???Rethinking military service

Nicole Pope
The matter was hotly debated for months and a decision eagerly awaited, but Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s announcement of the terms for paid army duty exemption has not put an end to the controversy. The new provisions have yet to be approved by Parliament.
According to the new bill, people above the age of 30 will be able to skip military service by paying TL 30,000. Partial exemptions in the past called for conscripts to serve at least 21 days of basic training. Expatriate Turks will be able to avoid army duty through payment of 10,000 euros.
The interest that such programs generate punctures the official myth that Turks are born soldiers and all young men see military service as a necessary rite of passage that will turn them into real men. Many would opt for an exemption if given half a chance, and are in fact willing to pay significant amounts of money for it.
The government decision has been welcomed by many families, who will breathe a sigh of relief and happily fork out the substantial sum required to keep their sons out of harm’s way. The new rule is expecting to pour significant revenues into the state coffers. But the cost remains prohibitive for a large segment of the society. Banks are already lining up with offers to pay the hefty sum by installments, with accrued interests, over a long period. In a country that ranks well below its OECD peers in terms of social equality, the new regulation confirms the opportunity gap that exists between haves and have-nots. This situation places an unfair burden on poorer families, given that many Turkish conscripts face combat situations, which are at times lethal.

Experts in military matters have long urged the government to turn Turkey’s army, the second largest in NATO, into a leaner but better trained professional force. The general staff has been resisting such a move, perhaps because military service has always been an opportunity to shape young minds and transfer the official ideology. It is more difficult to understand, however, why the government should see it in its interest to maintain the status quo, given that Turkey’s armed forces require expertise rather a large number of troops to address current military threats.

Conflicting statements by ministers had also fuelled hopes that the government would offer an alternative to armed service to conscientious objectors. But these were dashed, just as the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Turkey in the case of Yunus Erçep, a Jehova’s Witness, who objected to armed duty because of his faith. Turkey was found in breach of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and fined.

My country of origin, Switzerland, is one of few European countries that still maintain compulsory conscription, although popular support for it is on the decrease. But while all young Swiss men are expected to serve, usually undergoing a five-month stint of basic training followed by annual refresher courses, they are offered alternatives to armed service. In the past, they had to justify their demand in front of a panel of officers. Since 2005, their willingness to serve a cumulative period of 390 days of the 260 imposed on military conscripts is deemed sufficient proof of their intent.

Army conscription seems an anachronism in the age of asymmetric threats, but civilian service does have its benefits. When my nephew was recently called up, he chose to work in a boarding school for troubled adolescents where he will probably learn more than he would have at a military base. Many non-governmental organizations are licensed to take on civilian conscripts for activities that range from helping the elderly to cleaning up cultural sites, working in environmental protection or in agriculture.

Turkey could usefully employ conscientious objectors on development projects. Young people could help build housing for earthquake victims in Van or assist teachers in overcrowded schools in rural areas. Not only would they perform a public service, but they would also gain useful work experience that would help them enter a competitive labor market.

For now, potential conscripts will have to make do with the provisions on paid exemption recently unveiled by the government. But the debate on conscientious objection and the professionalization of the Turkish army is far from over.


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