by Daniel Smith
When does a massacre rise to the level of genocide and when does the world render such a judgment ?
Those are the unspoken questions underlying this month’s rhetorical firestorm created when leaders in both the Senate and the House of Representatives suddenly highlighted legislation that had been discreetly buried in sub-committees since the middle of March. The virtually identical non-binding resolutions (S.106 and H.106, respectively) called for U.S. foreign policy to reflect “appropriate understanding and sensitivity concerning issues related to human rights, ethnic cleansing, and genocide documented in the United States record relating to the Armenian Genocide” that occurred during World War I in modern day Turkey - then the Ottoman empire.
The Turkish government went ballistic. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan warned of serious consequences if either chamber of the U.S. Congress passed its bill. The Bush administration warned that approval would - not “could” but “would” - create a serious rupture with an important NATO ally. Turkey is a vital link in the U.S. air logistics system resupplying U.S. forces in Iraq. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in the course of answering a question during a mid-month press conference, noted that 70 percent of all air logistics for Iraq and 33 percent of fuel used in the war flow through or over Turkish territory.
Secretary of State Rice took issue with the timing of congressional leaders. All living former secretaries of state and national security advisors registered opposition to the resolutions. Secretary Gates also took issue with the timing, as did the Commander of U.S. Central Command, Admiral William Fallon, who observed that “the resolution in the House on the Armenian genocide...just sticks a knife in and just runs it around” (New York Post, October 23, 2007).
Ankara’s reaction seemed disproportionately swift and severe, particularly considering that the dates most often given for the mass executions of Armenians are 1915-1918, years before the official founding of the modern state of Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Pasha (Ataturk). A quick search revealed that in every decade since World War II, one or more congressional resolutions condemning the Armenian genocide creates a stir and may even advance down the legislative road - a sparsely-attended hearing or a sub-committee vote in the House of Representatives.
Starting in the 1980s, Ankara upped the ante by hiring top-flight Washington public relations firms to undermine congressional sentiment for pursuing legislation. The significance of this additional element suggests that by the 1980s, Ankara was no longer on the psychological defensive - the “sick man of Europe” as it was described in 1914. Although not initially alarming, the slow emergence of the “new” radicalized practitioners of terror transformed Turkey from a “marginal” player in any NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict to a central position, as the only Muslim-majority and the only “Oriental” member of NATO, in Washington’s (and a reluctant European Union’s) efforts to reduce violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other locales in the Middle East.
Still, this year’s response was so vehement that something else must be in play. Without question, Turks believe they have greater freedom to act in 2007 because the Bush administration has failed so miserably in its “global war on terror.” And it has been only 55 months since the Turkish parliament voted against letting U.S. troops cross Turkish territory to participate in the March 2003 invasion of Iraq - and made it stick. Moreover, Turkey’s religious-based ruling Justice and Development party has survived in power (and won 340 of 550 seats in parliament in elections held July 23, 2007) for more than five years without a coup d’etat by the staunchly secularist Turkish military is also a source of newfound confidence in the country.
Both the government and the military also agreed on the need to subdue the Kurdish fighters of the PKK who use the rugged terrain of the Iraq-Turkish border as a base for rest and rearming. This part of Iraq is controlled by the Iraqi Kurdish parties and defended by the 100,000-strong pesh merga. They have proved unable or politically incapable of implementing promises to the Bush administration and Erdogan’s government to halt PKK attacks that are creating a low but constant death toll - similar to the American experience in Iraq - among Turkish units on the border. In response to this failure, the Turkish parliament approved legislation empowering the prime minister and the army chief to send more Turkish troops into Iraq to destroy PKK fighters and base areas.
All authorities in Turkey stress that they will act only if the Iraqi and coalition forces fail to rein in the PKK. They are not keen to become further enmeshed in going after the PKK given the history of the Armenian suppression. When spelled out, the psychology of repression is ugly, as the following thumbnail sketch of Armenia’s history and a more general look at 20th century genocides reveal.
The History of the Armenian Genocide At the end of the 19th century, the once-mighty Ottoman Empire was struggling to control its restive Christian Armenian minority. Estimates of the number killed in uprisings against the autocratic ottoman sultans in the last decade of the 19th century run to more than 100,000. Ironically, it was a group of army officers - the “Young Turks” - concerned about the widening gap in capabilities between Ottoman and European armies, who forced the sultan to accept limitations on his power. Not content sharing power, three officers - Mehmed Talaat, Ismail Enver, and Ahmed Djemal - engineered a coup d’etat in 1913 and assumed total control of the government as well as the military. The next year they took Turkey into World War I on the side of the Central Powers (Imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire) - the losing side.
But the war also held promise to be an excuse for solving what some in the new regime called the “Armenian problem.” The vision of the triumvirate was a New Turkey - called Turan - stretching from the Mediterranean islands off Turkey’s western flank all the way across Central Asia to the Caspian Sea. Some 500,000 Armenians were in this broad area whose boundaries included much of the historic Armenian homeland. With the Eastern Front pitting Turks against Russians, “special measures” were required to insure the integrity of the war effort.
All weapons held by Armenians were confiscated as the population was considered sympathetic to their fellow Christians in Russia.
The 40,000 Armenians in the Turkish army were disarmed and converted to labor battalions.
In April 1915, Armenian political, cultural, religious, and other elites were seized in coordinated raids and then killed. Mass arrests of Armenian men and their execution followed. Ironically, some Kurds joined in the killing. The allied powers warned the Turkish rulers to stop, but with the war grinding on, the implied threat was toothless.
Undeterred, the three rulers initiated new measures against women and children -forced marches with little food or water, with the victims in some cases being marched into the desert.
In May, 1918, Ottoman troops attacked eastward into the Caucasus to destroy what remained of the Armenian homeland in their bid to reach the Caspian Sea. The Armenians fought the invaders to a standstill, and then the whole enterprise collapsed when, shortly before Armistice Day (November 11, 1918) the ruling junta fled to Germany where they received asylum. Despite more calls for a war crimes trial, the three men were tried in absentia, found guilty, but never punished.
Meanwhile, in Anatolia (Asia Minor) a more moderate group of “Young Turks” took over. After lengthy negotiations, this government signed in 1920 the Treaty of Sevres which reduced Turkey to a shadow of itself, re-created a large Republic of Armenia, and called for a referendum to be organized among the Kurdish populations in and around Anatolia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria to determine if an independent Kurdistan was desired.
However, the treaty was flatly rejected by another group of highly nationalistic officers. Led by Mustafa Kemal, they successfully waged war on France, Armenia, and Greece to force renegotiation of the Serves treaty. The result was the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne which effectively created the boundaries of modern Turkey, left a rump Armenia as part of the emerging Soviet Union, and scuttled the referendum on Kurdistan, leaving the Kurds the largest ethnic group with no independent homeland.
Did the Ottoman Rulers Commit Genocide ? This, then, brings us back to the question of what makes mass murder or massacres genocide. The distinction hinges on discovering or discerning the “intent” of those doing the killing, as is clear from Article II of the 1948 Convention Against Genocide : “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such....” Arriving at a conclusion, unless proclamations or other statements of intent have been published, can be problematical before the fact of a genocide starting. For those with time and inclination, being familiar with the circumstances of 20th century genocides and massacres might permit earlier scrutiny of causes and processes that led to the horrendous slaughter of civilian’s in that century and that have carried over into the 21st century.
The first seven years of this century have already re-taught us the basic lesson that naming an atrocity genocide - as the U.S. did in the Sudan - does not prevent or stop the killing, even with the possible penalties for any found guilty as described in international law.
Certainly, time does not appear to be a factor. In Rwanda 800,000-900,000 ethnic Tutsis and ethnic Hutus who refused to participate in the organized killing perished in the space of 100 days in 1994. But in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, the executions and forced labor that eventually claimed 2 million intellectuals, city dwellers, and “elites” ran four years (1975-1979).
The numbers who perish also is non-determinative as to whether genocide has been committed. In 2004, Germany acknowledged as a genocide the 1904 systematic destruction of 80,000 Herero tribesmen in what was then called German Southwest Africa (today’s Namibia) in retaliation for the deaths of 100 Germans killed when the Africans rebelled against brutal German rule.
Contrast this event with what Joseph Stalin was doing in the Soviet Union in 1932-33.
He purposefully condemned to death by starvation 7 million men, women and children in the Ukraine where his program to collectivize agriculture was being resisted, sometimes violently. Tiring of the unceasing defiance, he ordered the Red army to seize every grain of the harvest of autumn and winter 1932 and to completely seal Ukraine’s border so no foodstuffs could enter Ukraine.
Furthermore, between 1934-1938, Stalin orchestrated a massive purge of Communist Party, members, the intelligentsia, and army officers whose loyalty to him he questioned. Some 13 million wee killed or sent to gulags. In the army the purge removed so many experienced officers that when the Nazis attacked in 1942, the Red army came perilously close to total collapse - which, had it happened, would have gone into history as one of the most egregious self-inflicted errors ever made in warfare. (As it was, the Russian people bolstered the army at both St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and Moscow against the efforts of the Nazi armies.)
In terms of the number of people killed, Stalin is surpassed only by Mao Ze-Dong. Again, excluding the lives lost in Mao’s military campaigns against the Chinese Nationalists and the Imperial Japanese army in the 1930s and 1940s, the Chinese civilian population endured three major assaults - the subjugation of Tibet (1949-50), the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), and the Cultural Revolution (1966- 1969) - that claimed as many as 1.2 million, 43 million and 7 million lives, respectively.
War, of course, offers the perfect counterpoint by which murders and revenge slayings among civilians are concealed. The world knows so much about the World War II Holocaust in part because the Germans kept meticulous records on the 6 million souls - Jews, ethnic Poles, Romas (gypsies), and “undesirables” - exterminated during the period 1938-1945.
In the Pacific, Japanese troops are believed to have killed 300,000 Chinese civilians and prisoners in six weeks (December 1937- February 1938) in what is called the “Rape of Nanking.” The broad consensus today holds that over the entire 1937-1945 time frame of significant combat in Asia, non-combatant deaths due to Japanese invasion, occupation, and execution is approximately 6.8 million.
(In 1984, UNESCO estimated the total number of civilian fatalities during 1937-1945 at between 21-27 million - nearly the same as military losses.)
The World War II examples share a common characteristic : both occurred within the conscious context of “low level” combat or preparation for escalating armed conflicts when tensions already would be high and moral restraints weakened. Yet while the deaths of 6 million at the hands of the Nazis earn the condemnation of “genocide” by ordinary men and women, of religious and secular leaders around the globe, most of the other atrocities - at least as they are spoken of and written about - do not carry the stigma of “genocide.”
Genocide : Avoiding the Specific (Turkey) While Condemning the Universal The Armenian genocide, for the Turks, arguably also shares this association with war and “defense of the nation-state” against internal subversion and should not be singled out as genocide. (The U.S. internment camps in World War II are a less drastic example of the same mind set.) As regrettable as the killings may be, the Turks see the deaths as part of the larger war they were waging against the imperial Russian army and, after Lenin’s successful revolution forced the new regime in St. Petersburg to withdraw its army, were still threatened by the new Communist regime.
The other and perhaps from the point of view of the Turkish people the more significant reason for rejecting these events as genocide is the belief that the reputation of Turkey’s “George Washington” - Ataturk - and through him the honor of the entire Turkish people would be sullied even though he did not emerge as the man in charge of the residual Ottoman empire until he led the opposition to the Sevres treaty during 19 20-1923..
In the end, the definition of “intent “ remains the key to unlocking the legalistic straightjacket into which we have tie ourselves by a misplaced sense of personal and national reputation, “honor,” and latent nationalism.
What we are left with is the observation by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart : “I know it when I see it.” But the world must look and not hide its head in the sand. And by the way, Congress may yet act on one or more of the pending pieces of legislation.
Colonel Daniel M. Smith graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1966. His initial assignment was with the 3rd Armor Division in Germany. He then served as an intelligence advisor in Vietnam, following which he earned a graduate degree at Cornell University and taught philosophy and English at West Point.
Subsequent intelligence and public affairs assignments were at Fort Hood, Texas ; the Army Materiel Research and Development Command, where he was speechwriter for the Commanding General ; the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) ; and Headquarters, Department of the Army. Six of his years with DIA were in London in the British Ministry of Defense and n as Military Attache in the U.S. Embassy. Colonel Smith retired in 1992. He joined the non-partisan Center for Defense Information in April 1993 becoming Associate Director in 1995 and Chief of Research in 1999.
Colonel Smith, a graduate of the Army Command and General Staff College, the Armed Forces Staff College, and the Army War College, joined the Friends Committee on National Legislation in September 2002 as Senior Fellow on Military Affairs.
CET ARTICLE VOUS A PLU ? POUR AIDER LE SITE A VIVRE...