Patriot Games

March 1, 2006 Topics: Society Tags: Soft Power

Patriot Games

Mini Teaser: The Tom Clancys of Turkey have a clear and present bias.

by Author(s): Zeyno Baran

Despite the enormous advances of the Information Age, it is still far from
simple to obtain a clear snapshot of popular sentiment in another country.
While easily accessible, government statements and statistical reports are
frequently designed for foreign consumption, and the works of academics and
journalists often adhere closely to an official line. Yet there is another
source, hidden virtually in plain sight, through which analysts and
policymakers can overcome governments' carefully managed efforts to shape
the perception of their countries: popular culture.

Since they are written according to the demands not of literary scholars but
of consumers, popular works are closely reflective of prevailing attitudes
of the time and place of their creation. This tight link is no less true of
the political thriller genre. Perhaps best exemplified in the United States
by the novels of Tom Clancy, political thrillers incorporate real-world
developments into narratives accessible-and believable-to a general

One cannot understand the recent rise of anti-American feeling in a country
such as Turkey-for decades a staunch nato ally of the United States-without
reference to the unvarnished perspective of popular fiction. Two recent
works, one the fastest-selling book in Turkish history and the other soon to
break all film-industry records, have both crystallized a number of fears
and anxieties about the future into a scenario that, although described as
fiction, seems to so many to be entirely plausible.

Metal Storm (Metal Firtina), by science-fiction author Burak Turna and
journalist Orkun Uçar, became an instant bestseller in 2005, with over
450,000 copies sold since its first printing in late 2004. Set in 2007,
Metal Storm purports to be an account of a two-stage war launched by the
United States against Turkey, starting with "Operation Metal Storm." The
American operation begins after the Turkish military enters the northern
Iraqi city of Kirkuk in response to a significant increase in the number of
attacks on ethnic Turkmen. In the midst of preparing its own invasion of
Syria, the United States quickly seizes upon the opportunity to attack
Turkey, followed with an international media disinformation campaign
portraying the Turks as having first fired at American soldiers. The second
stage of the war is "Operation Sèvres", a reference to the much-hated
agreement signed at the end of the World War I whereby the Western powers
hoped to divide Anatolia among itself.

Unlike Tom Clancy, who populates his novels with fictional characters of his
own design, the authors of Metal Storm refer to current leaders, from
Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld to Vladimir Putin. In the eyes of some
readers, this device blurs the line between fact and fantasy.

Indeed, throughout the book current Turkish military and political leaders
wonder how and why the United States would attack Turkey after decades of
what appeared to be a fruitful partnership. Turkish Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdogan and others are often portrayed as having difficulty grasping
that the United States has actually attacked their country. Attempting to
make their story more believable, the authors at one point recount, "For a
long time there was speculative news about the U.S. plans on Turkey. Many
people ignored these as fiction because it was considered so insane."

Moreover, the authors' vision of 2007 does not seem so far-fetched. They
predict that Nicholas Sarkozy will become France's president and that
Turkey's eu accession talks will end in failure, causing the country to move
away from the West. This is not so unlikely an outcome, given the uncertain
signals sent to Turkey by various European governments and by European
public opinion prior to the commencement of the accession talks in October,
and given Sarkozy's own public statements to date. Nor is the depiction of
the deterioration of the U.S.-Turkish relationship as described in Metal
Storm implausible: In the book, the Turkish government withdraws its
ambassador to the United States after Congress passes an "Armenian genocide
resolution" and the U.S. government ratchets up pressure on Turkey regarding

Turna and Uçar submit two more reasons why the United States would launch a
war against Turkey-both derived from the authors' interpretation of domestic
trends in the United States. The first is to "liberate Istanbul from 500
years of occupation by the Turks", so as to permit American evangelical
Christians close to the president to construct the world's largest
church-with an eye to restoring Istanbul to its former glory as a Christian
capital. (Nor is the Vatican is left out. At a secret meeting code-named
"The New Byzantium", the Catholic Church seeks to re-Christianize Anatolia
in the hopes of reclaiming many holy sites.) This subplot is not surprising,
given the amount of attention paid to the role of evangelicals in American
politics. Many Turks fear that President Bush was serious when he announced
the beginning of a new "crusade" after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Add to this the increased European pressure on Turkey for further reforms in
the name of religious freedom, which is perceived in Turkey as a way to
Christianize the country.

The second reason for the U.S. attack in Metal Storm is the American desire
for energy security-specifically its need to move away from dependence on
Middle Eastern oil and to develop new energy resources. In the book, the
United States is desperate for access to Turkey's mineral reserves due to
its desire to increase domestic nuclear power production. Turkey is endowed
with rich borax, uranium and thorium mines; in fact, it has a world monopoly
on borax, a mineral with great strategic value due to its many applications
in space and weapons technology. Though most Americans are unaware of
Turkey's mineral reserves and public support for nuclear power is quite low,
there is nevertheless a real fear among some in Turkey that the United
States will eventually seek control of these assets.

What may be most disturbing to the United States is the way the hypothetical
Turks successfully use the current insurgency in Iraq as a template for
resisting American occupation. With their field armies largely defeated,
Turks rely on asymmetrical warfare against the invaders. This tactic is used
with spectacular results in the closing pages of the book, in a scenario
lifted right from the pages of Graham Allison's recent book Nuclear

Ultimately, the success of Metal Storm has conclusively demonstrated that,
despite continuing protestations of friendship on both sides, the
Turkish-American relationship has declined greatly from its peak in the
early years of the Cold War. Still more worrisome, the phenomenon of this
book does not appear to be a passing fad. With the recent cinematic release
of Valley of the Wolves: Iraq (Kurtlar Vadisi: Irak), this distorted vision
of the United States and its policies has now reached an even larger

The film's leading character, Polat Alemdar, is the widely admired action
hero of the highly popular Valley of the Wolves tv series.  Betting heavily
on the popularity of the show and on the prevailing anti-American sentiment
in the country, the producers of the film secured a budget of $10 million
making it the most expensive film ever in Turkey. Their bet has certainly
paid off.

After viewing the film in Istanbul just a few days after its opening, I was
shocked and disgusted with the portrayal of Americans as pure evil (as
compared to Steven Spielberg's recent Munich, which attempted to humanize
the Palestinian terrorists) and with the depiction of angry Turkish
ultranationalists as "the good guys."

The movie opens with a real event-the arrest of Turkish special-forces
personnel by U.S. troops in the Sulaymaniyah province of northern Iraq on
July 4, 2003. This was the first time such an incident had ever taken place
between the two NATO allies. While few in the United States noticed the
event-the Bush Administration has yet to fully appreciate the damage it
caused to bilateral relations-it was highly significant for Turkey.

At the time, the Ankara government explained that the mission of the
Turkish soldiers was to protect their ethnic Turkmen cousins against the
Kurds, who became even closer allies of the United States after the Turkish
Parliament denied Washington's request for a northern invasion front in
2003. Meanwhile, U.S. sources claimed that the men were caught out of
uniform engaging in "disturbing activities." The real issue, however, was
that the Turks were led out of their headquarters at gunpoint, with hoods
over their heads (known as the "hooding crisis" in Turkey). This deeply
humiliated and angered the Turks. Indeed, as so many have noted, it is
likely that that for several generations people will tell this story to
their children to remind them how their collective honor and dignity was

In Valley of the Wolves, one soldier involved in the hooding crisis calls
headquarters in Ankara, announcing that "this attack is against the Turkish
nation", and asked for permission to attack the Americans. When this request
is denied, an officer involved writes to his friend Alemdar asking him to
take revenge and save "Turkey's national pride"; this officer then commits
suicide due to his personal humiliation.

While it may seem odd to Americans that a whole nation would have such an
emotional response to this incident-for which the United States did
apologize-it must be remembered that Turks hold the military in very high
regard; polls consistently reveal it to be one of the most trusted
institutions in the country. Precisely what the Turkish personnel were doing
there, and why the American soldiers arrested them, is clearly an open
question-one I have consistently urged the United States to answer, since
there is no other way for Turkey to put this issue to rest.

The movie is built on perceptions of U.S. policy in northern Iraq. Many
Turks believe that Washington has allowed the creation of a de facto Kurdish
state in northern Iraq and is turning a blind eye to the Kurds' ethnic
cleansing of Turkmen and Arabs in the region. When Alemdar and his men are
asked the purpose of their visit to Iraq by Kurdish border guards, he curtly
responds, "We came to buy people; we hear they are cheap here", implying
that the Americans have already "bought" the Kurds. When the guards attempt
to stop them, the Turks disperse them in a hail of gunfire and move on.
Later, when a Kurdish police officer tries to arrest Alemdar, our Turkish
hero looks into the eyes of the Kurd and declares, "I do not recognize your
authority." What the Turks are unable to do in real life, their hero is able
to achieve on screen. In the long run, of course, such scenes will only
increase anti-Kurdish sentiment inside Turkey, sentiment that will not only
impact the Turkey-Iraq bilateral relationship, but also the internal
Turkish-Kurdish ethnic dynamic.

The movie portrays Americans as actively conspiring with the Kurds to label
the Turkmen as terrorists. In one scene, U.S. soldiers attack a Turkmen
wedding party allegedly comprised of such "terrorists." They shoot a boy in
front of his father (who later becomes a suicide bomber), and shoot the
groom in the head. Meanwhile, the wedding party is rounded up and forced
into a tractor-trailer. After one U.S. soldier-the only American portrayed
sympathetically in the entire movie-asks if there will be enough air for
those inside, the other rakes the truck with fire, declaring, "now they
won't suffocate."

The movie is a caricature of the worst stereotypes that Turks hold of
Christians and Jews. The main American character, Sam (as in Uncle Sam)
William Marshall, played by Billy Zane, is an evangelical Christian who
believes that he is "the son of God." He often gives brutal commands while
sitting in front of a mural of the Last Supper. An American Jewish doctor,
played by Gary Busey, is interested in keeping his patients alive only in
order to harvest their kidneys for wealthy clients in New York, London and

In raising the specter of anti-Semitic as well as anti-Christian sentiment,
the movie seems to be trying to unite Turkish nationalists and Islamists in
a common anti-Western position. This is occurring at a time when the
introverted nationalism of the opposition chp party is gaining popularity in
advance of elections scheduled for 2007. These sentiments have impact: In
February, a teenager in Trabzon fatally shot an Italian priest. While the
timing of this murder may have been triggered by the Danish cartoon
incident, the underlying attitudes have existed for some time. The one issue
that unites the Islamists and the nationalists is the perceived threat from
the missionaries.

The portrayal of the Abu Ghraib prison incident-with dogs barking at
prisoners and a man in the midst of his prayer pulled outside his cell,
dressed naked and piled on top of other prisoners-creates sentiment of
disgust with "the American way." While these events did take place, their
use in Valley of the Wolves blurs the line between fact and fiction in a
highly worrisome way.

Throughout the movie I was wondering what the young men sitting in the row
behind me must be thinking. There were seven of them, ranging in age from 15
to 18. With their formative years shaped by the Iraq War, Metal Storm and
now this film, they and other members of their generation are beginning to
believe that the portrayal of the Americans on screen is reflective of
American society as a whole.

The few redeeming qualities in the movie were about Islam-though one wonders
if even these will result in Turks associating Islam with justice and the
American way with brutality. At one point in the film, a Turkmen sufi sheikh
comes upon terrorists videotaping a journalist whom they were about to
behead in the now-familiar style. The sheikh, who is shown to be deeply
respected by all in the region for his justice and care of the community,
stops these men, berating them for copying things they see in the media and
confusing them with what Muslims should be doing. Such acts, he says, "are
absolutely against Islam." He also prevents the leading heroine from
becoming a suicide bomber, again telling her that this is un-Islamic. These
are timely and important messages.

Overall, the movie reflects a deep and growing suspicion of U.S. intentions
in Iraq and the Middle East more generally. Moreover, many Turks say, "we
are taking revenge for Midnight Express", referring to a 1978 Oliver Stone
movie in which a young American drug smuggler was jailed and brutalized in
Turkey. More recently, in 2005 Turks were angered when the American
television series 24 portrayed a Turkish family as terrorists trying to
destroying America.

The official U.S. response to Turkish complaints about 24 was "we cannot
control Hollywood"; Turkish government officials have made similar
statements about Valley of the Wolves. However, unlike in the United States,
highly placed figures have also made other statements. The wife of the prime
minister, Emine Erdogan, and the speaker of Parliament, Bülent Arinç, were
among the celebrities at the movie's opening night-and were questioned by
the media immediately afterward. When Arinç was asked about the factual
nature of the scenario, he replied "Yes, [this was] exactly as it happened."
For her part, Mrs. Erdogan said that she felt "proud" after watching the

For now, U.S.-Turkey relations remain positive, and the two countries'
alliance has not yet broken down. But since Turkey remains a thriving
democracy accountable to its population, the paranoid fears propagated by
works such as Metal Storm and Valley of the Wolves might well be reflected
in government policy sooner than anyone might think.

Zeyno Baran is director of international security and energy programs at the
Nixon Center.

Essay Types: Book Review