A Strange Intimacy
For most of the previous month I was privileged to be a guest in Turkey where I hunted in vain for a downtown in Istanbul. In a city of 13 million, everywhere is downtown.
Many things surprised me, such as the secular politics in a country that is 98% Muslim. Many things felt alien, like the volcano-wrinkled, fairy chimney landscape in the region of Cappadocia. But some things made me feel right at home—particularly the wonderful hospitality of the Turkish people. At every turn we were offered a cup of hot tea, the traditional Middle Eastern welcome to a guest.
Turkish architecture is a wonder–splendid buildings, seeped so deeply in history as to make the American Revolution appear yesterday’s news–from the extravagance of the Ottoman sultan’s palace, to the ruins of ancient Troy, to mud huts of the Neolithic Age. As you can guess, a few experiences required pen to page. One was a visit to the Gallipoli, where I formed an unexpected conclusion:
There must be a strange intimacy in battle.
Gallipoli is a peninsular of land that sandwiches a narrow body of water called the Dardanelles between it and the western coast of Turkey. It was strategically important in WWI because it provided the only sea access to Istanbul from the Mediterranean. The Ottoman Empire had sided with Germany during the war. After a failed British naval assault, New Zealand and Australian soldiers landed and assaulted Gallipoli’s slopes. A precise number of casualties from this long, brutal encounter was never calculated because of the extreme conditions of the campaign, but over 250,000 young men died there. At one point, the Turks ran out of ammunition and a young general, Mustafa Kemal, commanded his soldiers to lie down and attach their bayonets. Mustafa needed them to hold until reinforcements could come, famously saying, “I am not asking you to fight for your country, but to die for it.”
And die they did.
Trenches lined with hewn branches, still crisscross the area where the Turks held their line. They were so close to the enemy that within three minutes of advancing, every person in the front trench died. As soon as they fell, those in the trench behind, who had watched their fellows cut down would move forward to take their pace. Such was the bravery shown on both sides, that when the fighting lulled, the Turks took water to their enemy, and the New Zealanders and Australians sent chocolate to the Turks, who had never encountered it before. Mustafa Kemal’s words, memorialized on a stone monument, spoke to the mothers of all the foreign soldiers and told them not to weep for their sons, because all those who had bled on Turkish soil were now Turkey’s honored children.
Turkey has since had close relationships with their former enemies.
Deadly adversaries fight and become friends. Confusing, yet, it happens repetitively. In the European theater of WWI men called a ceasefire and met on the bloody battlefield to celebrate Christmas together. In the oldest story known, written on clay tablets over 4,000 years old, Gilgamesh, a king of Mesopotamia, fights a fierce battle with the wild man, Inkidu. When it is over, they immediately become beloved and inseparable companions.
There must be a strange intimacy in battle, at least battle where you can see your enemy. Perhaps you recognize yourself in your foe. If there is an opportunity to do that, perhaps respect can replace hatred and create a chance for peace.
Perhaps this phenomenon depends on the close quarters of hand-to-hand combat, the shared misery, or the fact that both sides fight for perceived honorable causes. I am not at all certain that modern warfare—dropping bombs from the air, shooting rockets to a distant target or using remote drones— produces this kind of relationship between combatants. Soldiers’ experiences are as varied the nature of war, but perhaps some American forces fighting in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan or the streets of Iraq may have come to respect their enemy and vice versa. Perhaps they shared a wish to meet under different circumstances, to exchange pictures of their families and a cup of tea….
T.K. Thorne is a retired police captain (Birmingham, Alabama), director of City Action Partnership, and an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction.