Three Months in the Life of the Cypriot National Guard
PICK AT RANDOM a young man living in a nation that does not maintain conscription and, even if he is averse to violence and authoritarianism, chances are at some point he has entertained the thought of joining the military. There are any number of reasons: sheer curiosity and a desire to see something of the world outside of one’s hometown, a guaranteed income and future university funding, naïve reveries about the heroisms and glories of combat, and of course the desire to serve one’s country, which although much trumpeted is usually more bluster than patriotism, especially if the home team has a recent history of waging wars, not suffering them.
Most of those young men will not sign up. Those who do are probably either so fired up about being soldiers or so short on other career options that they will tolerate more discipline and hardship than will their peers in other countries who face mandatory military service. Assuming a country is large enough to be able to supply enough recruits, a volunteer army – which usually amounts to a mercenary army of the poor – is more reliable than a conscript army. Drafted soldiers are less tolerant of privation and more prone to desertion than volunteers because their ranks also include the middle class and, though less so, the upper class.
The insubordination among American troops in Vietnam was in part due to the privileged economic position, at least when compared to volunteer soldiers, of many of the draftees. It is no surprise then that, despite overstretched forces in Iraq, there is barely any support by high-ranking U.S. military or political leaders to reinstate the draft. Conscripts are even more unruly when they feel that there is no justifiable reason for their service, or at least for its length. In this regard, the Cypriot National Guard makes for a particularly interesting case study.
The 1960 Constitution established a Cypriot army consisting of both Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot contingents. But as the Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots were not integrated from the start, the army soon split on ethnic lines into two separate forces. After the 1963 hostilities between the two ethnic groups, the Cypriot National Guard – a purely Greek Cypriot military – was formed.
Conscription in the Cypriot National Guard currently stands at 25 months, among the longest in the world along with countries like Iran, Egypt, Singapore, South Korea and Israel (North Korea is in a league of its own). Though the island presently remains under occupation, there has been no resumption of hostilities, aside from infrequent and isolated killings on the Green Line, since the summer of 1974 when Turkey invaded after the Greek coup.
Though I had spent five years of my boyhood in Cyprus, I was living in New York City when I turned of enlistment age (anyone with a Greek Cypriot father is obliged to serve). I visited Cyprus several times over the following decade but it was not until I moved to the island two summers ago that I was required by law to enlist within a two-year period. As I had spent most of my life in the U.S. and was over the age of 26, I would only have to serve for three months instead of 25. In comparison to other Greek Cypriot conscripts my army term would be a weekend jaunt.
I enlisted on January 10, 2007. As of this writing I have one week left before I receive my discharge papers. I then return to that undisciplined state of dissolution known as civilian life where one need not shave every morning, shine one’s boots, sleep according to a timetable, stomp to attention, or report in a “brisk and vivacious manner” to one’s superiors, as those who have been making a life out of stomping and saluting are referred to. But then again, the whole point of conscription is that military duty does not end with your discharge papers (and in fact despite widespread use of “discharge papers,” the release documents you receive at the end of your conscription term are actually more like marching orders because you remain a reservist). Until the age of 50 you are called up several times a year to button yourself back into uniform and go to firing practice or to sentry duty on the Green Line or to training on cover and concealment, which might include a nap under an olive tree somewhere.
This piece cannot by any stretch be considered an essay; nonetheless, I am letting it stand on its own for this month’s posting as a brief preface to the following months’ essays on boot camp and on guard duty on the Green Line, both of which will draw upon my three-month conscription. I have decided to do so for three reasons:
One, I am by nature a lazy essayist and always have an eye out for good procrastination excuses, especially ones that invoke noble-sounding military obligations (“It is with great regret that I cannot post this month’s essay, but I am presently serving in the line of duty…”). Two, I have received a number of complaints from readers who do not or cannot print the Fourth Night essays that my postings are often too long for online reading. This one sets a new record in brevity. And three, I am taking the advice of several concerned friends and family members who urged that I wait until I have my release papers in hand before writing anything army-related. I originally dismissed the idea but the colorful – for lack of a better adjective – experiences of the last three months have led me to change my mind.
Many repatriated Cypriots evade their military duty, and I could have done so myself. It is easy enough due to the absence of any bureaucratic coordination in the National Guard Headquarters: just play dumb, don’t ever sign up, and if an official ever asks say that you only recently arrived. But I saw no good reason to avoid enlistment. I had no ethical qualms about it; Cyprus may technically still be at a state of war (and in one of the longest ceasefires in modern history) but I was sure I had better odds of killing somebody or getting killed on a weekend drive to the beach than while in the army. As for willingly subjecting myself to the commands and whims of any halfwit with a few stars and bars on his collar, as Melville’s Ishmael said, “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that.”
And finally I would have missed out on all the fun, to take a broad interpretation of the word. A life without occasional degradation is a life not worth living.
- The Way of the Arpha (Part I)
- Manning the Dead Zone (Part I)
- The Bloodthirsty and the Barbarous
- Manning the Dead Zone (Part II)