Tribute to the Turks

In 1996 I began leading an annual trek to Edirne to film the national Kirkpinar grease wrestling finals, but my fascination with the Ottoman Turks and their wrestling culture goes back many years before that. It all started with a book entitled “In Every War But One,” written by Eugene Kinkead after the Korean War (1950-1953). That book was a shocking revelation of the collapse of morale among American soldiers who were taken prisoners during the war by the North Koreans.

The Russians, having developed the art of brainwashing, had taught it to the Chinese and then the North Koreans, who employed it with deadly effectiveness against our susceptible young troops. A massive post-war study conducted by the U.S. Army Medical Corps concluded that one-third of American POWs had collaborated to some degree with the enemy. In three years not a single one had escaped from captivity. Most alarming of all, out of 7,190 prisoners, 2,730 died there (or 38%, far exceeding any rate in any war before or since). Courts martial later convicted nine enlisted men and three officers. The most notorious was a Sgt. James Gallagher, who murdered three barracks-mates, helpless with dysentery, by kicking them out into the snow to freeze in the dead of winter.

Neither physical torture nor lack of food or medical care could account for these tragedies. No, the Koreans had preyed on their minds. Once officers were isolated away and propaganda began, many lost all sense of allegiance to their country or to one another. They refused to obey their non-coms, cursing and even striking them. On forced marches to the prison villages, able-bodied men would refuse to carry the wounded. The strong regularly took food from the weak, and the sick were ignored.

In the absence of discipline a young man would typically withdraw into a world of isolation and inactivity. Death came most often from what Army psychiatrists later termed “give-up-itis.” First he became despondent, then he lay down and covered his head with a blanket, then he wanted ice water with his food, next only ice water, and if no one managed to break through he was dead in three weeks. It was a catastrophe.

Of the twelve countries whose troops were captured by the North Koreans, U.S. soldiers were by far the most numerous. The third largest (229) were Turks. The U.S. Army study concluded that they had been as exemplary in prison as they were in battle.

The Turks’ secret weapons were discipline, great pride in their brigade, and an unbreakable chain of command. The final official report contains this Turkish officer’s testimony regarding his prison experience:

“I told the Chinese commander of the camp that I was in charge of my group. If he wanted anything done, he was to come to me, and I would see that it was done. If he removed me, the responsibility would fall not on him but on the man next below me, and after that on the man below him. And so on, down through the ranks, until there were only two privates left. Then the senior private would be in charge. They could kill us, I told him, but they couldn’t make us do what we didn’t want to do. Discipline was our salvation, and we all knew it. If a Turk had questioned an order from his superior to share his food or lift a [stretcher], the way I understand some of your men did, he would literally have had his teeth knocked in. Not by his superior, either, but by the Turk nearest to him. The Communists made attempts to indoctrinate [us]….but they failed completely, and eventually gave up.”

The crowning result of this discipline was that, although half of the 229 Turks were wounded when captured, not one died in prison. When a Turk got sick, the rest nursed him to health. If he was ordered to the hospital, two well Turks went along to minister to him hand and foot and to carry him back to the compound when he was discharged. At mealtime two Turks were dispatched to carry the food back, and it was divided equally down to the last morsel. There was no hogging, no bullying, ever. Death by “give-up-itis” was impossible. Whereas an American soldier might curl up in isolation at night and die in the bitter cold, the Turks piled all together in one corner of their cell, and every hour the two on the outside would rotate to the center of the pile. The guards actually grew to fear their Turkish prisoners, as they watched the interminable wrestling matches which kept them so tough – and, paradoxically, so devoted to protecting one another.

That was how, years ago, a book on the Korean War “hooked” me on the Turks and impelled me to visit and observe them as I have done now for several summers. I have made good friends, not only among wrestlers and their coaches, but journalists, officials and military officers as well. They are indeed relentless competitors in a fight, but otherwise they are gentle, friendly, moral people. They especially like Americans. They do not have our wealth, but they are well fed. We enjoy a greater degree of freedom, but Istanbul is a far safer place to visit than Manhattan or even Seattle. Turkish women’s rights certainly lag behind ours, but they have already elected their first woman prime minister.

Turkey is 95% Moslem, and although I am a longtime Anglican parson I am obliged to concede that the Turks I know tend to behave in a more “Christian” manner than most of my fellow “Christians.” They also lack our intense individualism, which is at once the chief glory and the chief liability of the Anglo-American way of life. Ataturk’s revolution against the Ottoman Empire in 1923 made Turkey the first democracy among all the Moslem nations, and Turkey remains today America’s most dependable ally in that turbulent Islamic world. Its record of racial justice, in regard to the Armenians and then the Kurds, is far from perfect; but then, when it comes to race relations, America is in no position to throw the first stone.

It is on the wrestling field at Edirne that what is most admirable about these brawny Turkmen seems to manifest itself. A thousand guileless, amicable men and boys from every province of Turkey gather to enjoy their favorite sport in the hope of winning fame and a modest purse (The grand prize for Ahmet Tasci, the most celebrated champion in Kirkpinar history, has never exceeded $16,000). Mostly they come for the comradeship, rather more like a convention than a contest. You can observe this fraternal spirit everywhere before and between the matches. Each line of wrestlers, perhaps twenty pairs in the same weight category, forms up at one end of the field. While they await their turn to process onto the field for that fight to the finish which will decide which man proceeds to the next elimination heat, they joke and spar and oil up one another, including the backs and shoulders of their opponents. The atmosphere is unlike anything I have ever experienced in an American sports event, where the opposing sides keep apart from one another until the game or match begins, and individual opponents either glower at one another or avoid eye contact altogether. This sense of brotherhood does not even disappear when the match gets under way. Before locking up, each pair performs a series of Islamic rituals of mutual respect. While fighting, if one man should get some grass in his eye, they simply disengage (they have a referee, but he doesn’t blow his whistle because it isn’t necessary). The opponent fetches water and a piece of cheesecloth from the sidelines, washes out the eye, and then the fight resumes as fiercely as before until one is declared the victor.

I do not deny that there are instances of poor sportsmanship or the loss of temper, because I have filmed some. What truly amazes me is that these lapses are so rare in a contact sport which, when compared to its European or American versions, imposes almost no restrictions on the conduct of the contestants. These buff grapplers are competing outdoors under a hot sun, where the temperature frequently reaches 90ºf. There are no ties and no times out: they must wrestle until there is a winner, not for six minutes or nine minutes but for as long as it takes (or until the referee finally opts for a tie-breaker in front of the judges). They are forbidden to strike with their fists, but otherwise they can use their hands to push, slam or grab. They are also free to shove a hand or an entire arm into their opponent’s trunks for leverage, down the front or the back; and yet I know of not a single instance when they have used this as an opportunity for fouling. They all fight to win, but there is a code of trust and respect between Turk wrestlers, and I doubt that it is ever broken. When the match is over the pair embrace and generally walk off the field together. Afterward they may sit side by side in the shade while they recover from the ordeal and compare wrestling styles.

This paradoxical mixture of a love for brawling with “all for one and one for all” is nothing new to the Turks, and is probably the key to their reputation as world-class exemplars of the warrior tradition. The Kirkpinar tournament has been held almost annually since 1640, making it the longest-running athletic event in the world. The use of wrestling to equip and condition warriors and to bond them together into a reliable band of comrades goes back at least to the formation in 1438 of the Janissaries, the elite troops who enabled the Ottoman Empire to conquer the East and to come perilously close to conquering Europe as well. Turkish writers claim that this style — save for the fact that they wrestle in leather trunks because Mohammed frowned on male nudity — is closer to the wrestling of the classic Greeks than any style practiced in the West, including the so-called Greco-Roman style. It is more exciting by far to watch than freestyle, and in addition to the “pin” there are at least four other maneuvers which produce a win. Unlike TV “wrestling” it is entirely unrigged. It does not rely much on intricate moves or clever feints. Like actual unarmed combat it emphasizes strength and endurance, a dogged determination to see the struggle through to the end.

It is my conviction that if wrestling were to become as significant a part of American sporting culture as it is for the Turks, practiced from youth to old age, by our men and by our women, we would soon become a more unified people, confident in our essential oneness and able to stand together against any aggression. Once Americans are authentic brothers and sisters they will behave the way brothers and sisters usually behave: they will take their rivalries to the mat in unending competition for the family honors, but woe betide the outsider who attempts to attack any one of them.

– D. S. Miller, Stevenson, WA. U.S.A.

A Postscript on Korea: The tragic fate of those American prisoners in the Korean War has not been repeated since, thanks to the study done by the U.S. Army Medical Corps and America’s response to it. Out of it was born the Uniform Code of Military Conduct and the thorough training of all U.S. troops to deal with conditions of capture. It should be noted that the record of U.S. Marines who were captured during the Korean War was comparable to that of the Turks.

One Response to “Tribute to the Turks”

  1. Dan Brazell November 12, 2015 at 4:42 am Permalink

    It was just by chance that I pushed the wrong series of buttons on my television remote control and ended up on a station that was presenting Turkish Wrestling. My first reaction was “what the hell is this”? The action on the screen was captivating; I could not stop watching. I first thought that it was Greco-Roman wrestling.
    Suffice it to say that what I saw made me go to the Internet looking for more information on Turkish Wrestling. I really enjoyed what I saw

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