My fieldwork experience in Turkey was unique in many respects. After defending my dissertation prospectus in June 2016 in Seattle, I flew to Turkey with a set of research questions and plans, not knowing that I would have to radically alter them soon. I was primarily interested in exploring why and how the Turkish military had moved away from its politically dominant and interventionist position and gone along with the demilitarization and "democratization" of Turkey's political space over the past two decades. I hold a series of interviews with some army officers in Ankara, inquiring primarily about Turkey's civil-military relations then. Only a month into my fieldwork and a week after an interview with a former colleague at a cafe in Bakanliklar--a central district in Ankara where several ministries, government offices, the Turkish parliament, and the main headquarters of the Turkish General Staff are located--a faction inside the Turkish officer corps staged an unsuccessful putsch disrupting my research plan almost entirely.
After the botched coup on July 15, 2016, Turkish politics saw a rapid transformation and a drastic democratic backsliding accompanied by a massive purge and reformation of the state, including the military. Pursuing my original research plan in the turbulent political context of post-coup Turkey, where police raids in government buildings and military barracks to make mass arrests became part of the daily routine, was no longer possible. After pondering some alternative topics and questions, I let my field research help me decide the direction of my research. Because interviewing would not have been possible, at least for the foreseeable future, I prioritized archival and library work, only to discover that my new identity as a researcher in an American university would also create challenges on this front.
After acquiring the necessary permits with some difficulty, I first examined the holdings of the General Staff College (GSC) Library in Istanbul and the National and Military Academy libraries in Ankara. Second, I investigated the collections at the Center for Military History and Strategic Analysis (ATASE) archives. Working in the military archives and libraries turned out to be more challenging than getting work permits. I was allowed to work on only a limited number of archival and library materials. Among those were some publications by military-owned presses, particularly periodicals reflecting how institutional and individual views on the military's role in and relationship with politics and society varied over time. For all the challenges, the eureka moment came during one of my explorative walks among the library stacks at the GSC: I found catalogs and albums collating demographic and professional information about the GSC attendees that would lay the basis for my new dissertation project. After further investigation, I uncovered additional booklets and yearbooks in the library, which dragged me to do more digging in second-hand book stores in Istanbul. Eventually I could put together enough material tohelp me construct a complete dataset of ethnic and social backgrounds and career paths of all General Staff Officers and Generals since the creation of the modern Turkish army and its officer corps in the 1830s and 1840s.
General Staff Officers have represented the Turkish army's elite since the late Ottoman period. It was exciting in and of itself to investigate this unique group that had been quite influential in Turkey's domestic politics. Yet, I was also curious about the recruitment and promotion patterns of the broader officer corps, including non-elite--junior and mid-grade--officers. Despite being a former officer, the Turkish military's recruitment and promotion processes were full of unknowns to me. I had limited understanding of who was recruited and promoted and why. Another serendipitous moment in a Sahaf-- a store selling old books, maps, and documents of any sort--in Ankara was helpful in that regard. I ran into an album published by the Bursa Isiklar Military High School, where I had also graduated, compiling information about Isiklar alumni since the late Ottoman period, including geographical origins of cadets, their current professions, military branches, as well as the highest rank and office they achieved in the armed forces. Together, these two datasets would allow me to compare various trends in the military at the junior, mid-grade, and senior levels and across the army, navy, and air force.
Not only did these archival discoveries help me develop my new dissertation project and questions, but they also led me to diversify my methodological approach. To make the most of the precious and voluminous data I uncovered, I started re-learning quantitative research methods and re-educating myself about computational techniques. My engineering background had finally become useful in my graduate studies. Upon my return from the field, I took some statistics courses at UW. Still, I mostly used vast online resources for expedited training to prepare myself and my data for analysis.
Along with my archival and library work and new methodological endeavor, I could conduct about 100 interviews and 16 focus group discussions with army officers, military scholars, journalists, and politicians, along with several conversations after 2017, once political turmoil in the country settled down a little bit. As a former insider and recent outsider of the Turkish officer corps, I found it exciting, but at the same time highly challenging, to interview the members of the Turkish army. First, it was hard, if not impossible, to disassociate my feelings and opinions from the conversations and interviews I held and to examine them objectively. Also, establishing a neutral discussion with my interviewees took time when I had to reveal my military background. My biggest challenge, however, was always the extreme suspicion and distrust that the failed coup attempt and its intra-institutional and political aftershocks had sown among officers.
I took hundreds of photos during my field research. My camera mainly captured documents in dusty archive rooms and libraries or the pages of books I purchased from Sahafs as I could not carry them along. But I also witnessed colorful--sometimes concerning and sometimes promising--moments in the streets of Turkish towns and cities during a tumultuous political period. Especially a tour I took in Ankara streets immediately after the July 15 coup allowed me to record unprecedented scenes. I also collated some intriguing photos shared in national newspapers and social media during this critical period. In the gallery above, you can find a sample of photos I took, including those taken during the courses, certificate programs, and public seminars I attended between 2016 and 2019.
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