Man-made tragedies and natural disasters come and go so quickly that we can barely keep track of them. Nothing could be worse that the combination of a natural disaster and a man-made disaster waiting to happen. I refer, of course, to the two major earthquakes in southern Turkey several weeks ago and the mass destruction that followed---now more than 45,000 deaths in Turkey alone, with many more still missing, more than 100,000 injured, almost 200,000 buildings destroyed, and millions left homeless.
What happened in southern Turkey has particular meaning for me because I spent a good part of 1952 stationed in Iskenderun where I served with an eight-man U.S. Army team advising the Turkish 39th Infantry Division on how to make effective use of the vast amounts of military equipment the U.S. was supplying to Turkey as part of our “containment” policy against the expansionist demands of the Stalin and the Soviet Union.
Living in the quiet, sleepy town of Iskenderun was most pleasant, with its beautiful beach stretching to the south and its still undeveloped harbor stretching to the north. Iskenderun retained some of its French character having been transferred to Turkey toward the end of World War II. The taxies were still horse-drawn carriages and hovered around the town square. At the time of my arrival the US Navy was building a Turkish naval base there to facilitate the transport of military equipment to the country’s eastern regions.
For readers not familiar with the area, Iskenderun is located in Hatay province, a narrow strip of land extending south along the eastern Mediterranean coast and lying to the west of northern Syria.
The earthquake’s destruction has been centered, and often videotaped, in most of southern Turkey’s major cities, among them Iskenderun, ancient
Antakya, historic Marsh and Gaziantep, Adana, and Osmaniye. The destruction in many small towns and villages, often nestled in the nearby mountains, has gone largely unmentioned in the news accounts coming out of Turkey.
On arriving in Turkey back in 1952 we were told that Turkey was prone to earthquakes. We were not overly concerned because the one earthquake we did experience was rather mild, centered about 50 miles north of Iskenderun. When I drove through that area several days later, the only evidence I could see was several toppled minarets and a few buildings with large cracks in their side walls.
Had an earthquake occurred in Iskenderun the damage would have been slight. Most of the buildings in Iskenderun, then a town of about 18,000, were one story in height, made of poured concrete, and quite sturdy. (A satellite photo of Iskenderun shows that the house where I lived apparently escaped destruction).
But with the region’s growth spurt over the past 40 years, the demand for housing increased rapidly as rural people migrated into the city, their birth rates continued to be high, and they desperately needed housing. By 2022, Iskenderun’s population had grown to more than 220,000, an astounding twelve-fold increase since I lived there back in 1952.
Given the limited flat land in and around Iskenderun and hemmed in by the surrounding mountain range, the only option was to construct high rise apartment buildings. But, trouble was brewing because too many of the newly constructed buildings were not built according to a code designed to prevent buildings from toppling over in the event of earthquakes. Not only were the building codes not enforced but contractors often cut corners in erecting many of these high rise apartment buildings, with obvious consequences.
The unfortunate result of this convergence of forces lead to Turkey’s current predicament---coping with the mass destruction, the thousands of dead and injured, and the even greater numbers of the homeless. How to reconstitute these communities is a challenge, something President Erodgan has promised to do and quickly.
Most of the few people I once knew in Iskenderun passed away long before these latest earthquakes. Yet, I still retain fond memories of living in Iskenderun more than 70 years ago, my first experience living abroad, in this lovely Turkish town. At that time the Turks were enthusiastic supporters of the U.S., and they were doing their best to become a much-improved military power, one ready to take on the Russians if they tried to invade Turkey.
Before World War II ended the Soviet Union was demanding that Turkey cede to Russia its two eastern-most provinces and allow Russia to share control of the Dardanelles Straits, which would give it access to the Mediterranean Sea. Turkey refused the Soviet demands. After Britain in early 1947 said it could no longer provide military and economic aid to Turkey and Greece, President Truman realized the threat Russia posed. He immediately asked congress to implement a policy of containment and begin efforts to modernize the Turkish army and strengthen its economy. Doing the former brought in U.S. Army Training teams to help the Turks master the modern equipment of war.
Turkey’s capacity to return to normal will be exceptionally difficult given the extent of the earthquake damage it suffers from. Its economy has for some time been devastated by its rampant inflation resulting from President Erdogan’s ill-informed economic decisions. Bracing for an upcoming election, now scheduled for May 14, the Turkish President faces further difficulties amidst growing criticisms about the Turkish government’s inadequate response to Turkey’s two earthquakes.
About the Author
At age 92 I decided to showcase my recent and current writings on a variety of topics outside of my career interests as an economist. My wife Sally’s dementia, my experiences of war, and my interests in improving higher education all compel me to write.
For most of the last decade I maintained a low profile, necessitated by my wife Sally's suffering from a decade-long siege of vascular dementia. After she passed away several years ago I wrote about our experience, in the belief that this would be helpful to the many others who suffer from dementia and their family caregivers. I am currently seeking a publisher for my book manuscript: The Forgotten: Dementia and the Right to Die.
Over the past few years I began working on several other writing projects that are described more fully elsewhere in my blog. These include a nearly-completed book manuscript on my "expected proficiencies approach to the college major'' as a vehicle for reinvigorating liberal education. I continue to write on the shortcomings of UW-Madison's affirmative action policies and programs that over the years have been renamed "diversity and inclusion" policies and programs.
Within two weeks of my graduation from UW-Madison in June 1950, the Korean War broke out. I was drafted and expected to be sent to Korea to join our fighting forces there. But instead I was sent to Turkey for 18 months. How lucky I was. I am also writing a memoir of my Korean War military experience when I served as an U.S. Army adviser in our military aid program in Turkey.
Until I began branching out beyond economics, I failed to realize what a profound effect the Great Depression and World War II had on me as I grew up. I have already captured some of these recollections, with more of them to follow.
With that introduction, I turn you over to my blog entries as well as my other writing projects described more fully elsewhere in my blog. Best wishes ~ W. Lee Hansen
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Award-winning author W. Lee Hansen, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Full bio.