Weekend Open Thread: 100th Anniversary of the 20th Century’s First of the Worst

100 years later: a genocide by any other name would smell as foul.

It started 100 years ago today; a genocide by any other name would still smell as foul.

The truth will make no one happy.  It may lead to a lot of heated comments here; that too will make no one happy but perhaps, fleetingly, their authors.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of what Armenians call “Red Sunday,” the day when (quoting from Wikipedia, with footnotes omitted):

the Ottoman government rounded up and imprisoned an estimated 250 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders of the Ottoman capital, Constantinople [now Istanbul], and later those in other centers, who were moved to two holding centers near Ankara. This date coincided with Allied troop landings at Gallipoli after unsuccessful Allied naval attempts to break through the Dardanelles to Constantinople in February and March 1915.

Following the passage of Tehcir Law on 29 May 1915, the Armenian leaders, except for the few who were able to return to Constantinople, were gradually deported and assassinated. The date April 24 is commemorated as Genocide Remembrance Day by Armenians around the world.

This marked the first act of both the Armenian Genocide and the Armenian Something Less Than Genocide. Which term someone uses depends largely upon the side of the conflict with which one identifies.  Neither term is really wrong; neither is really right; as with many other political disagreements, the term to be applied (or not) — “genocide” is a human and legal construct rather than something that is theoretically real and verifiable.

Here’s what’s real and verifiable: about 1.5 million Armenians died in this conflict near the end of the Ottoman Empire. Call it whatever else you will, you ought to call it that.

If the word “someone” up above refers to a country, where someone stands on the word “genocide” depends largely upon that country’s geopolitical alliances — more so with powerful NATO member Turkey than with less-powerful Armenia — and with its cultural affinities, mostly based upon its expatriate communities.  The article linked above noted that two prominent world leaders in particular visited Armenia today for the commemoration: France’s Francois Hollande and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

France, like California, has a sizable and politically influential community of Armenian descent.  Russia has little geopolitical use for Turkey and is happy to proclaim solidarity essentially upon religious lines, preferring Eastern Orthodox Christian Armenia to once-secular-but-now-less-so Muslim Turkey.  Armenia may be considered a bulwark against Muslim domination of the Caucuses, between the Black and the Caspian Seas, from which Russia perceives a continuing insurgent threat.

President Obama, meanwhile, is not attending the commemoration, despite his words remembering the massacres in sadness, but without using the magic word “genocide.”  The “magic” in the word is legal rather than occult; calling an act of widespread killing a “genocide” has significant repercussions according the international law.  The U.S. does not want to have to deal with those legal repercussions.  (Neither, it should go without saying, do the Turks.)

The argument made by Armenians — abstracted from the Wikipedia page on “Armenian Genocide” (and let the record show that in the Battle of Wikipedia (at least its English version) the Armenian forces have entirely routed those of any partisans of Turkey) — is reflected by the statement of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (about whose competence and impartiality in this area I have no personal knowledge, but I tend to credit them), that:

scholarly evidence revealed the “Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire began a systematic genocide of its Armenian citizens – an unarmed Christian minority population. More than a million Armenians were exterminated through direct killing, starvation, torture, and forced death marches”.

As for the contrary view, the Wikipedia page reports that:

The Republic of Turkey‘s formal stance is that the deaths of Armenians during the “relocation” or “deportation” cannot aptly be deemed “genocide”, a position that has been supported with a plethora of diverging justifications: that the killings were not deliberate or systematically orchestrated; that the killings were justified because Armenians posed a Russian-sympathizing threat as a cultural group; that the Armenians merely starved to death, or any of various characterizations referring to marauding “Armenian gangs.” Some suggestions seek to invalidate the genocide on semantic or anachronistic grounds (the word genocide was not coined until 1943). Turkish World War I casualty figures are often cited to mitigate the effect of the number of Armenian dead.

The word “genocide” was coined, in fact, in the midst of World War II, to refer to the widespread massacre of Armenians.  But it’s not the only, or even the primary, place to which the term is to at least some degree reasonably applied.  The prototypical one is the Holocaust, but that seems to be in part because it was more “theorized” than most others (as in: it was specifically intended to wipe certain biological characteristics out of the gene pool) and it was extremely purposeful, planned and systematic.  The status of these as defining characteristics — what King Leopold did to the then-Belgian Congo may not really pale just because of its sometimes improvisational and political and economic rather than scientific basis — is certainly up for dispute.

In the past century, we also have the examples of Hutus killing Tutsis (who were once better known hereabouts as “Watusis”) in Rwanda and Burundi; Serbian “ethnic cleansing” of Bosnians and other Muslims; East Timor; the Cambodian “auto-genocide”; other massive massacres in Sudan/Darfur and Zaire/Central African Republic; China’s Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward; the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; various acts of the Soviet Union in World War II; various acts against the Soviet Union in World War II; the Rape of Nanking; and more.  Beyond that, we have the Middle Passage, the war on Aboriginals in Australia, and the various Indian Wars here at home and their related slaughters in the Caribbean.  (Of course, Native Americans here and ethnicities like the Taino in the Caribbean often remind people that they were not in fact entirely wiped out; part of the problem with the word “genocide” is that it implies success where even the most grievous ones tend to be partial.  (“Tend to be” — not “are always.”)

An enormous volume of literature in both History and International Law has addressed defining features of “genocide.”  The Turkish government’s position noted above touches many of these bases:

  • the killings were not deliberate but (to whatever degree) incidental, as with social upheaval causing famine
    • note that this comes up with the Nazi Holocaust as well; remember, Anne Frank died of typhus.  It’s not a convincing argument, but reminds us that forcing people into squalor may be equivalent to killing them
  • the killings were not systematically orchestrated
  • the killings were justified on a grand scale (given Armenian sympathy for Russia)
  • the killings were justified on a small scale (those killed were dangerous, engaged in civil unrest)
  • the killings were done by others without government authorization
  • the killings were small in number compared to deaths of Turks

But it does not touch at least three:

  • the intent was not to wipe out a “genome,” an entire biologically-related population
  • many people were left alive because — as slaves, for example — they were useful if “pacified”
  • the sheer number of killings was not enough to qualify as a genocide

(The third argument, at least, would be a hard one for the Turkish government to make.)

For what it’s worth, my opinion is that the Armenian protesters are pretty much right but that the American position of not acknowledging the rightness of the claim is pretty much reasonable, so long as we also focus upon the horrific facts of what happens.  Turkey is way way better than it was when I was growing up, when “Turkish prison” was about the worst thing you could wish upon someone, and there’s some sense in throwing a bone to the government rather than empowering its worst nationalists, who would like among other things to commit what would be an arguable genocide against the Kurds.  (By the way, Armenian nationalists often hate the Kurds too.  Present day Armenia is not historic Armenia, which was located within eastern Turkey — and much of it overlaps with the would-be country of Kurdistan.  This is messy, messy stuff and I tend to subordinate the symbolic to the practical effect of more and worse wars.)

We need to educate ourselves about genocide on this day.  But the other thing we should do on this day, and let’s make it all future anniversaries of this day is to self-reflect — seek “the log in our own eye” — and recognize our country’s own role in genocide.  For us, the major problems to contend with are Native Americans (whom we did, by and large, try to wipe out, in terms that make the slaughter of Armenians look like a comparative blip) and African Americans, who were not truly subjected to genocide because this country wanted them to be alive — as slaves, servants, and serfs.)

So let’s start easy with what is literally one of the classics.  The Moro people, the mostly Muslim indigenous people of Southern Philippines (primarily the large island of Mindonao, where our military still operates), have long been a thorn in the side of the U.S. ever since we first tried to subjugate them.  So tell me: is what Mark Twain describes below a genocide?  Or does it fall short solely on the criterion that not it wasn’t big enough to qualify?  Was it simply too small to be the 20th Century’s “First of the Worst”?

As I want to let Twain have the last word, I’ll sign off now by reminding you that this is your Weekend Open Thread, and you can talk about this or whatever else you’d like within reasonable bounds of decency and decorum.


Comments on the Moro Massacre 


 Mark Twain (March 12, 1906)

This incident burst upon the world last Friday in an official cablegram from the commander of our forces in the Philippines to our Government at Washington. The substance of it was as follows: A tribe of Moros, dark-skinned savages, had fortified themselves in the bowl of an extinct crater not many miles from Jolo; and as they were hostiles, and bitter against us because we have been trying for eight years to take their liberties away from them, their presence in that position was a menace. Our commander, Gen. Leonard Wood, ordered a reconnaissance. It was found that the Moros numbered six hundred, counting women and children; that their crater bowl was in the summit of a peak or mountain twenty-two hundred feet above sea level, and very difficult of access for Christian troops and artillery. Then General Wood ordered a surprise, and went along himself to see the order carried out. Our troops climbed the heights by devious and difficult trails, and even took some artillery with them. The kind of artillery is not specified, but in one place it was hoisted up a sharp acclivity by tackle a distance of some three hundred feet. Arrived at the rim of the crater, the battle began. Our soldiers numbered five hundred and forty. They were assisted by auxiliaries consisting of a detachment of native constabulary in our pay — their numbers not given — and by a naval detachment, whose numbers are not stated. But apparently the contending parties were about equal as to number — six hundred men on our side, on the edge of the bowl; six hundred men, women and children in the bottom of the bowl. Depth of the bowl, 50 feet.

Gen. Wood’s order was, “Kill or capture the six hundred.”

The battle began-it is officially called by that name-our forces firing down into the crater with their artillery and their deadly small arms of precision; the savages furiously returning the fire, probably with brickbats-though this is merely a surmise of mine, as the weapons used by the savages are not nominated in the cablegram. Heretofore the Moros have used knives and clubs mainly; also ineffectual trade-muskets when they had any.

The official report stated that the battle was fought with prodigious energy on both sides during a day and a half, and that it ended with a complete victory for the American arms. The completeness of the victory for the American arms. The completeness of the victory is established by this fact: that of the six hundred Moros not one was left alive. The brilliancy of the victory is established by this other fact, to wit: that of our six hundred heroes only fifteen lost their lives.

General Wood was present and looking on. His order had been. “Kill or capture those savages.” Apparently our little army considered that the “or” left them authorized to kill or capture according to taste, and that their taste had remained what it has been for eight years, in our army out there – the taste of Christian butchers.

The official report quite properly extolled and magnified the “heroism” and “gallantry” of our troops; lamented the loss of the fifteen who perished, and elaborated the wounds of thirty-two of our men who suffered injury, and even minutely and faithfully described the nature of the wounds, in the interest of future historians of the United States. It mentioned that a private had one of his elbows scraped by a missile, and the private’s name was mentioned. Another private had the end of his nose scraped by a missile. His name was also mentioned – by cable, at one dollar and fifty cents a word.

Next day’s news confirmed the previous day’s report and named our fifteen killed and thirty-two wounded again, and once more described the wounds and gilded them with the right adjectives.

Let us now consider two or three details of our military history. In one of the great battles of the Civil War ten per cent. Of the forces engaged on the two sides were killed and wounded. At Waterloo, where four hundred thousand men were present on the two sides, fifty thousand fell, killed and wounded, in five hours, leaving three hundred and fifty thousand sound and all right for further adventures. Eight years ago, when the pathetic comedy called the Cuban War was played, we summoned two hundred and fifty thousand men. We fought a number of showy battles, and when the war was over we had lost two hundred and sixty-eight men out of our two hundred and fifty thousand, in killed and wounded in the field, and just fourteen times as many by the gallantry of the army doctors in the hospitals and camps. We did not exterminate the Spaniards — far from it. In each engagement we left an average of two per cent. of the enemy killed or crippled on the field.

Contrast these things with the great statistics which have arrived from
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that Moro crater! There, with six hundred engaged on each side, we lost fifteen men killed outright, and we had thirty-two wounded-counting that nose and that elbow. The enemy numbered six hundred — including women and children — and we abolished them utterly, leaving not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother. This is incomparably the greatest victory that was ever achieved by the Christian soldiers of the United States.

Now then, how has it been received? The splendid news appeared with splendid display-heads in every newspaper in this city of four million and thirteen thousand inhabitants, on Friday morning. But there was not a single reference to it in the editorial columns of any one of those newspapers. The news appeared again in all the evening papers of Friday, and again those papers were editorially silent upon our vast achievement. Next day’s additional statistics and particulars appeared in all the morning papers, and still without a line of editorial rejoicing or a mention of the matter in any way. These additions appeared in the evening papers of that same day (Saturday) and again without a word of comment. In the columns devoted to correspondence, in the morning and evening papers of Friday and Saturday, nobody said a word about the “battle.” Ordinarily those columns are teeming with the passions of the citizen; he lets no incident go by, whether it be large or small, without pouring out his praise or blame, his joy or his indignation about the matter in the correspondence column. But, as I have said, during those two days he was as silent as the editors themselves. So far as I can find out, there was only one person among our eighty millions who allowed himself the privilege of a public remark on this great occasion — that was the President of the United States. All day Friday he was as studiously silent as the rest. But on Saturday he recognized that his duty required him to say something, and he took his pen and performed that duty. If I know President Roosevelt — and I am sure I do — this utterance cost him more pain and shame than any other that ever issued from his pen or his mouth. I am far from blaming him. If I had been in his place my official duty would have compelled me to say what he said. It was a convention, an old tradition, and he had to be loyal to it. There was no help for it. This is what he said:

Washington, March 10. Wood, Manila:- I congratulate you and the officers and men of your command upon the
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brilliant feat of arms wherein you and they so well upheld the honor of the American flag. (Signed) Theodore Roosevelt.

His whole utterance is merely a convention. Not a word of what he said came out of his heart. He knew perfectly well that to pen six hundred helpless and weaponless savages in a hole like rats in a trap and massacre them in detail during a stretch of a day and a half, from a safe position on the heights above, was no brilliant feat of arms – and would not have been a brilliant feat of arms even if Christian America, represented by its salaried soldiers, had shot them down with Bibles and the Golden Rule instead of bullets. He knew perfectly well that our uniformed assassins had not upheld the honor of the American flag, but had done as they have been doing continuously for eight years in the Philippines – that is to say, they had dishonored it.

The next day, Sunday, — which was yesterday — the cable brought us additional news – still more splendid news — still more honor for the flag. The first display-head shouts this information at us in the stentorian capitals: “WOMEN SLAIN MORO SLAUGHTER.”

“Slaughter” is a good word. Certainly there is not a better one in the Unabridged Dictionary for this occasion

The next display line says:

“With Children They Mixed in Mob in Crater, and All Died Together.”

They were mere naked savages, and yet there is a sort of pathos about it when that word children falls under your eye, for it always brings before us our perfectest symbol of innocence and helplessness; and by help of its deathless eloquence color, creed and nationality vanish away and we see only that they are children — merely children. And if they are frightened and crying and in trouble, our pity goes out to them by natural impulse. We see a picture. We see the small forms. We see the terrified faces. We see the tears. We see the small hands clinging in supplication to the mother; but we do not see those children that we are speaking about. We see in their places the little creatures whom we know and love.

The next heading blazes with American and Christian glory like to the sun in the zenith:

“Death List is Now 900.”

I was never so enthusiastically proud of the flag till now!

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)