawn I got up, and showed up at my unit ready to launch the invasion. My five tanks were on their way to the city when a jeep showed up next to my lead tank, and the officer on the vehicle ordered me to see the general right away. He told me, “I understand you have a law degree. Correct?” “Yes, my general,” I responded. He then said: “Go back and report to the military court.” I could not believe my luck! I wasn’t going to do any fighting but instead take over the military jail. Thus, I served a whole a year in Babaeski, making sure the prisoners were kept in place and safe. Once in a while, because of my knowledge of rudimentary English, I also functioned as an interpreter to a few American generals. As a Jew, I experienced no anti-Semitism and no antagonism from others, perhaps a bit of jealousy because I was in an enviable position of power.
My military service ended in December of 1960. I was discharged honorably without much ceremony. I took a bus and returned home to Istanbul, ready to leave for Paris, France within a few weeks.
The reason why I consider my military experience of such importance in my personal growth is that, unlike American kids who go away for summer camps, attend a semester-abroad during college, or travel in and out of the country, the military service in Turkey was then the first opportunity many of us had to leave the security of home, and learn how to become independent. It was in the Turkish army, with its discipline, respect for rank and its structured life that I learned how to fend for myself, depending only on my own wits, a lesson that came in handy many times in my life.
Rifat Sonsino

No comments:

Post a Comment