Salih Can Açıksöz, Sacrificial Limbs: Masculinity, Disability, and Political Violence in Turkey (University of California Press, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Salih Can Açıksöz (SCA): Sacrificial Limbs is a historically informed ethnographic study of war disability, masculinity, and nationalism in Turkey. Chronicling the everyday lives and political activism of the disabled veterans of Turkey’s Kurdish War, the book explores how these veterans’ gendered and classed experiences of war and disability are hardened into political identity and collective action. More specifically, the work shows how disabled veterans’ efforts to recover their health and sense of masculinity have historically been entangled with the work of an ultranationalist movement fighting against political reforms, minority rights, and present-day Turkey’s bid for European Union membership.

This book was born out of multiple concerns. I grew up in Turkey in the 1980s and ‘90s, during the heyday of the Kurdish conflict, which persists into the present. I witnessed firsthand the maddening violence that engulfed the country as the state deployed millions and millions of soldiers and paramilitaries in the counterinsurgency against the guerillas of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This conflict continues to dictate the parameters of Turkey’s political life, but hitherto no work had been done on the actual subjects—that is, the conscripted soldiers—who have been tasked with fighting this war. I wanted to write a book that would foreground the experiences of former conscripts, who literally embody the costs of the chauvinistic militarism deeply ingrained in the country’s political culture.

Then, I did my research in an American academic context, post-9/11, that was being shaped by the US wars and occupations in the Middle East, tying my interest in Turkey’s own brand of “war on separatist terror” to the so-called Global War on Terror. Confronted with the increasing public visibility of disabled veterans in both countries, I wanted to offer an ethnographic vantage point from which to see how such wars have long-lasting political ramifications through their bodily, psychic, and social effects on combatants.

As I was actually writing the book, one of the project’s animating questions gained even greater significance amidst the global trend of right-wing political victories (Brexit; Erdoğan, Modi, and Trump’s wins): How do right-wing nationalist movements manage to affectively mobilize whole groups of people, especially those who are most harmed by their policies? In attempting to answer this question by placing violently disabled bodies at its center, I wanted to provide an account of how a politically engaged anthropology could help us come to grips—morally, intellectually, affectively, and politically—with the suffering of those whose politics we find reprehensible, even inimical, to our lifeworlds, political ideals, and understandings of truth and justice.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SCA: To address this broad question, I will start by referencing the title of the book. I borrow the phrase “sacrificial limbs” from the nationalist state propaganda crib sheets, in which disabled veterans are always hailed as “ghazi heroes who sacrificed their legs and arms for the indivisible unity of the state with its territory and nation.” The phrase also rhymes with and evokes the notion of the “sacrificial lamb,” which, in Abrahamic tradition, refers to an animal or person sacrificed for the greater good. That parallel is no coincidence because conscripts are metaphorically and affectionately called sacrificial (“hennaed”) lambs in Turkish nationalist political culture. Finally, “sacrificial limb” resonates with another, lesser-known term, “sacrificial leg.” Sacrificial leg is an industrial term that denotes the replaceable section of a warehouse storage system, a part that can be sacrificed to save the overall integrity of the costly structure. In that sense, it is a very apt metaphor for conscripted soldiers’ bodies, which are politically constructed as expendable and disposable, illustrating the modern economic logic of state violence.

“Sacrificial Limbs” neatly captures one of my central arguments about the ultranationalist politicization of Turkish disabled veterans: disabled veterans live a double life as their bodies traverse two opposing regimes of value. In one regime, they are lionized as religio-national heroes who have attained the highest possible spiritual rank before martyrdom, as saintly warriors whose place in heaven is reserved alongside prophets. In another, they are stigmatized as dependent, beggar-like men in a deeply ableist society and subjected to different forms of structural and symbolic violence under a rapidly neoliberalizing economy. The gendered tensions of this double life steer the veterans’ political activism, as well as the narrative arc of the book. I trace the veterans’ life trajectories, first through counter-guerrilla warfare, then in hospitals and wartime communities, and finally within the textures of lower-class urban life and political militancy, to show how their experiences of leading a double life are politicized through ultranationalist conspiracy theories.

What role do the gendered body and embodied experience play in macro-level politics? This question stands at the center of the book’s analysis of the material and symbolic production, governance, experience, and politics of war disability. I seek to answer this question by building on a diverse array of disciplinary and theoretical orientations, ranging from medical and political anthropology to disability studies, feminist and queer theory, and a psychoanalytically inflected Marxist cultural theory. I knot together these orientations to provide an ethnographic account of the lived experiences at the intersection of disability, masculinity, and nationhood. Along the way, I examine the militarization of public culture and the politics of suffering that animates right-wing politics and the medical, social, and political aftermath of counterinsurgency warfare. My account also considers the co-constitutive, yet tension-ridden relations between militarized nationalism and neoliberal capitalism.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SCA: Sacrificial Limbs will appeal to anyone with an interest in war and political violence, the far right, gender, disability, nationalism, and Turkey’s Kurdish conflict. In line with the work’s emphasis on the centrality of embodied emotions in the formation of political knowledge and subjectivity, I wanted to write in a way that would affectively move the reader by conveying—even performing—the impact of the narrated events. That meant experimenting with different styles and genres of writing that did not conform to the conventions of a dry and detached academic voice. It is theoretically dense, but it is written in accessible language, and all citations and theoretical discussions are placed in the endnotes rather than in the main body of the text. I also used several photographic images—some taken by me, others by professional photographers—to visually communicate the charged objects, spaces, and practices that I describe in the book. I hope that the resulting affective quality approximates the emotional landscape that characterizes the disabled veterans’ lives and activism, epitomized by the powerful artwork on the book’s cover—the ambivalent merging of violence, vulnerability, care, and intimacy.

Sacrificial Limbs is a book about political violence. It is challenging to write on violence without reducing it to an epiphenomenon or sensationalizing it into a pornography of violence. I approach violence as not only a destructive force, but also as a generative force that gives way to new forms of subjectivity, community, and agency through its embodied effects. This force hijacks young male conscripts’ normative life trajectories and propels them into an ambivalent space, where the distinctions and boundaries between perpetrator and victim, sacred and profane, hero and abject get puzzlingly blurred. Venturing into this ethically and politically ambivalent space, I seek to implode the militarist and nationalist reification and glorification of war-related loss and suffering, without glossing over my informants’ own political horizon or turning them into anti-war icons that they are not. I offer the book to anyone who wants to reflect on the political and ethical quandaries of violence from the viewpoint of people who are both perpetrators and victims of state violence.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

SCA: My new book project continues my interest in the nexus of health and politics. Tentatively entitled Humanitarian Borderlands: Medicine and Terror at Turkey’s Syrian Border, the work focuses on the heated political and legal disputes over healthcare provision to combatants and refugees along and across the Turkish-Kurdish-Syrian border. I draw from my fieldwork with Islamist, Kurdish, and socialist humanitarian doctors, as well as from materials in legal and media archives, to explore how contestations over the meanings of health, humanitarianism, and terrorism have led to new forms of medical care and ethics in zones of political violence. More broadly, I seek to illustrate how the practice of humanitarian medicine is inescapably bound up with the question of sovereignty. In sum, I am exploring what humanitarianism means practically at a time when all states have a hand in global assemblages of counter-terror.


Excerpt from the book (from the introduction)

In a country with compulsory military service, any inquiry regarding war disability and masculinity must begin with an analysis of the ways in which the production of gendered and militarized bodies is knotted together with the making of the state, citizenship, and sovereignty. This story begins, therefore, where it all began for veterans—with conscription.

Compulsory military service is one of the most entrenched institutions in Turkey, thanks in large part to its imbrication with heteronormative masculinity. Enlistment is mandatory for all (temporarily) able-bodied male citizens with the exception of openly gay and transgender men. Because draft evaders are all but stripped of their citizenship rights and because the completion of military service operates socially as a prerequisite for employment and marriage, all young men are expected to submit themselves to the sovereign power’s grip if they are to become sovereign masculine citizen-subjects. Thus, compulsory military service operates historically as a key rite of passage into normative adult masculinity, sealing the heteropatriarchal contract between the state and its male citizenry.

Masculinity, the military, and the state are often construed as existing in harmonious and mutually affirming relations. War disability, however, disrupts, attenuates, and subverts the possibility of such a political equation remaining unproblematic. For my interlocutors, conscription failed to deliver on its gendered promise. Confronting them with the intimate violence of the armed conflict, it instead brought about bodily loss and disability, turning them into what the ableist Turkish public calls “half-men” or “the half-dead.” Nearly all the disabled veterans I knew hailed from poor working-class families and were further marginalized by being denied access to blue-collar wage labor, a situation that persisted until consolidation, in the early 2000s, of a special welfare regime for disabled veterans of the Kurdish conflict. This social and economic dependency resonated within Turkish society with the abject figure of the disabled street beggar and catalyzed their exclusion from the marriage market and forms of domestic and public citizenship. In short, through their embodiment of war disability, they were emasculated and stigmatized as gender-nonconforming bodies.

Standing at the intersection of disability, class, gender, and sexuality, veterans’ embodied predicaments are subjectively felt and socioculturally constructed as a masculinity crisis for which the state is accountable. In the following pages, I provide numerous examples of the ways in which this crisis is addressed and mobilized, and at times subverted, both by disabled veterans and by different social actors invested in ameliorating or instrumentalizing their social suffering. Yet even as I highlight this strong sense of crisis, I want to resist the urge to simply equate disability with emasculation, and more so with feminization. As I hope to show in this study, the relationship between masculinity and disability is much more nuanced and historically contingent, in this case on the vicissitudes of the armed conflict and the changing biopolitics of war disability.

Fracturing the militarized gender-production machine and state-enforced heteronormative and ableist conceptions of adult masculinity embedded in compulsory military service, disabled veterans’ gender trouble is a driving force behind political and biopolitical efforts to remasculinize them. Utilizing multiple forms of power and knowledge, state and medical institutions act upon the intimate details of veterans’ lives, technoscientifically fixing their embodied capacities and refashioning them into productive and reproductive bodies. Nevertheless, the efforts to draw disabled veterans into the world of conjugal domesticity and heteroreproductive sexuality are not straightforward or unproblematic. I trace the quandaries entailed in this process across a variety of fields, ranging from nationalist representations, to TV mafia series, to veterans’ intersubjective practices of care and fleshly intimacy, to veterans’ welfare and political activism.

One idiosyncratic element of the state-led project to recuperate the (hetero)masculinity of disabled veterans is particularly important for the story told here. The state bestows on disabled veterans of the Kurdish conflict the honorific military title of Gazi, a religiously loaded and symbolically dense nationalist title that has historically been associated with medieval warrior-proselytizers of Islam and with Ottoman sovereigns and commanders, as well as with the founding father of the secular republic, Gazi Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk). Harnessing the Islamic models of warrior masculinity for the militaristic ends of the secular nationalist state, this symbolic act has provided the secular state with a much-needed religious legitimacy in the ongoing ethnopolitical conflict. Drawing the disabled veteran’s body, violently made “unfit for military service” by injury, back into the militarist imaginary, the conferral of the Gazi title has also fixed veterans’ masculinity crisis by inscribing them with a sanctified hypermasculine moniker, with the expectation that it will counter the gendered stigma of disability. In the process, the state has firmly anchored veterans’ entitlements and welfare benefits to their status as transcendental political subjects who embody the unwavering military spirit of the Turkish nation. With their governmental remasculinization process tethered closely to the state’s ethnic nationalist politics, disabled veterans have easily transitioned to ultranationalist politicization.

In contemporary Turkey, Kurdish conflict veterans’ disabilities render their bodies simultaneously sacred and abject. Disabled veterans, especially amputees, are valorized as saintly gazi warriors—sanctified heroes and “living martyrs” who have attained the highest spiritual rank before martyrdom by sacrificing their bodies for the Turkish nation-state. Potent objects of nationalist reverence, their lost limbs are imagined through sacrificial discourses and imageries as bodily relics whose absence sanctifies the remainder-body of the disabled veteran and, by extension, the Turkish body politic. But while their bodies and sacrificial limbs accrue political value that intensifies the governmental project of remasculinization, they are still stigmatized as beggar-like, dependent men who evoke pity and revulsion in a deeply ableist society. Subjected to the structural and symbolic violence of ableism, class inequality, and a rapidly neoliberalizing economy, they face anxieties about socioeconomic marginalization, discrimination, and emasculation. It is precisely this gendered double bind which structures their everyday lives and steers them toward political activism. Exploring the tensions between the ideological construction of the disabled veteran body and veterans’ embodied experiences, this study pries open the dialectic between political rites of sacrifice and quotidian moments of desecration to reveal the generation of impactful nationalist affects. Condensed in the bodies of disabled veterans, these political affects have been culturally articulated and politically mobilized by a novel ultranationalist movement that has stamped the political culture of the country.

In the 2000s, an emergent ultranationalist movement that had begun to challenge the hegemony of the governing neoliberal Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, hereafter AKP) cashed in politically on disabled veterans’ embodied predicaments, taking on their work safety problems in state institutions (chapter 3) and their failed prosthesis payments (chapter 6) as pet political projects. Putting the government under fire for having compromised state sovereignty by pursuing membership in the European Union and peace negotiations with the PKK, the ultranationalist media presented veterans’ welfare and disability problems as a manifestation of the government’s betrayal. Explaining to disabled veterans why they are profaned by the same state that has sanctified them as gazis, this strategy has proved remarkably successful in interpellating disabled veterans within the circles I attended during my fieldwork. Hitching disabled veterans’ arduous quest to recover their masculine sovereignty to the ultranationalist political agenda of “restoring” state sovereignty, ultranationalism has opened up a political space where the former soldiers who are now disabled veterans can once again become the masculine subjects of political violence in the name of sovereignty.