War is sport, sport is war

I feel like I’m spoiling all the fun, but I find it distasteful to reduce the Libya campaign to a fo

IT'S WAR. The Sunday Mirror headline said it all. It wasn't quite the barely restrained glee of Chris Morris's presenter on The Day Today announcing the opening of hostilities, but it wasn't a bus ride away from it, either.

You can get a clue to how we see war by how newspapers are selling themselves through their front pages. The news-stands are covered with more explosions than human faces; the bombs are the story, and the message. One cloverleaf-shaped explosion in particular so beautifully conveys the story that it's on five front pages today. The bombs are the stars.

The Sun veered close to "Gotcha!" territory with today's headline, "TOP GUNS 1, MAD DOG 0", superimposed on the blast. This is war as a football match, war as a thing that can be counted in terms of a score. One-nil to us! "We", the Allied forces, are the "Top Guns"; we are Tom Cruise on a brave but necessary mission against one man, The Mad Dog, Muammar al-Gaddafi.

Other newspapers take a different approach. The Independent and Guardian sell themselves on human faces and, in the Guardian's case, the result of those pretty orange bomb clouds: dead bodies. And that brings the reality home. All of a sudden it isn't a cup tie, or a film with a stirring soundtrack where the goodies defeat the baddies, or a distant kaboom on a strip of desert: this is something very real.

Whatever the arguments, or the case for intervention, or the case for intervening in Libya instead of, say, Bahrain or Yemen, this isn't a football match. This isn't a Hollywood film. This isn't one-nil. This isn't half-time. Those beautiful cloverleaf explosions will have people inside them . . . I feel like I'm spoiling everyone's fun, but there it is. I find it a little distasteful to reduce the military campaign to a football score, an away win, a penalty kick.

The Sun was just carrying on the good work from the News of the World yesterday, whose front-page "BLOWN TO BRITS" explosion and cut-out missile carried the same message. Just in case you had any lingering doubts about who was The Bad Guy, the subs helpfully put Gaddafi's face in bright red cross-hairs. To further stoke the jingoism, we were told it was "our boys" who were making the things explode.

This, then, is the tabloid glee of war. Our Boys are attacking The Mad Dog, and it's one-nil already. How can we not support it? How can we not be shocked and awed by the beautiful photos of explosions, the family-friendly pictures, without mangled corpses or that messy business that gets left behind when the clouds disappear? IT'S WAR. War is sport, sport is war. Look away now if you don't want to know the score.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue