One stares in dumb amazement at the war front because, incredibly, frontpage news in the past few days has had to do with what did or did not happen almost a hundred years ago. More exactly, what should what happened a hundred years ago be called?
The quarrel, put simply, is over the question, What do we call what was done to the Armenians by the Turks in the early years of World War I? The matter of interest is the persecution of the Armenians by the Young Turks and ancillaries in the final days of the Ottoman Empire, when the map of the Middle East was changing.
The dispute hit the front pages when a congressional resolution affirming that the events of 1915–1917 constituted genocide appeared likely to pass in the House of Representatives. The Turkish government reacted strongly, and President Bush urged Congress not to drive this wedge between the United States and an important ally in the region.
It may be of historical terminological interest what to call the Young Turks’ action. But it is worthwhile to remember that it has been dubbed a “genocide” for many years, even though there has been technical resistance to the use of the holy word. A Polish-born lawyer named Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” in 1943. “I became interested in genocide,” he said, “because it happened so many times.” His writings before World War II had concentrated heavily on the events in Armenia. More than one international organization has conducted studies of those events, each in turn determining that the term “genocide” accurately describes what has also been called a “massacre.”
True, Lemkin did not have dispositive authority on the correct use of the word, and after the Nazi Holocaust became widely known, there were those who insisted that the Turkish holocaust should not be thought a member of the same family. Their point has been that Hitler’s war against the Jews was ethnic and cultural, while the Turkish assault on the Armenians had to do with more conventional geopolitical issues. The Turks themselves contended that the Armenians were a fifth column working on behalf of the Russian Empire.
The questions are not uninteresting, but that they should have a bearing on the Iraq war seems strange until one studies the geography of the region. The interfaces are in the northeastern part of Iraq, the area known as South Kurdistan. There we have an irredentist passion among some Kurdish militants to sever formal ties to the government of Iraq, in favor of a new-old nation unified by cultural and historical factors. And, not incidentally, by physical control of rich oil deposits.
The Turks do not wish a new state bulging up between them and Iraq — especially because their own Kurds would surely be emboldened if the Iraqi Kurds were successful. The situation could get “ugly,” one U.S. military officer is quoted as saying, if Turkey were to send troops across the border to deal with Kurdish militants inside Iraq. It was into this tense situation that the House resolution erupted. Every day one member of Congress or another associates himself with, or dissociates himself from, the resolution classifying as genocidal the Turkish activity of 90 years ago.
We are asked to believe that the Turkish high command judges it more important to resist such classification affirmed by an ally than to pursue the common aims in the region. On the moral point, there is no way in which Turkey can advance its credentials by trivializing what in fact was done to the Armenians, more than 1 million of them having been killed, allowed to starve, or exiled. But this ought not to be a quarrel that affects contemporary points of contention in Iraq. Those who linger with the muse of Clio are giving no aid whatever to the dead Armenians, but are jeopardizing our Iraq enterprise by provoking Turkish hubris.
The implications of this breach are horrendous. Turkey is a NATO power, and if it were to act singularly it would damage a military-political venture in which the United States — the father and mainstay of NATO — is engaged at high pitch.
It is almost always relevant to ask the classical question, Cui bono? Who stands to gain?
No postmortem aid to the dead Armenians is in prospect. On the other hand, the Turks can’t permanently commandeer the historical classification of actions by one state against a cultural or ethnic minority. So is it a matter of pride?
We are constantly being told about the high-octane pride of Turks, Kurds, Iraqis, whomever. Is the congressional resolution simply an exercise in American pride?
© 2007 Universal Press Syndicate