Sunday, April 24th marked the 90th anniversary of the first genocide of the twentieth century: the Turkish government's slaughter of over a million unarmed Armenians. The key word is "unarmed."
The Turks got away with it under the cover of wartime. They suffered no greater postwar reprisals for this act of genocide than if they had not conducted mass murder of a peaceful people.
Other governments soon took note of this fact. It seemed like such a convenient international precedent.
Seventy-nine years after that genocide began, Hotel Rwanda opened for business.
The Hutus also got away with it. Ironically, at least a decade before — I wish I could remember the date — Harper's ran an article predicting this genocide for this reason: the Hutus had machine guns. The Tutsis didn't. The article was written as a kind of parable, not a politically specific forecast. I remember reading it at the time and thinking, "If I were a Tutsi, I'd emigrate."
It did not pay to be a civilian in the twentieth century. The odds were against you.
BAD NEWS FOR CIVILIANS
The twentieth century, more than any century in recorded history, was the century of man's inhumanity to man. A memorable phrase, that. But it is misleading. It should be modified: "Governments' inhumanity to unarmed civilians." In the case of genocide, however, this is not easily dismissed as collateral damage on a wartime enemy. It is deliberate extermination.
The twentieth century began officially on January 1, 1901. At that time, one major war was in full swing, so let us begin with it. That was the United States' war against the Philippines, whose citizens had the naïve notion that liberation from Spain did not imply colonization by the United States. McKinley and then Roosevelt sent 126,000 troops to the Philippines to teach them a lesson in modern geopolitics. We had bought the Philippines fair and square from Spain for $20 million in December, 1898. The fact that the Philippines had declared independence six months earlier was irrelevant. A deal's a deal. Those being purchased had nothing to say about it.
Back then, we did body counts of enemy combatants. The official estimate was 16,000 dead. Some unofficial estimates place this closer to 20,000. As for civilians, then as now, there were no official U.S.-reported figures. The low-ball estimate is 250,000 dead. The high estimate is one million.
Then World War I opened the floodgates — or, more accurately, the bloodgates.
The diplomatic game is always verbal. The G-word is verboten. Turks accept — though resent — "tragedy." Hence, all official reports from government-funded sources all over the world — except Armenia — refer to the "Armenian tragedy." This game of diplomacy has been going on since the end of World War I. Reagan was the only President to have used the correct term. President Bush diplomatically used "mass killings" in his a 2003 reference to the event. He also referred to "what many Armenian people have come to call the ‘Great Calamity.'" Many Armenians call it this? Really? Name two. He also said:
I also salute our wise and bold friends from Armenia and Turkey who are coming together in a spirit of reconciliation to consider these events and their significance. I applaud them for rising above bitterness, and taking action to create a better future. I wish them success, building on their recent and significant achievements, as they work together in a spirit of hope and understanding.
Again, name two.
Not being even remotely diplomatic in matters genocidal, I prefer to use the dreaded G-word. The Armenian genocide of 1915 had been preceded by a partial ethnic cleansing, which took two years, 1895—97. About 200,000 Armenians were executed.
This event served as the background for Elia Kazan's great movie, America, America (1963), which was nominated for the Oscar in 1964. Kazan tells a fictionalized version of his Greek uncle's emigration to America. Kazan's family followed in 1913. The movie begins with a Greek and an Armenian, friends, who are warned by their former military officer, a Turk, of trouble coming. It comes. Turkish officials lock the Armenian along with other Armenians inside a church. Then they burn it down. The Greek sees this. He vows to get out of the Ottoman Empire and go to America. The movie traces his journey. America was a sanctuary. If ever there was a movie on America, the sanctuary, it's America, America.
The Armenians were easily identifiable. Centuries earlier, the conquering Ottoman Turks had forced them to add the "ian/yan" sound to their last names. They were dispersed throughout the empire, so they did not possess the same kind of geographical concentrations and strongholds that other Christians did in Greece and the Balkans. They never did organize armed resistance forces. That was what led to their destruction. They could not fight back.
They were envied because they were rich and better educated than the ruling society. They were the businessmen of the Ottoman Empire. The same was true in Russia. The same resentment existed in Russia, though not with the intensity of the resentment in Turkey.
Non-Turkish estimates range from 800,000 to 1.5 million Armenians killed. Most of these deaths were low-tech but high efficiency. The army rounded up hundreds or thousands of civilians, drove them into wilderness areas, and waited until they starved to death.