Rarely has the same man served as a great general in the field and also established a new political order that survives well past his death. Napoleon might qualify, since his reforms still shape France, but he lost in one war the throne that he had gained in others. Alexander the Great and Caesar might also qualify, but they were both cut short in the effort.
Great generals rarely make great statesmen, but these men did: King Wu (the Martial King), founder of China’s Zhou dynasty (c. 1050–256 B.C.), the state that Confucius considered to be the fount of Chinese culture; Cyrus the Great (d. 530 B.C.), founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, which lasted for two centuries; Philip II of Macedon (382–36 B.C.), who made Macedon the dominant state in Greece for about 150 years; Ashoka (c. 304–232 B.C.), who conquered an empire that ruled most of the Indian subcontinent for nearly forty years and lasted another 50 years after his death; Umar ibn al Khattab (d. A.D. 644), conqueror of Sassanid Persia and much of the Eastern Roman Empire and, as caliph, a great reformer and legislator; William the Conqueror, who led the Norman French army to victory in the Battle of Hastings (1066) and created a dynasty that ruled England for nearly a century (his direct descendant, Queen Elizabeth II, still sits on the throne); Genghis Khan (c. 1162–1227), who founded the Mongol Empire, which grew to be the largest contiguous empire in history; Zhu Yuangzhang (1328–1398), rebel leader who toppled the Mongol Dynasty and was the founder and first emperor of China’s Ming dynasty; Frederick William I, the Great Elector of Brandenburg (1620–88), whose military success and domestic reforms set the stage for the creation of the Kingdom of Prussia and the Prussian Army; and George Washington (1732–99), who led the Continental Army to victory and independence and then served as the first President of the new United States.
And then there is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938), who brilliantly turned back a British invasion at Gallipoli in 1915, led the Turks to victory in their war of independence (1919–22), and then created the modern Turkish Republic in 1923 out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Atatürk is the subject of a lively new book by Austin Bay. A major international figure at the time, Atatürk has loomed even larger in recent years. Turkey is by far the most successful Muslim democracy in the Middle East and—in spite of recent developments—the most Westernized, both achievements that date back to Atatürk. But the man is rarely studied in this country, and, when he is, it is usually as a modernizer and rarely as a general, so Bay’s emphasis on Atatürk’s military career is especially useful.
Atatürk’s reforms, like Bismarck’s, were forged in blood and iron; they would have been impossible without his military success. Americans might feel a twinge of discomfort at realizing that his victories came against our close friends and allies: Britain, France, Italy, and Greece. We must also concede that Atatürk’s success brought great suffering to innocent civilians. He fought a war of independence that forced a sizeable Greek and Christian minority out of the country. But Washington too led a cause that drove many people into exile—Loyalists, in the American case. Civilians suffered on both sides, in both wars. Washington was nonetheless a great man, serving a good cause, and so was Atatürk.
Another thing that makes Bay’s book poignant is that we are now living in the era of a post-Atatürk Turkey, for better and worse. In principle, Atatürk remains the hero of the Turkish Republic, the object of a virtual cult that only grew in intensity after his death at age fifty-seven in 1938. In practice, since coming to power, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (in office since 2003) and his Justice and Development Party (the AKP—in office since 2002) have redefined Turkey radically. It’s now a cliché to call Erdogan the most powerful Turkish politician since Atatürk, but it is hard to deny.
For decades, the military was the guardian of Atatürk’s order in Turkey, a regime that was staunchly secularist, pro-Western, authoritarian, and condemned to tepid economic growth under statist direction. Then came the elections of 2002 and the virtual revolution that followed. The new Turkey is moderately Islamist, more rooted in the Middle East and less tied to the United States and Europe, more democratic (if imperfectly so), and ablaze with economic growth. The Turkish military had made and unmade many a government over the years, but Erdogan has pushed so hard against Turkey’s military that, last July, its top commanders resigned en masse. It was a tacit acknowledgment of their defeat as a political force. What better time than now, therefore, to look back at Atatürk’s military achievement?
Bay’s short, crisp, and readable book ably surveys Atatürk’s military career, from his first assignments through the Libyan Front of the Turco-Italian War of 1911–12; to Gallipoli, Erzerum, and Palestine in World War I; to the Turkish War of Independence. Several themes stand out as keys to Atatürk’s success: a thorough education in and study of war; a sense of grandeur, of great causes and wide horizons; the instant apprehension of a military situation and of what it calls for, a quality praised by Clausewitz (and Thucydides); the courage to do what needs to be done, however dangerous; leadership by example and from the front; rhetorical skill; mastery of a unconventional as well as conventional warfare (Alexander the Great had this, but Napoleon didn’t); knowledge of one’s enemy and how he thinks, and a willingness to learn from him; an understanding that war is valuable not for its own sake, but only insofar as it serves a political goal; and the ability to integrate military operations with diplomacy.
Like other great soldier-statesmen, Atatürk combined brutality and benevolence. On the one hand, Atatürk drove Greek civilians violently out of Smyrna and onto ships, and not before many had been massacred. On the other hand, Atatürk’s statesmanship later won the admiration of the great Greek statesman Eleftherios Venizelos, who nominated Atatürk for the Nobel Peace Prize. And the same Atatürk in 1934 wrote these moving words to the Australian and New Zealand mothers of Commonwealth soldiers who had died at Gallipoli:
There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours . . . [Y]ou, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well. (Atatürk Memorial, ANZAC Parade, Canberra, Australia)
Having won his war of independence, Atatürk had the wisdom to stop. He pursued a policy of moderation, and went on no foreign adventures. And that brings us back to Erdogan. Like his predecessor, he is a political giant with huge ambitions and a strong authoritarian streak. But then the two part company.
Atatürk created a secular national state. A Francophile, he saw the French notion of laïcité as the model for Turkey, with no role for religion in public life. Atatürk was a westernizer who took Europe and not Turkey’s Ottoman past as his lodestar. Having defeated the Western powers and Greece militarily, he looked inward to build the new republic. Erdogan is an Islamist who sees Turkey as conservative and Islamic. Looking wistfully at the Ottoman heritage, he does not hesitate to go abroad in search of dragons to slay. He has engaged in saber-rattling with former allies such as Israel and Syria. Nor has the new Turkey hesitated to say “no” to the United States, particularly by refusing to allow the U.S. Army to invade northern Iraq through Turkey in 2003.
When it comes to the economy, the new regime leaves Atatürk in the dust. Atatürk was a statist of the kind that typified the 1920s or 1930s. Erdogan is more or less an economic liberal. He engages in his share of crony capitalism, but there is no gainsaying his achievement, the greatest boom in the history of the Republic. Exports have tripled and the Turkish economy overall has more than tripled in size since the AKP won power.
Atatürk was a career soldier. Erdogan is not, but he is plenty pugnacious. He was a semiprofessional soccer player and has the competitive streak to show it. He served six months in jail in 1998 after a conviction for inciting religious violence by stating in public: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers.” Atatürk might have appreciated the military metaphor, but he would have opposed the Islamist sentiment.
Erdogan has expressed his goal of changing Turkey’s constitution from a parliamentary regime to a presidential republic. Guess who he wants the first president to be? Not a few observers worry about the future of democracy in a country whose government has vigorously pursued conspiracy charges against opponents, stacked the judiciary with its supporters, and jailed journalists.Whither Turkey? As the scope of Erdogan’s ambition becomes ever clearer, we can only hope that he shares some of his great predecessor’s wisdom and humanity. As Bay reminds us so well, the lessons of Atatürk’s leadership have never been clearer.