The hypocrisy of the US Congress's cynical manipulation of the Armenian genocide is a slur on the memories of those who perished.
Nearly a century after the event, the US Congress is debating whether to label as “genocide” the crimes committed against the Armenians during the World War I.
From a historical perspective, this is unnecessary. There is a general consensus among non-Turkish historians that there was an Armenian genocide and that it must count as one of the worst crimes against humanity in modern times. In fact, the very term “genocide” was coined by the Polish legal scholar Raphael Lemkin to describe the massacres of Armenians and Assyrians.
Estimates vary as to exactly how many Armenians were killed by the ultra-nationalist Young Turks regime, with the collaboration of the Kurds, between 1914 and 1918. The final death toll was anywhere between 500,000 and 1.5 million out of two million Armenians in the Ottoman empire.
Unlike the Jewish Holocaust during the World War II, the outside world was well aware of the extent of the horror as it occurred. US diplomats, for example, often risked their lives to document what was happening. But the world did nothing.
Although many of the leaders who ordered the slaughter were court-martialled by the Ottomans and the international community in the immediate wake of the war, the issue slipped into collective international amnesia.
The victorious powers were silenced by their inaction to protect the Armenians and their efforts to carve up the defeated Ottoman empire and bring the modern Turkish state into the western fold. For its part, Turkey, motivated by shame and national pride, took the classic imperial line of downplaying the nature of the crime and sweeping the question under the carpet.
Several historians believe that Hitler was emboldened in his designs to exterminate the Jews by the international apathy towards the plight of the Armenians. When discussing the situation of the Poles with his generals in 1939, he is reported to have asked rhetorically: “Who, after all, is today speaking of the destruction of the Armenians?”
So, given this tragic chapter in history, should we applaud this belated attempt to recognise the Armenian genocide?
“I am a bit conflicted [and] a bit ambivalent about it,” confesses Jeff Sommers, an American historian. “On one level, it would be heartening to have the world's most powerful nation stand up against genocide… [However], the US has a history of condemning such crimes when they no longer impinge on its immediate interests.”
Personally, I find this belated bid to frame a resolution an insult to the memories of those who perished. It strikes me as a cynical attempt both to appeal to the American-Armenian vote and to undermine the Bush administration by stirring up a crisis with a staunch American ally, Turkey.
“The resolution on Armenia is interesting in that it has revealed the conflict between US realpolitik considerations and that of well-organised nationalist communities using the US government to advance their agendas,” Sommers observes.
I can understand why Congress, or any other national parliament, may condemn an ongoing atrocity in order to pave the way for international action to stem it. But what is the point of voting on a historic injustice, especially since today's citizens cannot be held directly accountable for the sins of their ancestors? And if Congress plans retroactively to pass a resolution, should it then not, out of decency, apologise for having not acted to arrest the killing at the time?
On a more fundamental level, millions of people around the world will view this display of self-righteous indignation as bitterly ironic and hypocritical. In fact, what has Congress's record been on homegrown atrocities? “The Congress really has not much addressed these issues,” Sommers says, citing as an example: “Little has been done with the issue of slavery.”
A native American living on an “out of sight, out of mind” desert reservation may wonder when Congress will turn its ire to the almost wholesale destruction of the indigenous population – viewed by many historians as the most successful genocide ever. Although today's Americans are not directly accountable for this, they are responsible for addressing the modern consequences of this historic crime.
“Native Americans have been treated shamefully. They exist on the margins of American life with the highest rates of drug abuse/alcoholism, high mortality rates, and most social pathologies resulting from being marginalised,” Sommers describes.
To address possible allegations of digging up ancient history, let's look at the 20th and 21st century. Many Americans I have talked to about the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing the instantaneous slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians, justify it as “unavoidable” and, employing some gory and questionable arithmetic, actually have the boldness to claim that it saved notional lives.
But with Japan faltering on the verge of defeat after a major Soviet offensive, this seems highly improbable and many senior US army officials at the time condemned the planned atomic bombing as unnecessary and barbaric. “Soviet and US weaponry was too advanced in 1945 and the Japanese too weak to present much formal military resistance. Moreover, significant factions within the Japanese establishment were seeking surrender before the bombs were dropped,” Sommers notes.
He goes on to add that: “Foreign policy-makers, especially secretary of state James Byrnes, wanted to teach the Soviets a lesson… about US strength,” sparking the nuclear arms race in the process.
In 1995, then president Bill Clinton refused, point blank, the notion of apologising for the nuclear atrocity. He also refused to apologise for the Vietnam war, during which more than 1.5 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans combatants were killed, and between a million and 5 million civilians died. One wonders whether Congress's notion of morality will prompt it to apologise for the hell it has unleashed in Iraq.
I must stress that I'm not singling out America as unique in this regard. Many countries, particularly former imperial powers, have ugly skeletons in their closets. For instance, I found France's decision, in 2006, to outlaw denial of the Armenian genocide hypocritical and against the spirit of free speech. What about the atrocities committed by France in Algeria and Indochina, among others? Has France come to terms with those?
Japan has also failed to recognise the crimes against humanity it committed in World War II, while Britain downplays or ignores its own colonial atrocities in Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent.
Some may ask what's the harm in a country condemning the crimes against humanity committed by others, even if it fails to come to terms with its own? Isn't that, at least, a start? In my view, the danger in this is that the dizzying heights of the moral high ground tend to distort a country's self-image, leading it to believe it is more noble and the rest of the world less so. The classic modern manifestation of this is America's image of itself as a benign power and a light unto the nations. If there were more honesty and self-appraisal, then the deadly folly of Iraq may never have happened.
“I think Americans were more independent-minded and less trusting of power…. Much effort, and most of it successful, was put into creating consent after the second world war for the new permanent military industrial complex and Cold War,” Sommers observes. On the upside: “Some 30 years of neo-liberalism and increased insecurity, however, is undoing much of this former consent for the exercise of US power.”
The same distorted self-image applies to a lesser degree in Britain. The British people, to their credit, seem to be more aware of their country's less-than-honourable past than their leaders, and that would partly explain why there was such overwhelming public opposition to war in Iraq.
Nevertheless, while the public has lost its appetite for war, Blair and accomplices seemed eager to relive gory past glory. Had they bothered to read the disastrous history of British involvement in Mesopotamia following the first world war, perhaps they would have been less eager to hop on board the American warship.
Turkey, too, needs to recognise the crimes committed during the break-up of the Ottoman empire and the ugly form of Turkish ultra-nationalism it spawned. This should be done through historical dialogue and debate both within Turkey and with the outside world. Brave voices, such as the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk and several historians, are defying the law prohibiting the description of what happened to the Armenians as genocide. The next step is to push Turkey to scrap that law and begin an honest process of national soul searching.
Germany is perhaps the only country that has truly come to terms with its ugly past and that is why it is highly unlikely that it will ever engage in such destructive folly again. Others could learn from Germany's example.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 15 October 2007.