Overthrowing your Leader
Bill Hartley on how not to stage a coup
The recent coup attempt in Turkey reinforces the idea that the last people to be undertaking a military coup are the military. One might assume that soldiers have so much experience in planning that the phrase ‘military precision’ really means something. It might but it doesn’t seem to be a transferable skill. In fairness perhaps the one aspect of planning not taught in defence colleges is how to stage a coup. There may be good reasons for this because in certain countries it is a painful subject. Before the events in Turkey coups seemed to have fallen out of fashion, particularly among NATO members. The Spanish military has been behaving itself since 1981 and that rather operatic attempt by Lt Col Terejo to seize the Cortez. There was something comedic about a man wearing a tricorno headdress from the nineteenth century, trying to scare the legislature. Despite huge economic problems the Greek colonels, too, have remained in barracks.
So what went wrong with the Turkish coup? The history of the last century is littered with examples of failed coups from which to ‘learn lessons’ as public servants are fond of saying. The thing is, the military seldom do. When it comes to coups Hegel’s comment ‘we learn from history that we do not learn from history’ is very accurate. It is as if the ability to project force onto the streets blinds the generals to the priorities of mounting a successful coup. Once again the plotters didn’t trouble to look at history’s most famous failed coups to find out what went wrong and ensure that the same mistakes weren’t repeated.
The Turkish attempt verges on the severely embarrassing. For example, what possessed them to seal off the Bosporus bridge? The result of this ineptitude was to hold up thousands of motorists for no good purpose and alert them to the fact that something was going on. With modern communications it is no longer the case that motorists at the front of the queue were the only ones who could see soldiers blocking the bridge. A quick glance at one’s smart phone and everything became clear. So why block the bridge? The answer I suppose is: because we can. It is called force projection, letting civilians know that the army is running things, except of course they weren’t.
Another example of this was the presence of tanks on the streets. One doesn’t have to be an expert in such things to appreciate that during a coup speed and and mobility are essential and you’re not going to get that with a tank weighing in excess of fifty tons. Quite the opposite: tanks are designed to fight other tanks. During a coup they can become a liability. In Turkey we saw a tank marooned in the street with demonstrators clambering all over the turret, effectively rendering it impotent. At best they might look good parked on the lawns of the Ministry of Information or wherever. An exception to this would be the Red Army in places like Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968 ) both in effect counter coups. Here there was little prospect of climbing on a tank since the Russian soldiers would run you over whilst doing their internationalist duty.
The Turkish military did succeed in seizing a television station and the telecoms headquarters, both essential when mounting a coup. Communication is everything of course, as is controlling the means of doing so. During the July plot to depose Hitler the world’s finest general staff failed to secure the telephone exchange, meaning that he was free to make a call from Rastenburg and assure the commander of the Berlin guard battalion that he was still alive. If the Turkish generals had seen the Tom Cruise picture Valkyrie they might have figured out what was missing from their plans. In an era where everyone has a means of communication in their pocket, the president couldn’t be isolated in the Turkish equivalent of Rastenburg. Instead he was broadcasting to the nation via his mobile phone and getting his supporters onto the streets. This would have also sent a powerful message to the rest of the military, who may have been sitting on the fence watching events unfold. What the plotters failed to do then was seize the president and render him incommunicado.
Interestingly the Turkish secret service doesn’t seem to have got wind of the plot. Given Turkey’s history of military intervention in politics this suggests either ineptitude or hints that they were in on it too. Usually a secret service likes to keep tabs on the military. For example during the failed ‘General’s Coup’ in Algeria in 1961 word of what was going on emerged because the French secret service were listening in to the general’s wives’ conversations. If on the other hand the Turkish secret service were involved then they showed a touching faith in the military. Something secret service officers may now be regretting as they head for obscure border crossings.
The big mistake of the plotters was to leave the president at liberty. Classic coup planning requires the plotters to have a figurehead waiting in the wings; someone who will step forward to form a government of ‘national unity’ and ‘protect the constitution’. An embittered rival is a useful candidate. Generals seldom look convincing in front of the television cameras unless one of their number is a dashing and charismatic Moshe Dayan type. Charges should also be prepared in advance suggesting that the deposed leader is now to face ‘justice’.
A great deal of importance ought to be attached to the type of troops being used in a coup attempt. It’s hard to imagine your average soldier, never mind an entire regiment, boiling with indignation over the policies of President Erdogan. Unless of course he had just announced a pay cut. What coup planners need are troops who can be motivated solely by the mission. The Algerian coup mentioned above may have been a disaster but at least the generals picked the right regiment: Premier Regiment Etranger de Parachutists, the Foreign Legion’s parachute regiment, many of whose members were German and could thus be considered utterly mission focussed. After the dust had settled the regiment was disbanded, being considered politically unreliable. Boris Yeltsin too used paratroopers to seize the Russian parliament during his counter coup of 1993. The hapless Turkish army conscripts being roughed up by civilians shows that the plotters made a poor choice.
Staging a coup works best if as few people as possible are in on the plot. When it fails then the reaction is predictable and in Turkey we are seeing this. Thousands are being arrested; far more than could ever have been involved in the plot. A failed coup provides an opportunity to settle scores and neutralise political opponents.
BILL HARTLEY is a former deputy governor in HM Prison Service and writes from Yorkshire