Glory to the Turks!

By Gary Brecher

Last week a poll came out showing that 70% of Turks hate America and consider it their biggest enemy.

It's not hard to understand what turned them against America. We've taken Turkey for granted for a long time. They're paying the price for their loyalty to America; since they never give us any trouble, we never listen to them, even when they begged us not to turn their neighborhood into a war zone.

The Turks' biggest worry is the way we've been messing with the Kurds. We've psyched the Kurds up into thinking they'll get an independent homeland. There are 15 million rebellious Kurds in eastern Turkey, and they've been absorbing all that dangerous talk and oiling up their AKs, getting ready to take it to the man.

We even demanded that the Turks let us invade Iraq through eastern Turkey -- right through the Kurdish territory where the locals are just waiting for an excuse to declare independence and hide behind the Americans, the way the Kurds in Northern Iraq have already done.

And since this is Bush's boys we're talking about, we've done it in the loudest, most impolite way we could. Even before the Turkish parliament was due to vote on whether to allow us to invade through Turkish Kurdistan, in December 2002, Wolfowitz announced that their vote in favor of the US would be a sure thing. That kind of hubris was guaranteed to infuriate the Turks, who were already being called Uncle Toms for sticking with the US in what most Muslims saw as an anti-Islamic crusade.

The Turkish MPs voted not to allow Amerca to use their territory for the invasion, a totally sane decision that got them more abuse from Bush's little charmers. Way to turn an ally into an enemy, guys!

It's sad for me, seeing us lose Turkey, because it's always been one of my favorite countries. The Turks have a glorious military history and a tradition of standing by America whenever we needed them.

It really hurts me personally too, because I always did like Turks. Because of their glorious military history, sure, but not just that. My favorite high school teacher was a Turkish immigrant, the smartest man at that lousy school and the only teacher who ever took an interest in me. He even had me over to dinner one time -- because I was smart and knew world history. He didn't care if I was fat or from a hick family; he just knew I loved history. I don't forget something like that.

Also, one of my sister's friends taught English in Turkey and loved it. She said they're the most hospitable people in the world, won't let you leave til they'd loaded you down with all the food in the house. And it's great food, too -- like Greek without all the grease, if you'll pardon the pun.

In the endless Greek-Turkish wars, I always cheer for the Turks -- which is a good plan because they always win.

Besides, those Greeks have been persecuting us war nerds! Back in 2002, the Greek Air Force -- that top-secret, ultra-elite fighting force -- arrested 12 British war nerds who were taking pictures of Greek fighters taking off from a base near Athens. These poor Limey nerds were charged with espionage. As if an airbase in a crowded, half-Commie country like Greece is a secret!

The Turks have always been a tough people. They like to claim they're the direct descendants of Attila's Huns, but that's just patriotism -- Turks are supposedly the second most patriotic people in the world, after Americans -- and it'd be nice to be able to say you're the great-grandkids of Attila himself. The Hungarians, who are distant relatives of the Huns at best, do the same thing (they say that's where their "Hun" in Hungary comes from).

Although they weren't Huns, the original Turks were pretty similar: Steppe nomads who fought from horseback, firing composite bows. That's the one kind of fighter Western armies never could handle. Their little composite bows were wonders of nomad hi-tech weapons design. It took trained craftsmen up to a year to make one, gluing together thin plates of horn and different kinds of wood for the perfect combination of give and resistance. They looked like toys compared to the Welsh longbow, but could fire twice as fast and penetrate armor at greater distances. A Steppe archer mounted on one of the tough, small ponies they raised in Central Asia was a fighting machine so superior to the typical Western man-at-arms that most of the battles between the two kinds of fighter turned into massacres, with the little horsemen picking off the sword-armed footsloggers at will.

Whether the mounted Steppe archers were Huns, Turks, or Mongols, the West never really did come up with a way to fight them. The only thing that slowed them down -- the only reason we're not speaking Mongol or Turkish right now -- is that they were easily distracted and poorly organized, so their empires tended to dissolve in a generation or two.

The Seljuk Turks were an exception to that rule. They'd adopted Islam and picked up some Muslim notions about stable monarchies, so they were a deadly combination of political smarts and Steppe fury. They smashed into Persia in the 11th century, destroyed it and moved on to the Turkish Peninsula, where they met the Byzantines, who'd turned the Eastern Roman Empire into the biggest, most powerful Greek Empire since Alexander.

With great generals like Belisarius leading an army of Greek infantry and Hunnish mercenaries, the Byzantines had held the East and even, for a while, reconquered a good bit of the Western Empire from the Vandals and Visigoths.

Then they ran into the Seljuks, and stock in Byzantium, Inc. fell faster than a dot-com in 2000. The decisive battle was at Manzikert in eastern Turkey in 1071, only five years after the battle of Hastings. Everybody knows Hastings, but nobody knows about Manzikert, a much more important battle.

Manzikert was typical of what happened when Western infantry faced Steppe warriors firing composite bows. The Byzantines spotted the Turks and advanced toward them. But the Turks refused to let them get close enough to use their swords. Instead they teased the Greeks -- let them get close, then suddenly turned and dropped the front rank with a shower of armor-piercing arrows before galloping back out of range.

Time after time the Greeks slogged up close to the Turkish horsemen and were slaughtered by a sudden volley of arrows.

After marching for hours through the heat (it was August), pursuing an enemy who hit and ran before you could touch him, and watching men fall all around them with little feathered darts sticking out of their throats or eyes, the Byzantine troops began to get spooked. They stopped advancing and started to fall back uneasily, not sure what to do next.

This was the moment Steppe warriors lived for. As any war fan knows, it's much harder to fall back in good order than to advance. The Turks started to herd the Byzantines the way Steppe nomads had been herding their flocks for centuries, driving small groups of foot soldiers into ravines that made perfect killing zones. It was Little Big Horn, but on a huge scale: the Turks had 100,000 horsemen in the fight, and the Byzantine army about 70,000.

Seeing that the battle was turning into a massacre, the Byzantine rear guard fled, leaving the main body exposed. The Turks herded them into two separate groups and spent the rest of the day patiently wiping out one group, then the other. The Byzantine Emperor was captured, and the military power of the Greeks was wiped out forever. For the Greeks, it was the greatest disaster in history. Ten years after Manzikert, the Turks were within sight of Constantinople.

The Byzantines got a reprieve when Timur, another Steppe warrior, slashed the Seljuk Empire from the East. And the walls of Constantinople were so strong that the Byzantines held out til 1453, when the Turks hired a Christian cannoneer to batter down the walls. That's when Constantinople turned into Istanbul. It reminds me of that old song:

Now it's Istanbul not Constantinople, Istanbul not Constantinople --

Why did Constantinople get the works?

That's nobody's business but the Turks.

Well, the Greeks might beg to differ with whoever wrote that song, but the victor always has the right to rename the city. And, naturally, the right to rape and pillage it.

The Seljuks pillaged the city for three days -- which was the time decreed by tradition. The spoil included the Byzantine emperor's son and daughter, who were carted off as concubines for the Seljuk Sultan. He was broadminded when it came to, er, gender issues.

They turned the great Byzantine cathedral into a mosque and settled down to enjoy city life before starting on a second wave of conquest, this time as the Ottoman Empire. This Turkish wave hit its peak in the 16th century, when the Turks smashed the Hungarians at Mohacs (1526), grabbed most of the Balkans, and pushed south and east into Persia and Arabia.

The Europeans got scared enough to unite for once against the Muslim threat. That's how you know the Europeans are really, really scared: when those quarrelsome bastards actually stop bitching and work together. A combined European fleet crushed the Ottoman galleys at Lepanto (1571) in the Mediterranean. But the Turks hadn't run out of steam. They said to the Europeans, "You have only shaven our beard, and the shaven beard grows faster."

If you've ever seen a Turk who hasn't shaved for a couple of days, you know what they were talking about.

More than a hundred years after Lepanto, the Turks surged even further into Central Europe, besieging Vienna, and came damn close to taking it. It took another united European relief force to drive them off.

It was downhill from then on. The Turks were trying to run an Empire with hundreds of different ethnic groups, and as the whole Nationalism thing got popular, it was less and less fun. You know: "Serbia for the Serbs!" one day and "Egypt for the Egyptians!" the next. Complain, complain, complain.

The Ottomans did their best to show their subjects that revolting didn't pay -- one of my favorites among their hearts-and-minds strategies was building a tower of skulls they'd sawed off the corpses of Serb rebels, just to remind the locals what happened to Grumbling Gerties. But no sooner did they have the tower finished than they had to march off to show some other crazy Balkan or Arab tribe the error of their naysayin' ways.

Seeing the Turks' weakness, the Russians got into the act. The Turks were forced into a series of losing wars with Russia, and had to be rescued by the French and English in the Crimean War. That was a new twist -- the West helping the Turks -- and a bad sign for the Turks. It meant the Brits and French saw the Ottomans as a harmless, sickly counterweight to the Russians.

The last, worst decision the Ottomans ever made was siding with Germany in 1914. Turkey was dragged into combat in 1915, when the young Winston Churchill came up with the idea of taking Istanbul so British ships could use the Black Sea to resupply Russian armies, forcing the Germans to shift troops to the Eastern Front.

Churchill gets a good press, but he hurt the allied cause in WW I and again in WW II because of this lame amateur obsession with invading Southern Europe. It failed in WW II, when Allied armies had to fight their way up the Italian Peninsula over ground perfect for defense and a nightmare for attackers. And it failed big-time in 1915, when at Churchill's insistence a big force of Australian troops landed at Gallipoli, south of Istanbul.

The Australians still flinch when you say "Gallipoli." They were slaughtered. I've read that the population of Australia would be way bigger than it is today if the Brits hadn't dragged a whole generation of poor Australian suckers off to Turkey to be mowed down. Well, guys, that's what you get for trusting your kids to British officers -- and underestimating Turkish troops.

The Aussies fought well -- they always do, probably the best English-speaking soldiers around -- but their chinless-wonder Brit officers left them sitting on the beaches awaiting orders to storm the cliffs. By the time the English generals finished their tea and ordered the attack, the Turkish commanders had reinforced their defenses and Achilles himself couldn't have taken those cliffs.

Imagine what D-Day would've been like if we'd landed at the beaches, then waited for hours before getting the go-ahead to advance up the cliffs. Crazy as it sounds, that's what the Brits did at Gallipoli, which is why their invasion force had to sail home in disgrace in 1916, ferrying what was left of the poor Aussies. There was a lot of extra room on those troopships, a lot of empty berths.

The Turkish hero of Gallipoli was a young commander named Mustafa Kemal. He became a legend after making one of the all-time great pep talks to his troops there. When they got word the British were coming, Kemal told them: "Soldiers! I do not order you to fight; I order you to DIE!"

Gallipoli made Kemal famous, but it wasn't his greatest moment. He went to far greater accomplishments, military and political. He's like God to the Turks, who call him Kemal Ataturk, "Kemal, Father of the Turks." When Time Magazine took a poll a few years back on the Greatest Man of the 20th Century, all the usual names got trotted out -- but the winner was Kemal, voted in by a huge write-in effort from Turkey.

Kemal came back into action in 1919, when Turkey was at its lowest point ever. The Allies weren't in a forgiving mood when the war ended in 1918, especially since the Turks had humiliated the British Army at Gallipoli. They ripped Turkey apart, leaving the Turks with only the Northern half of the Anatolian Peninsula. The weak, beaten Ottoman Sultan accepted, but Kemal begged to differ and started reassembling a new Turkish Army.

The Greeks couldn't wait to grab western Turkey after the war. They'd been waiting 470 years to take Constantinople back from the Turks, and they thought that their time had come.

The Allies were totally pro-Greek. In 1919 they provided a fleet, which included American warships, to ferry a Greek invasion force to Smyrna, on the Western coast of Turkey. The Greeks pushed about 130 miles inland and advanced on Ankara, the HQ of Kemal's Turkish resistance forces. But once again, Kemal held his troops together, slowing down the better-armed Greek Army in a series of holding actions before smashing them in a savage three-week fight on the Sakarya River.

By 1922 the Turks were ready to retake Smyrna. Smyrna, to be fair here, had always been a Greek, not Turkish, city. In fact, the Western coast of Turkey had always been Greek. The Greeks were sea people, who swarmed over the coastal areas from the Crimea to Spain. The Turks were always a land power, pushing out of Central Asia -- where naval power isn't exactly crucial to the empire-building effort. (The Mongols, the all-time inland-Asia power, were only vulnerable when they had to take to the sea, which is why they failed to take Japan in two tries.)

But the Versailles Treaty made it clear that from now on, countries would be blocks of land, and if Turkey was going to survive it had to claim all of its core territory, the Anatolian Peninsula.

Kemal's army pushed west and in September 1922 took Smyrna in some very nasty street fighting. As the Allied flotilla showed up again to evacuate the defeated Greeks, somebody set the city on fire. The Turks say it was the Greeks; the Greeks...well, just take a wild guess here. That's right -- they say it was the Turks.

Nobody's sure, but by all accounts it was a nasty streetfight, like Beirut in the 70s, with no quarter asked or given and plenty of atrocities on both sides.

The first thing the Turks did was give all the coastal cities new Turkish names. Smyrna is now Izmir. I guess that's nobody's business but the Turks' too. Kemal didn't push the Greeks as far back as he could've. The Turks pushed into Europe just far enough to give Istanbul a little breathing room, then stopped and settled for a negotiated peace.

Kemal had other business. Unlike your average 20th century military leader, he wasn't mainly interested in building statues of himself and taking graft. He was an honorable, very intelligent man, and as soon as the war was over he started his real project: turning Turkey into a secular, Western country.

He got rid of Arabic script (Turks don't like Arabs much) and ordered a new way of writing Turkish using our alphabet. He went about as far as he could toward putting Islam in its place: made it a crime for women to wear the burqa and declared Turkey a secular state.

Kemal admired America, and the Turks felt the same way. They were proud to be part of NATO, and were probably the best soldiers in the alliance. And when Truman asked for help in the Korean "police action," the Turks were one of the earliest, most enthusiastic allies we had.

The Turkish contingent in the Korean War was famous for courage and loyalty. They never ran, even when overwhelmed by North Korean or Chinese mass attack. They were proud of their close-in fighting skills, especially their bayonet work. I remember an interview with a Turkish officer in Korea who was explaining that Turkish bayonets were superior because they're grooved, so blood and air escape from the wound they make, so they don't get stuck in the torso the way American bayonets did.

The Turkish POWs were one of the most amazing stories of the Korean War. As some of you already know, US and British POWs, the two biggest contingents, didn't do very well. Almost 40% of our POWs died, mostly of sheer neglect and depression. Morale broke down in the enlisted POW camps; there were no escapes, and dozens of captured GIs turned traitor.

The Turkish POWs had a totally different record. None of them died of natural causes -- their comrades wouldn't let them. Turks shared their rations, watched over their sick, and kept their pride.

Eventually the Chinese psy-war officers stopped bothering to try to subvert the Turks.

Not one Turkish prisoner turned traitor. There was one who was thinking about it -- but, as his comrades explained in interviews after the war, they couldn't let him disgrace them, so they "regretfully" strangled him before he could contact the Chinese guards.

You've gotta love an ally like that. I have this terrible feeling that if we lose Turkey over the Iraq mess, we'll wake up about ten years from now and realize that democratizing all the Arabs in the world (even if we manage it, which we won't) isn't worth losing a friend like Turkey.


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