THE WRESTLING TURKS AND AMERICAN MILITARY MORALE IN THE KOREAN WAR
by Don Miller
The summer of 1996 found me for the first time in Turkey. My destination was Edirne, a city near the Bulgarian border which served as the capital of the Ottoman Empire until Christian Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453.Edirne is the site of the oldest continuing athletic event in the world. Almost annually since 1640 hordes of Turkey's finest athletes have gathered there for the Kirkpinar, the world series of Turkish oil wrestling. Hardly any tourists attend the tournament, and almost no Americans. Why did I go? Because of a book I read in 1957.
My status as a college student, from 1950 to 1954, kept me deferred from the draft throuhout the Korean War, and I have always felt some shame that I was spared when so many young men my age died in Korea. In 1957 I completed graduate school, the year that Eugene Kinkead published his deeply disturbing account of the mortality rate of American prisoners-of-war who were incarcerated by the North Koreans. The Russians, having developed the science of brain-washing, had taught it to the Chinese, who passed it on to the North Koreans, who found that American prisoners were ideal targets for psychological manipulation. Never before - or since - were American soldiers shown to be so widely susceptible to demoralization.
A study conducted by the U.S. Army Medical Corps after the war found that one-third of American POWs were guilty to some degree of collaboration with the enemy. In the three years of warfare, not a single one escaped from captivity. Most alarming of all, out of 7,190 captives, the death rate was 38%, or 2,730. One out of three never came home. These statistics far exceeded the rate for any other American war. Nine enlisted men and three officers were later convicted by courts martial. 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.
The study revealed that neither physical torture nor lack of food or medical care had caused the general collapse in morale. Once captured, many of our men lost all sense of allegiance to their country or to one another. They refused to obey their own officers, cursing and even striking them, buying into their captors propaganda that capitalistic rank no longer existed. On forced marches from one prison camp to another, able-bodied men would refuse to lift the stretchers of the wounded. The strong regularly took food from the weak, and the sick were ignored . . . or worse. Many prisoners simply withdrew into a state of isolation and inactivity.
Our commissioned officers had been segregated out by the North Koreans, but each compound still had senior non-coms who, had they established order, would have prevented the tragedy. Instead, the men - chiefly the young - were left free to become easy prey to their captors. Death came most often from what Army psychiatrists simply termed "give-up-itis". First the sufferer became despondent, later he lay down and covered his head with a blanket, then he wanted ice water with his food, next only ice water, and if noone managed to break through, he was dead in three weeks.
The greatest number of North Korea's prisoners was, of course, American. Of the twelve nations represented, however, the third most numerous were the Turks, with 229. The U.S. Army study found them to have been just as exemplary in prison as they were in battle. The Turks' secret weapons were discipline, great pride in their brigade, and an unbroken chain of command. The final official report contains this Turkish officer's account of 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 thru 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 consequence of this discipline was that, although half of the 229 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 rule of dog eat dog, not ever. Death by "give-up-itis" was impossible. While an American might curl up alone at night and die in the bitter cold, the Turks all piled together in one corner of their cell, and every hour the two on the outside would rotate to the center of the pile. The Chinese guards actually grew to fear their Turkish prisoners, as they watched the interminable wrestling matches which kept them so tough - and, paradoxically, so loyal to one another. As a consequence of this study President Eisenhower issued the now-famous Uniform Code of Military Conduct, and the Korean experience, thank God, has not repeated itself.
That was how, forty years ago, a book on the Korean War "hooked" me on Turkey. My admiration was not then easy to admit, for I was a newly-minted Anglican priest and these Turks were all misguided Moslems. I had emerged from seminary equipped with my own fix on all the non-Christian religions, and Moslems were fanatics who just wanted to kill everybody else. Here I was, faced with evidence of Moslems who really lived the Golden Rule, and of Christians whose self-absorption had produced despair and death. I kept chewing on that paradox - and those stereotypes - until finally a chance came to do some observation for myself.
Four times now I have visited Turkey, to see what kind of wrestlers the Turks are and, more importantly, what kind of people they are. So impressed was I by the Kirkpinar Festival, and the hundreds of athletes, officials and dignitaries with whom I had my halting conversations, that I kept coming back. These are guileless, friendly, physically awesome men who come from every province of a big country just to wrestle, forty at a time, in a great grassy field, barefoot and barechested, covered with olive oil, in 92-degree summer heat. These fighters range in age from twelve to forty, and each contest may last from a few minutes to an hour. I find it hard to imagine many of our own wrestlers matching their stamina, or to be competing in such a grueling sport at the age of forty. The Turkish style with its dearth of rules could not easily be introduced into our country, because the brotherly trust which exists between the combatants is unknown in rule-rich American sports. There are referees, but their involvement is minimal. Turks oiled bodies are so difficult to grasp that, in seeking to secure leverage for a throw, a wrestler is permitted to thrust his hand or his entire forearm down into his opponent's leather trousers, something which would freak out any Western athlete. Intentional fouls are almost non-existent. There is no such thing as a draw, the match continuing until one wins and the other loses.
A most impressive aspect of the tournament is the participants almost universal comradeliness. Opponents will kibitz and joke with one another while waiting for their line to be sent onto the field. Before tying up for this fight to the finish each pair engages in elaborate Islamic rituals of respect for one another. If during the match one wrestler should get something in his eye the struggle simply pauses, his opponent usually fetches cloth and water to wash it away, then they face off, and the fight is resumed. Once the match is decided they rise to embrace, touch foreheads together and leave the field. A foreign observer must ask how much these deeply-ingrained wrestling traditions contribute to the fact that Turks historically stick together in tough situations, while we Americans seem often inclined to "look out for Number One.
When the three-day tournament draws to a close, and the champions have been cheered by a packed stadium, the President of Turkey crowns the Bash Pehlivan of all Turkey, a national hero frequently honored by his home town with a statue. The current Turkish champion, whom I am privileged to consider a friend, is also a champion Sumo wrestler in Japan. Almost forty, but in extraordinary shape, he confesses to a longing to take up American football.
Fellow Americans, we have a lot to learn from the Turks and the way their wrestlers treat one another even when they are fighting. We must go on struggling to love and care for one another despite the immense racial, ethnic and religious differences which characterize American culture. If we fail, then the individualism of which we proudly boast will be our undoing at the hand of some other power whose people have learned to stick together for the common good. Jesus, as always, hit the mark when he said, "Greater love hath no man, than that he lay down his life for his friends." It is simply not enough that we be cajoled to celebrate our diversity, which is no more than a glib piece of contemporary sloganeering. Americans will either become genuine brothers, bound together by a compassion which transcends mere tolerance, or this first great world experiment in democracy is destined to fade and crumble.