Honor in defeat: what’s so great about losing?

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in community,history,identity,multicultural,self-image,society

Balkans by Elif Bayraslı

expat harem series widget smallBy ELMIRA BAYRASLI

What honor is there in defeat? I asked myself this question eight years ago today. It was my first summer living in the Balkans, working for an organization to help rebuild a multiethnic democracy in the conflict-torn region.

As a Turkish-American I grew up amid two cultures that pride themselves on their military might; cultures that name their sons after war heroes, and reenact winning maneuvers. Americans even think it’s necessary to school the competition: Boo-yah!

June 28th is a day of celebration for the Serbs, a south Slavic people. Serbs celebrate Vidovdan, a holy day honoring the Orthodox St. Vitus, to mark a moment in 1389 when the Ottoman Turks defeated them on the “Field of the Blackbirds.”

“You were — um, I mean — you lost,” I stuttered to my Serbian colleague back then.

“Yes.” He stood up straighter.

“Aha. You lost and — so you’re celebrating.” It may have been my most confusing cultural exchange since I’d arrived in Sarajevo. Right up there with my negotiations with the landlady to keep the window ajar against the Balkan belief that an open pane would guarantee you’d die of pneumonia.

“We celebrate our honor.”

Who celebrates being conquered on their own soil? Commemoration of victory, as the Turks and Americans are prone to, is obvious and easy. Everyone wants to be a winner.

Living in the Balkans for four years, I learned there is such a thing as winning in losing.

The Ottomans may have overpowered them physically, but the Serbian spirit lived. Serbs may have died, but their people, religion and culture survive. That is what and why they celebrate. For the rest of us chest thumpers, it’s worth noting.

How does your culture define national honor?

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By day, Elmira Bayraslı takes care of press for a non-profit that supports entrepreneurs. By night, she’s a writer and a yogi.
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  • http://www.bazaarbayar.blogspot.com Catherine Bayar

    A though-provoking post, Elmira, and well timed in this week of Independence Day for the US. You and I share the same militarist cultures; this is one aspect in which Turkey and the US are alike. They do differ in that Turkish men (and increasingly women, though not compulsory) must do military service; therefore, every family has a military connection. In fact, I think the military is still the most trusted institution in the country. In the US, the military tends to come from lower income families; Senators and corporate CEO’s rarely send their sons into service.

    In any case, I can’t imagine either country giving in to defeat and seeing honour in acknowledging that some battles cannot be won. We see this happening now in the two wars the US has not ended, though the cost of these in “blood and treasure” (a phrase I am thoroughly sick of) is so high, especially in these economic times, that I’m not sure how the US will ever recover. Though I hate to say it, that old adage “Pride goes before a fall” may again be proven true.

  • http://www.bazaarbayar.blogspot.com Catherine Bayar

    I’m certain if women had more say in these matters, these 'celebrations' would happen less, Elmira. Interesting to me here is the flip side of bravado: Nearly everyday it seems on Turkish TV news, there are reports from the funerals of the latest group of fallen soldiers killed in terrorist attacks. Mothers, wives, sisters wailing over the flag-draped coffins of their loved one; fathers too, but it’s the women who often dare to ask on camera why this had to happen. Yes, there is the public face of having the honour of a ‘sahit’ in the family (martyr, a term used for anyone who gives his life for his country, and not to be confused with those who claim to ‘martyr’ themselves for Islam). But I’m certain that privately these women, like women everywhere, question why fighting and dying has to happen at all. And at least in Turkey, these scenes are made public instead of hidden away as they are in the US.

  • kari m.

    Thank you for this essay, Elmira. It had me thinking. The Serbian people, their spirit, religion and culture survive. What a victory to celebrate and what a motivation in these times when cultural conflicts and wars easily get our attention from the news. It`s uplifting to focus on all the good things in human endeavours that are resilient enough to survive.

  • http://www.skaiangates.com Yazarc

    The Germans did support the Irish move towards independence, not surprising as they were at war with Britain at the time. A major factor in the failure of the 1916 Rising was that German guns were captured by the British before they landed in Ireland and Sir Roger Casement was hanged as a result.
    I haven't been home for it but there was a military parade down O'Connell St a few years ago, I think the reaction was partly stunned silence. Our military is tiny and mainly involved in UN peacekeeping, so the image is one most Irish people can't imagine either!

  • elmira

    Brian, Catherine -totally agree with both your perspectives. Brian – you bring up an interesting point about those who had no choice about participating. That make me think of mothers, wives, daughters, etc. I wonder if “celebration” in the way we do it in the US or Turkey would be different if women had more a voice in it – it all seems to be driven by military folks, who are predominately male. Thoughts?

  • elmira

    Thanks for your comments and perspective Katja. Germany adds yet another dimension into what I'm finding is a multifaceted topic – Germany alone is an entire topic. Unlike you, however, I'm hoping they're the topic at the World Cup. Let's hope they can beat Argentina!

  • http://twitter.com/womanwithwords Woman with words

    Yazarc, that is really very interesting. Ireland has such an unusual history. I remember that Irish woman working in the post office of a very small village in Donegal who wanted to say thank you to us – as Germans – because Germans supported the independence of Ireland from Great Britain almost a century ago. (Do I remember that correctly?) Funny to us, but important to her.

    I like Ireland a lot. And I really couldn't imagine Irish men marching in a military parade. Don't know why.
    But I am sure, Irish people always find a reason to celebrate…
    Katja

  • http://www.skaiangates.com Yazarc

    Interesting to see the contrast here, I never really thought of contrasting the way Turks (and Americans) celebrate victory with the Irish way. I never really thought about it because we actually don't celebrate victory at all now that I think about it.

    We don't celebrate any WW victories though many Irish fought in the battles, but in WWI we were part of the British empire and in WWII we were neutral. Once we gained independence we didn't want to celebrate another nation's victory. That left a lot of forgotten soldiers and it was one reason President McAleese visited Gallipolli earlier this year.

    We also didn't celebrate the 1916 Rising for many years. It failed but provided the impetus that led to the War of Independence. Celebrating it through the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the past 30 years would have been akin to open support for the IRA and other paramilitary groups so it was commemorated but never celebrated. Recent years have seen celebration but it is still not fully accepted.

    Any rebellions and risings before 1916 also ended in defeat and may be celebrated locally but not nationally. And most will focus on the dead, the fallen, the atrocities, the losses… not much sense of victory or national honour.

  • http://www.istanbulblogger.com istanbulblogger

    Anastasia and Elmira great timing however ,celebrating the honour can be seen as a way of remembering those that lost their lives in defeat , or those that were defeated in sport as an example. I merely see it as a way to show your gratitude towards those that attempted to bring or salvaged something without a choice.

    Katja many horrible atrocities happened in WW II as I am sure you know ,but I am sure many germans felt the need to defend their country once the tide had turned,millions had no choice because of the fear the Nazi ruled with ,but you have nothing to be ashamed of in honouring those that fought for their country in those times on the battlefields of europe and africa ,there were millions of german people who had no choice but to fight or flee . I have spent thousands of hours reading and watching documented clips from WW II most highlight the Nazi fear and propaganda within germany at the time but few talk about the german individual the family man who was a farmer ,shop owner and so on.perhaps they should be honoured but the atrocities are never far from the mind.

    Honouring your fellow countrymen or countrywomen in victory or defeat is nothing to be ashamed off ,unfortunately when it comes to war individuals have no choice in participating ,i know we all have a choice but the choice often to fight for your country especially in the last century and probably in history , if you decided against participating the effect was damaging ,humiliating,isolation, and so on.
    Sorry if I went of the subject but often there are reasons for paying honour it goes deeper than the headline . great post

  • http://twitter.com/womanwithwords Woman with words

    Hi Elmira, I am German and I think it would be very weird if we'd celebrate the 8th of May…. Although for sure, loosing the WWII was the best thing that could happen to us. We are living in peace for 65 years now and have become a very modern, democratic, successful, respected country. But celebrating the end of the WW II would never come to our minds. This horrible war is a part of our history that we are very ashamed of.

    As I am living in Russia now, it is very strange for me to see, how intensely Russian do celebrate the great victory over Germany. Not because I am German and “the looser” but because national pride has never been (and will never be) part of my personality. (In football I'd always support the underdog, even if it's playing against Germany…)

    As soon as the snow is gone in April, Moscow is cleaned up by an armada of workers. Tulips are planted in every green corner of the city. Huge posters celebrating the heroes of the war catch your eye everywhere. Expensive preparations for the big parade on 9th of May are conducted weeks before the event. To me this is too much. Too much costs for showing strength and power.

    I don't like military parades. Russians have so much more to be proud of. Why do they still put this emphasis on a victory that happened 65 years ago. But I have also seen that young Russians are very interested in talking to the veterans. They really want to know. They really respect them. They are proud of them. Maybe the importance of this victory is one part of the Russian soul that we – foreigners in this big country – will never really understand.
    Katja

  • http://www.Sezin.org/ Sezin

    Ah Elmira, my Velvet Sister. This is a timely post and poses a question I have been pondering since June 11: I am never so confronted with the question of national pride and all its complexities as I am during these “global” sports events like the current football World Cup. Personally, I have no nationalistic leanings and my brow furrows as I contemplate what does this idea of “national pride” even mean to a Third Culture Kid like I, who has parents of different nationalities and cultures and who has lived in a multitude of different countries, the majority of which have nothing to do with any of my “actual” heritage.

    I can't answer your question about how does “my” culture define honour, because that would be a horse of a different colour, but I can tell you how one of my favourite cultures, The Lakota define honour, and they define it much in the same way as your Serbian colleagues: The Lakota also celebrate the fact that they live on and this is cause for joy. The Lakota survive in spite of all the government policies and people who have worked to eradicate them. They live, they worship, they practice traditions that have been around for thousands of years. The Lakota did not lose, because they are still here. Their survival highlights and forces us to remember the grotesque nature of what has been done in the attempt to conquer a people and culture.

    We have only lost if we are annihilated. And if one group of people succeeds in annihilating another, then everyone has lost, no?

    Like in football, I always root for the underdog. Long live Serbia! Long live the Lakota! :-)

  • http://twitter.com/ramblingtart Krista Bjorn

    I love this story. Surviving with honor intact is definitely worth celebrating.

    • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

      Agree with you Krista — interesting to think that victory and defeat is not a zero-sum game. Major conflict may never be win-win, but at least it doesn’t have to be win all-lose everything.

      Elmira, my own national culture is boo-yah but I grew up in an anti-war community so celebrating any aspect of war seemed off-limits. No tying yellow ribbons, or hosting veteran parades.Figuring out what the rest of the country was on about took leaving my hometown, and after 9/11 was the first time I possessed an American flag, and brandished it.

    • http://www.expatharem.com/identity-messages/ Anastasia

      Agree with you Krista — interesting to think that victory and defeat is not a zero-sum game. Major conflict may never be win-win, but at least it doesn’t have to be win all-lose everything.Elmira, my own national culture is boo-yah but I grew up in an anti-war community so celebrating any aspect of war seemed off-limits. No tying yellow ribbons, or hosting veteran parades. Figuring out what the rest of the country was on about took leaving my hometown, and after 9/11 was the first time I possessed an American flag, and brandished it.

      In fact, a childhood friend posted on Facebook yesterday (the Fourth of July, our independence day) that when she bought her first house in a nearby town she thought that metal thing screwed to the porch was a bottle opener…not the flag mount that it really was. That’s how unfamiliar Berkeley kids were with flag-waving.

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