3673) Book Review: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Leadership, Strategy, Conflict by Edward J. Erickson

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
Leadership, Strategy, Conflict
by Edward J. Erickson

Winston Churchill labelled Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as a ‘Man of Destiny’ in The World Crisis (Volume 2) in 1925 and attributed much of the initial ANZAC and British failure at Gallipoli in 1915 to Kemal’s dynamic combat leadership. This was, of course, a retrospective appraisal and actually during World War I, Mustafa Kemal remained a largely unknown personality in both the Ottoman Empire and in Britain. In 1932, ... the official British historian of the campaign also used this particular phrase, reinforcing Churchill’s opinion, and noting additionally that Kemal had ‘an outstanding genius for command’. He went on to say that ‘seldom in history can the exertions of a single divisional commander have exercised, on three separate occasions, so profound an influence not only on the course of a battle, but perhaps on the fate of a campaign and even the destiny of a nation’. In fact, after Gallipoli Kemal went on to lead armies in Caucasia in 1916–17 and in Palestine in 1918. Later he became a field marshal and led the nationalist army in 1922 to the victories that established Turkey as a nation-state.

Was he one of the 20th century’s great commanders? Churchill thought so as have a number of subsequent historians and your current author. That said what criteria might be used to render such a judgment? Clausewitz stressed genius, determination and the possession of coup d’oeil, or the ability to take in and understand the situation ‘at a glance’. Baron Jomini, whose book The Art of War is considered a military classic, thought that moral and physical courage, as well as military knowledge, were also key ingredients in military greatness. Did Kemal meet these tests? Not only did he arguably possess Clausewitz and Jomini’s traits, but Kemal had a demonstrated record of success in combat in command and staff positions at every echelon of command from platoon through army group levels (depth of experiences). He also had a demonstrated record of success in all types of warfare and in a wide variety of physically difficult tactical environments (breadth or range of conditions). Moreover, Kemal demonstrated sustained successful performance in combat from 1908 to 1922 (length of combat career). In essence, his was a unique combat record made all the more astonishing by its depth, its breadth and its length.

Except for Napoleon Bonaparte, few of the great commanders in military history have comparable records – although Erwin Rommel is a close competitor to Kemal in this regard. However, it is also true that Mustafa Kemal was never the ‘front runner’ in school or in the army. He was never first in his class and second only once. In contrast his contemporary and competitor, Ismail Enver, was first in his War Academy class, married the Sultan’s daughter and, as Minister of War, became the de facto leader of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. In truth, Kemal’s personal ambitions, prickly demeanour and consistently poor judgment in criticizing his superiors often sidelined his career and saw him placed in positions of marginal importance. This forced him to expend time and energy working his way back into the mainstream. He often faced an uncertain professional future. Yet, his relentless drive and determination kept him coming back from adversity and setbacks to assume positions of increasing responsibility.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk enjoyed the hard life of an active soldier. He was fearless in close combat and he was highly intelligent. Kemal was relentless in his pursuit of modernity and westernization for his country and ardently patriotic. He lived for his work in a masculine world and he relished smoking, talking, drinking and playing cards far into the night with his close friends. In the end cirrhosis killed him at the age of 57. Kemal married briefly and adopted a number of children later in life.

After leading the nationalist army to victory in the War of Independence (1921–22) Kemal became the president of the new Turkish Republic, serving until his death in office in 1938. In this role he almost single-handedly created a modern secular and western parliamentary Republic, as well as Latinizing the alphabet, banning the Ottoman fez and making all citizens acquire a surname. He chose the surname Atatürk or ‘father of the Turks’ for himself. Kemal appeared on the cover of the American news magazine Time in 1923 as a general and then he made the cover again in 1927 as a statesman. His military and political legacy endures and he is revered in modern Turkey today.

Dr Edward J. Erickson is an Associate Professor of Military History at the Command and Staff College, Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Dr. Erickson is widely recognized as one of the foremost specialists on the Ottoman Army during the First World War. Among the numerous books and articles he has written are Ordered To Die, A History of the Ottoman Army in the First World War; Defeat in Detail, The Ottoman Army in the Balkans, 1912-1913; Ottoman Army Effectiveness in WW1, A Comparative Study, and Gallipoli and the Middle East 1914-1918.



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