Is Kurdistan Turkey’s Vietnam?
The rest of the world doesn’t know very much about the after-effects of the Vietnam War in the US. The Pentagon Papers, one of the most important developments in American democracy, showed that the news from Vietnam at that time as well as freedom of the press took precedence over everything else. Apart from that, the trauma suffered by Vietnam vets after the war also demonstrated how war changes a country and its people.
Vietnam doesn’t really have anything to do with the Middle East. The Iraq occupation and its aftermath were like a second Vietnam for the US, but Turkey’s 35-year-long conflict with the PKK, with operations recently extended into Syria and Northern Iraq, is beginning to have effects on the country and soldiers that very much resemble what happened in the US after Vietnam.
However, there’s an important distinction to make between the two situations, which is that in the US, people have been debating for years about the mistakes made in Vietnam and how politicians and the military benefitted from the war. There are dozens of films, TV series, comic books, and novels on the subject.
The most trusted Vietnam era news anchor in the US was Walter Cronkite, who reported from the front lines of the war. His reports and commentary made people question the war because it started to become clear that the official statements from the military and government weren’t actually true.
For example, even in Punisher: The Platoon, about Marvel’s famous anti-hero Frank Castle’s (Punisher) time in Vietnam, an American soldier is getting interrogated by the Viet Cong, and Cronkite and his reporting are mentioned. It is said that Cronkite planted questions in the public’s mind.
Unfortunately, in Turkey today, it’s as though there are no journalists remaining to follow the military operations and write unbiased reports, and any journalist who’s been found to have made even the slightest criticism ends up in court.
On my visits to Southeast Turkey, even though residents as well as the police, military, and public officials stationed there all identified the region as Kurdistan, it’s still a crime to say that word today. Even the name of the region can’t be spoken.
Returning to comics, in Punisher: The Platoon, another important point is that when the soldiers return home from the war, they say time and again that they’ve come home to a different country.
Rambo: First Blood, based on David Morelli’s book by the same name, is one of the best examples of the traumas that soldiers experience. Rambo returns from the war as a hero, but people scream “baby killer” at him. In Vietnam, he’d driven every kind of war vehicle, but when he comes home, he can’t even find a job in a gas station.
In Turkey, no one has written much about what the soldiers who fought in the Southeast experience when their tours are over. The best-known film about this is director Uğur Yücel’s Yazı Tura (Toss Up), starring Kenan İmirzalıoğlu and Olgun Şimşek. There’s also the blockbuster movie Dağ 2 (Mountain 2), which has a scene where First Lieutenant Oğuz Çağlar, played by Çağlar Ertuğrul, tries to clear his head from a nightmare with cold water.
For a comic book that takes a very realistic view of what happened to a lot of Vietnam War soldiers, there’s The Nam. There are no superheroes in The Nam; instead, it is a stark portrayal of high-ranking officers taking bribes, of fresh-faced soldiers who come to war knowing nothing, of people who try to do a good job but are thwarted by their superiors.
In 1996, there was a car accident in the Turkish town of Susurluk in which three people died. Afterwards, it emerged that in the same car were an MP, a high-level police official, and a criminal sought by Interpol for his role in the murder of seven university students. As events unfolded, the public read a deluge of articles on the connections between the state, the politicians, and the mafia; eventually, the case sort of disappeared. Parliament produced a report on their investigation; from that, it became clear how much both sides were profiting off the conflict between the Turkish military and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). Of course, it was also quite striking to hear the confessions of everyone mixed up in the whole scandal, including people who’d defected from the PKK to work on behalf of the Turkish military police and people who’d been involved in other unsolved crimes.
One of these confessions was that a military helicopter had been used to move drugs, just like Frank Lucas did in Ridley Scott’s 2007 film American Gangster. During the Vietnam War, Lucas went to Vietnam and made a deal to buy high-quality heroin there, which he shipped back to the United States using American military planes.
It wasn’t just soldiers responsible for the incidents of that time. The PKK, which started off working to protect the rights of Kurdish people, is also guilty of its own crimes later on. Both sides were benefitting from the continuation of the conflict. It’s a well-known fact that anyone who criticized the actions of PKK leadership was labelled as a spy and killed.
There were also things like Turkish soldiers dressing up as PKK fighters and burning Kurdish villages and the PKK responding to the civilian deaths with bombings and by murdering the soldiers’ wives and children. In short, this is a 35-year conflict where both sides have brutalized each other.
President Donald Trump recently announced that he would soon be pulling US troops out of Syria. He later followed this up by threatening “economic destruction” if Turkey undertakes any operations against the Kurds. A lot has been said about these announcements, but it’s still inconceivable that this 35-year-long conflict, with so much death on both sides, will suddenly come to an end.
The Turkish public needs to rein in its nationalist sentiments somewhat and take a look at the past. The mistakes made in the Southeast need to be openly debated, and there should be more novels and films on the subject. Most importantly, the problems soldiers face when returning to civilian life need to be at the forefront. The effects on Turkey of the incidents in Kurdistan must be examined from every angle, just as the effects of the Vietnam War were.
As for Kurdish people, they want the conflict in the region to end so that they may live in peace. They’ve been living in extremely difficult conditions for years. They’ve had to leave their homes and villages. Kurds should be able to live freely on their land and in their homes, without feeling like they need protection; the true victims of this war are innocent Kurds.