Chaotic Consequences: Now & Then

Islamic State militias rampage through parts of Syria and Iraq in recent months, staking claims to this section of land or that town. The militias say they act in God’s name.

Chaos ensues. The refugees run or paddle to places where families can live without the constant threat of rape, starvation, or death. Hordes of Syrians and others caught in the conflict have attempted to flee through Turkey or across the Mediterranean Sea. Many have drowned in their attempt to escape. Meanwhile, smugglers squeeze profit off the desperate and destitute.

But remember all this suffering was caused in God’s name. Really? Does God have anything to do with the actions of the Islamic State? Maybe the chaos is the consequence of efforts to line the pockets of the proponents of a particular segment of the followers of Islam.

We, in North America, recognize this motivation. It has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with mankind’s prominent sin, greed.

Chaos as a consequence of misaligned motivations is nothing new. In the late fall of 1914, Enver Pasha, the Minister of War of the Ottoman Empire, chose to pick a fight with Russia in the Caucasus Mountains. Since the proposed line of battle was hundreds of miles from a rail line, adequate roads, or completed bridges, Enver conscripted thousands of Armenians from all over the Empire to function as porters, transporting supplies for his army (See my February 22, 2013 posting, Dreams of an Empire Lost in Snow: Armenians the Scape Goats.). Enver re-conscripted Armenian men who had previously served in the army. Enver stripped Armenian colleges and universities of their young men, effectively closing them.

Lugging huge loads, the Armenian ‘donkeys’ were treated worse than the Turkish officers’ mounts. Some never reached the ultimate destination, dying en route. Bivouacked in the open, without winter clothing or adequate food supplies, many of the Armenian porters froze, starved, or died from typhus.

In early December of 1914, snow buried the Caucasus Mountains. Yet Enver chose to engage the Russian army. He claimed that a victory would return the Ottoman Empire to its former glory. Hmm. Greed again? Misaligned nationalism? In any case the result was that Enver lost the battle and 85% of his army. Consequence? Chaos. It was every man, soldier, or porter, for himself. No organized retreat. One by one those who survived trickled home. For some, it took a month to get there.

Yet Enver survived–and who did he blame for the lost battle and ensuing chaos? Himself? Oh, no. His Armenian porters, insisting he and Talaat, the Minister of the Interior, had adequate excuse for the 1915 genocide of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire that he and Talaat had been planning for over a year.



Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it (excerpt #6)

In this historical fiction, two teenage girls Annie and Nazli are the main characters. At the age of thirteen, Annie, the eldest daughter of an Armenian family, has to make a difficult choice. Her parents have contacted one of her father’s cousins in America. That cousin’s son Petros has sent a proposal of marriage to Annie. As she holds the fifteen year old boy’s photo in her hand, she realizes that accepting his proposal will mean leaving Turkey and everything and everyone she knows. She will probably never see her family again. So she hesitates, then makes her decision.

“Before a week had passed, I said yes to Petros in America. One would think I’d said, “Gallop on,” to a bit-chomping horse, our family got so caught up in a flurry of activities.

First came the all important inspection of the potential bride’s home. Although every Armenian girl went through this, I was a bundle of nerves.

Shoshanna, Uncle Dikran’s wife, came on behalf of Petros’ mother. During an afternoon visit over tea and cakes, my aunt periodically got up and ran her white-gloved fingers over a centimeter here, and a centimeter there. She checked the furniture, the floor, the window sills, door frames, and kitchen utensils, pots, and jars. She even checked the rolled up sleeping mats, and the pile carpets, divan cushions, and the kilim wall hangings in the sitting room.

Of course, Aunt Shoshanna had warned my mayrig of the visit several days ahead of time. In preparation for my aunt’s coming, I had wiped, beat, and scrubbed everything spotless. To be considered marriageable, I didn’t have to know how to cook. But I was expected to know how to clean a house!

Much to my relief, Aunt Shoshanna’s gloves remained white. We had her approval for my marriage to Petros.”

Annie’s Turkish friend Nazli views the Armenian process of an arranged marriage as romantic. Nazli shares her belief with Annie that she is one lucky girl to get a proposal from a handsome boy from a wealthy family. (All Americans, especially Armenians in America, are of course rich, aren’t they?)

Annie’s parents have a more important reason for reaching across the seas. They are desperate to protect Annie from being  forced into a Muslim home. They have searched through family connections to find a young man who, among other criteria, is an evangelical Christian. What these Armenian parents would not be able to anticipate is how fortuitous their choice turns out to be. In less than a year, their family life in central Turkey comes apart at the seams due to edits from Talaat, Ottoman Turkey’s Minister of the Interior in 1915.

Dreams of an Empire Lost in Snow: Armenians the Scape Goat

Most North Americans view the rise of nationalism as a good thing. After all, without the spirit of nationalism growing in the thirteen English colonies along the eastern coast of North America, there would have been no United States of America.

The spirit of nationalism that grew in Ottoman Turkey, however, took a twisted turn for the worse at the beginning of World War I. As was mentioned in the previous post, the Turkish government gathered, trained, and armed militias formed from released convicts, Rumelian refugees from Thrace, and the Kurds of the Anatolian Plains in the autumn of 1914. In December of 1914, the Ottoman government joined the war in Europe on the side of Germany.

That same autumn, the Ottoman government conscripted Greeks and Armenians. Men from the ages of 20 to 45 went into the Turkish army. Boys from the ages of 15 to 20 and men from the ages of 45 to 60 were assigned to be porters for the army or labor battalions for road construction. Armenian colleges were stripped of their male students.

The Armenian men and boys, who served as porters to carry the supplies of the army, were driven with whips like pack animals. A group of three hundred were driven from Moush to the Russian frontier in the Caucasus Mountain. During the three-week journey thirty or forty porters died before they even got to their destination (2006, A Shameful Act:  The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility).

Enver Pasha, the Young Turks’ Minister of War, left Constantinople on December 6, 1914, to take command of the Third Army. The Ottoman government’s propagandist Zia Gokalp promoted  a Turkic empire that stretched from Anatolia through the Transcaucasia to central Asia (Black Dog of Fate:  A Memoir). Minister Enver and his army corps were bent on accomplishing just that.

Enver’s decision to attack Russia as soon as the Ottoman government entered the world war proved to be a horrible miscalculation. The battle front was six hundred miles from the nearest railhead; bridges were in disrepair; the journey took six weeks; and early snowstorms blocked mountain passes. To make matters worse troops and porters in summer uniforms were bivouacked without tents in -30 degree F weather. Food ran out. An epidemic of typhus hit troops and porters hard. The artillery had to be abandoned because of the deep snow; sections of the Turkish army lost contact with each other; and units got lost in the mountain passes.

Even then, Enver ordered a surprise attack on Sarikamish (a Russian base). The Russians destroyed the Turkish army. Out of approximately one hundred thousand men, eighty-six percent were lost (1989, A Peace to End All Peace). The few who survived straggled back home in January of 1915.

Ripples from this disaster extended for months to come. With few Armenian men to harvest the 1914 crops and many horses or donkeys drafted from across Anatolia for the attack on the Russians, cereal acreage was cut 50%, prices rose eventually to one thousand six hundred seventy-five percent, and famine stalked the land (A Peace to End All Peace).

In early January of 1915, a rumor spread from Constantinople that accused the Armenians of causing the Turkish army to lose the battle at Sarikamish. The Ottoman government encouraged the Kurdish militias, the Hamidiye, to attack Armenian villages. The Kurds destroyed fifty-two of them the winter of 1914 – 1915 (p. 139, A Peace to End All Peace). On February 25, 1915, a firman (edit) signed by Minister of War Enver ordered that all Armenians be disarmed. This order included those serving in the army and those serving as gendarmes, the local police units of towns.

The Armenians’ service to their country counted for nothing. Their loss as soldiers in battle or as porters from overwork, starvation, inclement weather, or disease made the next move that much easier for the Young Turks who had control of the Ottoman government.  

In 1915, Minister of the Interior Talaat stepped forward with his own twist on nationalism. Although the Ottoman Empire had included many people groups, languages, and religions for centuries and the Young Turks had promised equal rights for all, they actually had a totally different agenda. What they really wanted and planned for was a Turkey only for Turks. No one else (A Peace to End All Peace). Armenians and Greeks were to be eliminated. Kurds were to be forcibly assimilated (p. 105, 1996, A Modern History of the Kurds).

Government: one by election, another by appointment

We North Americans have grown up with the concept that governments can only govern if elected by the people being governed. In fact, the U.S.A. just completed an election of a president and many members of the senate or the house of representatives at both the state and federal levels of government.

Historically, however, government by election is a rather recent phenomenon. In many countries (even in this twenty-first century), an elected government hasn’t ever existed. The men with the most weapons and political power set up whatever government has suited their purposes. 

A case in point was the government of Ottoman Turkey. About forty years before Columbus bumped into the Americas, the Byzantine Empire lost Constantinople, their capital city, to the Osman (Ottoman) Turkish Army and its Sultan Mehmed. Shortly after 1453, government by appointment began in Ottoman Turkey. The Sultan appointed whomever he wanted as governor for each province. No governor served for life. A Sultan could remove or transfer his appointees at will.

Once the Young Turks grabbed the power in the Ottoman Empire away from the Sultan in Constantinople early in the twentieth century, government by appointment took a disastrous turn. If a governor refused to do the bidding of Talaat, the Minister of the Interior, he didn’t just remove or transfer the recalcitrant appointee. Talaat had the man arrested, transported elsewhere, and often executed. One can well imagine the terror that descended on the remaining appointees, whether a governor of a province or a mayor of a city or town. Rule by threat of extermination was in full force by May of 1915.

Talaat’s merciless treatment of his underlings infused the Turkish government from top to bottom with fear and made obedience to his extreme dictates more likely between March and August of 1915. Because the world was deep into WWI at the time, Talaat believed no one outside of Turkey would notice.