Turkish Armed Forces and Postmodern War-Management

Published in Turkish Daily News, 17 January 2008

The Turkish and international media gave wide coverage to recent Turkish excursions into and bombings of outlawed PKK targets in northern Iraq.

Most of the commentaries focused on the pros and cons of military campaigns on the fragile state of Iraq, the never-ending ‘final moves' to end PKK terror in Turkey and the rekindling of Turkish-American relations. These are in fact legitimate questions, but there is more that needs to be analyzed.

A key area that has escaped from the critical (and often clichéd) eyes of mainstream commentators in Turkey is why these campaigns have been communicated to Turkish society in the way that they have been. In this article, I want to draw attention not to the military attacks and their results or implications, but to how the Turkish Armed forces have employed and orchestrated cutting-edge public relations tactics.

Old school war-management:

In the good old days, managing societies that were engaged in wars was a lot easier. Since the primary information source was the armed forces themselves, the governments easily constructed stories of heroism, success and sacrifices performed for ‘higher ideals.' The pointless destruction, war crimes and failures could easily be left out in the dark. Society was just a spectator enjoying the unified narrative presented in movie-like news from the front lines. What mattered was that ‘we' were winning and ‘we' were ‘heroes' fighting for a ‘just' cause.

The only alternative source of information was the veterans, who had to choose to play either the ‘hero' with the hope that their sacrifices were in fact worth something, or the reclusive survivor who never spoke about war. And when those returnees refused to choose between these two sanctioned roles and dared to speak against their government's policies and the horrors of war, they were declared mentally or morally impaired and pushed out to the margins.

Thus, it was quite easy to manage one's society in the old days. All you needed to do was report as many successes and heroic stories as possible. However, with the development of independent media and easy access to the production and dissemination of photographs and videos from the front lines, the job of the governments and top generals became more difficult.

The Vietnam War was not more destructive or ‘evil' than any other war. In fact, the 20th century had seen bigger and more fatal wars. Yet, for the first time we were able to see the reality of war right in our living rooms, often contradicting the official euphemisms and stories presented to us. This meant that it was becoming a lot more difficult to lead us into collective hypnosis.

A single image of a young girl, Kim Phuc, screaming with pain from her burns and running away naked from a napalm bombing with a bunch of kids, became a turning point for war opposition. It muted all stories of military success and the idea that the war was being fought for noble causes. Though this signaled the end of traditional war-management, it only resulted in more sophisticated strategies. The new strategy, which was first applied during the Desert Storm campaign, uses the same tool that ended the old strategies.

New generation war-management:

If independent media taught us to mistrust the official narratives and cheap heroisms, it also led us to a fixation on the image and visual stimulation. If the previous problem was lack of information and its boring officialdom, our new problem is information overload and its erotic powers.

In order to compete with other producers for our decreasing attention spans, TV reporting has reduced the content of the information to minimal while maximizing its visual and musical effects. As the minimum amount of information is added on to amazing views of fighter jets, attractive uniforms and ‘cool' war toys, the war becomes a ‘thrill.' The shock-and-awe tactics create a sense of ‘awe' of human technology and its precision. The individual becomes fixed on sexy images at the expense of reality.

The news of bombing is presented with black and white videos supplied by the Air Force, which shows war more like an unreal video game. The more the dose of visual stimulation is increased, the more societies fall into rapture and intellectual numbness. Since we are more focused on the airplane, we have no perception of where the bombs fall, or moreover, of the deaths of the human beings underneath them. The U.S. has employed this style of perception management in its controversial campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan with great success.

It appears that the Turkish Armed Forces have learned more from the U.S. than intelligence and F-16 production. All throughout the north Iraq campaigns, top generals and government officials spoke endlessly about our newly acquired spy, night flight and bombing technologies. Newspapers presented the most attractive military pictures along with details of each bomb dropped and how our pilots are trained. TV channels showed videos of the bombings and real-life satellite images of the camps.

It has indeed been a successful example of war-management. Turkish society has faced minimum ethical dilemmas and found much pride and stimulation in our brand new military toys.