What war really does to us all
ASSOC. PROF. NERGİS CANEFE York University, Toronto
What we know about the Ottoman experience in the Great War (19194-1918) is rather dismal; it is as if all the nameless soldiers of the Anatolian heartland, with their nondescript places of burial -- if they were lucky enough to have any -- just disappeared from history. While the rupture of the Turkish War of Independence and the edifice of the new republic marked the year 1923 as a new beginning, it was upon the shoulders of these men -- the Ottoman war dead, war prisoners, repatriated soldiers, and the exhausted and hungry thousands -- that this story of rebirth rose. Yücel Yanıkdag’s work is a timely testimony to the fact that Turks were deliberately and wrongfully taught to close the chapter about the Ottoman human debris of endless wars at the turn of the last century. As the author illustrates in painstaking detail, the nexus of war, psychiatric medicine and nascent Turkish nationalism created an institutional need for cleansing the Turkish past of the Ottoman stories of defeat. During the opening decades of republican history, the physical embodiment of these characteristics was most commonly identified with repatriated prisoners of war (POWs) and war veterans who suffered from mental illnesses and breakdowns. The title chosen by the author thus aptly summarizes the ensuing moral panic in the young nation: the fear that these “degenerates” carried the seeds of a weak and tormented nation and thus must be concealed. Furthermore, this healing process was to take place in silence and away from the public gaze so as to reduce further shame for the young Turkish nation who needed, more than anything else, morale and self-belief -- not the kind of clouds of doubt cast by the lost souls of World War I.