Beware of economists (and historians) – connecting Anzacs and Armenians

My home country, New Zealand, was privileged last week to be visited by an eminent historian from the United States. Professor Jay Winter teaches at Yale University, and is said to be an authority on the First World War,

Well he had nice but sad things to say about New Zealand’s contribution to that horrendous conflict. It seems servicemen from my country died in greater numbers relative to population than those of any other combatant nation – a dubious honour, you’d have to think. Does that make our boys braver, more stupid, or just unlucky?


Quite a few Indians were sent too, apparently, to “defend” the Empire

In the interview I read, Prof. Winter then proceeded to devote a lot of words to making a connection between New Zealand’s joining the ill-fated Gallipoli invasion, and another tragedy of the “Great” War, the deaths of thousands of Armenian civilians. The link is the date: 24 April is when Armenians remember the day in 1915 when their ancestors in SE Anatolia were rounded up by the Ottoman government and forced to “relocate” to what is now Syria, a lot of them dying on the way. On 25 April in the same year, the British Empire, following a plan championed by War Minister, Winston Churchill, landed on the beaches of the Gallipoli Peninsula in a vain attempt to take the Ottoman Empire out of the war.

Prof Winter seems to think he has found something very new and exciting, as every academic dreams of doing. Possibly in his professional writing he actually does manage to make some hitherto unnoticed link that will shine the unequivocal light of day on matters that remain highly contentious. After all, says the learned prof, “Historians are in the truth business.”

Naturally, historians, jealous of their professional reputation, would like to think so – but the sad reality is that history, like economics, is a social science, lending itself to interpretation according to the particular political or ideological lens one uses to view the “facts”. Prof Winter gives a clue to his real purpose in visiting NZ when he suggests that the country’s new “Labour” government may be amenable to joining the ranks of other self-righteous nations that have officially designated the Armenian tragedy “a genocide”, for which the modern Republic of Turkey should be held responsible.


Genocidal violence with a smiley face

He may be right. Self-styled left-wing parties in the wealthy First World, bereft of ideas for actually changing anything important in the lives of the planet’s 99%, tend to offer crumbs of trendy, fashionable issues to their diminishing ranks of supporters. Barack Obama, in his original presidential campaign, wooed the Armenian lobby, but changed tack later, for reasons best known to himself.

Wiser heads may win the day in NZ too, and not simply because they fear that offending Turkey may earn their globe-trotting citizens a chillier welcome on their annual pilgrimage to Anzac Cove on 25 April.

However sincere Prof Winter may be in his search for truth, certain aspects of this interview gave me cause for concern. First, it appeared on News Hub, a NZ news service that airs on TV Three and radio stations run by MediaWorks. A little digging turned up the interesting fact that MediaWorks is a New Zealand-based television, radio and interactive media company entirely owned by Oaktree Capital Management. And Oaktree Capital Management, according to Wikipedia, “is an American global asset management firm specialising in alternative investment strategies. It is the largest distressed investor in the world, and one of the largest credit investors in the world.”

Nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course. Everyone has to make a living, and I’m sorry to hear those guys are distressed. However, the page where that interview appeared contained a link to another article praising “a young Kiwi historian” James Robins, who is apparently “grappl[ing] with the fact that no New Zealand Government has ever formally recognised the genocide of Armenians”. Mr Robins’s “grappling” is supported by a “genocide expert”, Maria Amoudian, and an American heavy metal musician Serj Tankian.


Genocidal violence with a grumpy face

In the interests of academic objectivity, we might want to also take a look at the work of researchers with less obvious connections to the Armenian diaspora.

One such is Edward J Erickson, a retired regular US Army officer at the Marine Corps University in Virginia, recognised as an authority on the Ottoman Army during the First World War. He makes some interesting points in a paper entitled “The Armenian Relocations and OttomanNational Security: Military Necessity or Excuse for Genocide?” I’m quoting a chunk from it, but you really need to read the whole document. It’s only 8 pages long.

“The historical context that led to the events of 1915 is crucial for understanding the framework within which the relocation decision was cast. There are four main historical antecedents that must be understood in order to establish this context:

  1. the activities of the Armenian revolutionary committees (particularly the Dashnaks);
  2. the activities of outside powers supporting the Armenian committees;
  3. the contemporary counter-insurgency practices used by the Great Powers; and
  4. the Ottoman counter-insurgency policies and practices in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

“Many historians view the outbreak of the First World War as the proximate cause of what some historians refer to as the Armenian Genocide, others as massacres and relocations, and still others as the Events of 1915. To this day, interpretations of this question remain hotly contested by the advocates of the opposing positions. However, both sides agree on the fact that the Ottoman approach to the problem of quelling an insurgency clearly and dramatically changed in 1915 when it shifted from a historical policy of kinetic direct action by large-scale military forces to a new policy of population relocation. The problem then becomes that of explaining how the First World War created the drivers of change that caused this fundamental policy shift. Similarly to the four elements of the historical context, there were also four principal drivers of change created by the war:

  1. the actuality of an insurrection by the Armenian revolutionary committees;
  2. the actuality of allied interventions and support;
  3. the locations of the Armenian population as an existential threat to Ottoman national security; and
  4. the inability of the Ottomans to mass large forces effectively and rapidly to quell the insurgency.

“With respect to the question of whether the relocation was necessary for reason of Ottoman national security in the First World War, the answer is clearly yes. There was a direct threat by the small but capable Armenian revolutionary committees to the lines of communications upon which the logistics of the Ottoman armies on three fronts depended. There was a real belief by the government that the consequences of failing to supply adequately its armies that were contact with the Russians, in particular, surely would lead to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman high command believed it could not take that chance. Pressed by the imperative of national survival to implement an immediate counterinsurgency strategy and operational solution, and in the absence of traditionally available large-scale military forces, the Ottomans chose a strategy based on relocation— itself a highly effective practice pioneered by the Great Powers. The relocation of the Armenian population and the associated destruction of the Armenian revolutionary committees ended an immediate existential threat to the Ottoman state. Although the empire survived to fight on until late 1918 unfortunately thousands of Armenians did not survive the relocation. Correlation is not causation and the existing evidence suggests that the decisions leading to the Armenian relocations in 1915 were reflexive, escalatory, and militarily necessary, rather than simply a convenient excuse for genocide.

Another article you might want to take a look at appeared in The Washington Times, in 2007, around the time Barack Obama was running hot on the Armenian issue.

“Armenian crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Ottoman Turkish and Kurdish populations of eastern and southern Anatolia during World War I and its aftermath have been forgotten amidst congressional preoccupation with placating the vocal and richly financed Armenian lobby.

“Capt. Emory Niles and Arthur Sutherland, on an official 1919 U.S. mission to eastern Anatolia, reported: “In the entire region from Bitlis through Van to Bayezit, we were informed that the damage and destruction had been done by the Armenians, who, after the Russians retired, remained in occupation of the country and who, when the Turkish army advanced, destroyed everything belonging to the Musulmans. Moreover, the Armenians are accused of having committed murder, rape, arson and horrible atrocities of every description upon the Musulman population. At first, we were most incredulous of these stories, but we finally came to believe them, since the testimony was absolutely unanimous and was corroborated by material evidence. For instance, the only quarters left at all intact in the cities of Bitlis and Van are Armenian quarters … while the Musulman quarters were completely destroyed.”

“Niles and Sutherland were fortified by American and German missionaries on the spot in Van. American Clarence Ussher reported that Armenians put the Turkish men “to death,” and, for days, “They burned and murdered.” A German missionary recalled that, “The memory of these entirely helpless Turkish women, defeated and at the mercy of the [Armenians] belongs to the saddest recollections from that time.”


and all the world will live happily ever after. No need to study history.

“A March 23, 1920, letter of Col. Charles Furlong, an Army intelligence officer and U.S. Delegate to the Paris Peace Conference, to President Woodrow Wilson elaborated: “We hear much, both truth and gross exaggeration of Turkish massacres of Armenians, but little or nothing of the Armenian massacres of Turks. … The recent so-called Marash massacres [of Armenians] have not been substantiated. In fact, in the minds of many who are familiar with the situation, there is a grave question whether it was not the Turk who suffered at the hands of the Armenian and French armed contingents which were known to be occupying that city and vicinity. … Our opportunity to gain the esteem and respect of the Muslim world … will depend much on whether America hears Turkey’s untrammeled voice and evidence which she has never succeeded in placing before the Court of Nations.”

“The United States neglected Col. Furlong’s admonition in 1920, and again last Wednesday. Nothing seems to have changed from those days, when Christian lives were more precious than the lives of the “infidels.”

Will we ever know the truth? Who knows? But one thing is for sure: if you want to stand a chance of learning it, you need to keep an open mind and do your own searching. And beware of “expert” historians (and economists).


A Touching Tale from Turkey

dsc_8706-3-lrI came cross this on Australian ABC News:

Soldiers' graves at Anzac Cove

Soldiers’ graves at Anzac Cove

Veli Ayhan doesn’t know where Australia is and he’s never heard of a kangaroo, yet for almost 30 years he tended to some of the country’s most sacred sites. Read more.

Anzac Day – and foundation mythology in the national consciousness

Turkish handcraft marking the centenary

Turkish handcraft marking the centenary

Thousands of New Zealanders and Australians are getting ready for another pilgrimage to the battlefields and cemeteries of Gallipoli. This year, 2015, interest has been especially high since it marks the 100th anniversary of that long ago exercise in military futility.

As usual, however, Turks will have finished commemorating their victory by the time our contemporary pilgrims arrive on the beaches where their ancestors struggled ashore on 25 April 1915. For the people of Turkey, 18 March is the day they remember their grandfathers’ turning back the combined might of the French and British navies. In those early days of aviation, warships were the pre-eminent military force – and Great Britain had the world’s mightiest. The attack was the brainchild of Winston Churchill, at that time First Lord of King George’s Admiralty, and commanded by Admiral Sir Sackville Hamilton Carden.

Come out with your hands up - That was the plan

Come out with your hands up – That was the plan

The plan was for the navies to force a passage through the Dardanelles to the Ottoman capital of Istanbul/Constantinople obliging the sultan’s government to surrender. Military supplies could then be brought to the wavering Russians, strengthening the hand of the Czar so that Germany would have to divide its armies, thereby relieving the stalemate on the Western Front. To achieve this aim, Britain and France assembled one of the most powerful aggregations of naval firepower ever seen: the latest dreadnought battleship Queen Elizabeth; the battle cruiser Inflexible, twelve pre-dreadnought battleships; four light cruisers; fifteen destroyers; eight submarines; and thirty-five fishing trawlers converted into minesweepers. There were also two battalions of Royal Marines to serve as a temporary landing force if needed.

Unfortunately for the Brits and the French, it wasn’t enough. Possibly Western powers had swallowed their own rhetoric about the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ and convinced themselves that the decrepit Ottoman Empire would fold at the mere sight of the Union Jack and the French Tricolore. They didn’t. Minesweepers sent to clear the channel came under heavy fire from shore batteries (as one might have expected) and had to retreat. The British battleship Amethyst was badly damaged. Admiral Carden reported sick and had to be replaced by his 2nd-in-command. The French battleship Gaulois was hit and beached, and another, Bouvet, struck a mine and sank in 60 seconds with most of its crew. Three British battleships, Irresistible, Inflexible and Ocean were also lost . . . and the sea operation was called off.

Rather embarrassing, really. And that's not counting the French ones

Rather embarrassing, really.

That was 18 March. For the Ottomans, the greatest threat had been repulsed. What followed, the beach landings and eight months of pointless slaughter in atrocious conditions, never looked like posing the same danger. The Gallipoli campaign was an embarrassing military disaster for Britain and its allies – and a tragedy for New Zealand and Australia, whose politicians sent thousands of young men to die or be maimed in a land few could have located on a map. By July 1915 males up to the age of 45, and over 157 cm in height were being dispatched to the warzones.

Almost immediately, however, the myth-making began. Anzac ingenuity had enabled a withdrawal from Gallipoli under the very noses of Ottoman gunners, turning an abject military defeat into some kind of intellectual victory – ignoring the possibility that the defending forces may have been happy to see the invaders up sticks and leave. The ‘Anzac spirit’ came to represent an idealised rugged courage, disdain for mindless discipline, mateship, good humour and sense of fair play exhibited by the antipodean fighting man. The myth survived through to the 1960s when participation in the United States’ ill-fated Vietnam War supported by Returned Servicemen’s Associations led many to question traditional enthusiasm for following blindly in the footsteps of Mother England or Uncle Sam.

The recent resurgence in popularity of Anzac Day and, in particular, youthful pilgrimages to Turkey on 25 April, while preserving some vestiges of earlier myths, probably owes more to an emerging national consciousness among younger generations of Australians and New Zealanders. Because of our constitutional ties to the British Crown we lack a day for celebrating our uniqueness and independence like the Americans’ 4th of July, the French Bastille Day, or the Turkish Republic Holiday. Waitangi Day and Australia Day have been unable to escape the taint of colonial dispossession of indigenous peoples – and the April date has gone some way towards satisfying a need.

Quack quack, we're coming, mom

Quack quack, we’re coming, mom

It’s sad, however, to see news media invoking the myth of Anzac in support of the decision by New Zealand and Australian governments to join US military action against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. ‘Anzac spirit lives on as nations eye joint role in Iraq against ISIS’, trumpeted The Australian. The Australian edition of the International Business Times announced: Australia and New Zealand troops could team up once again to fight the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria after 100 years since the ANZAC alliance was forged in World War I.’ As far as I know, to their credit, Prime Ministers Abbott and Key have refrained from making such comparisons. Nevertheless, they have shown themselves only too willing to continue their countries’ tradition of following like ducklings after Jemima Puddleduck.

When will we learn? The commemoration of Anzac Day came under threat in the early 1970s because of opposition to military involvement in Vietnam. The very campaign itself quickly turned from ‘Great Adventure’ to a tragedy of mud, blood and mindless massacre. An Australian government website has recorded The nurses experiences of Gallipoli from their letters:

‘I shall never forget the awful feeling of hopelessness on night duty. It was dreadful. I had about 250 patients to look after, and one orderly and one Indian sweeper. Shall not describe their wounds, they were too awful. One loses sight of all the honour and the glory in the work we are doing. All we can do is feed them and dress their wounds … A good many died … It is just too awful — one could never describe the scenes — could only wish all I knew to be killed outright.’

Takes one to know one, we used to say

Takes one to know one, we used to say

The new role of Anzac Day for younger generations as a focal point for national consciousness and pride has something to commend it if it allows for the inclusion of indigenous peoples – and if scheming politicians can be restrained from exploiting it for their own questionable purposes. A century ago jingoistic political propaganda played a major role in persuading young men to travel half way around the world and die on the beaches and hillsides of the Gallipoli Peninsula. Posters urged them to enlist and ‘Destroy this Mad Brute’ (Germany). Notice any similarity to Tony Abbott’s calling ISIS a ‘death cult’ that ‘poses a threat to the whole world including Australia’?

In fact, the part played by the Çanakkale War (as Turks call the Gallipoli Campaign) in the establishment of modern Turkey is arguably more founded in truth. The personal qualities of Colonel Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) undoubtedly contributed to the Ottoman victory, which then gave him the credibility needed to gather his people for a war of liberation and be chosen as the new nation’s first president.

Military leadership of the invading forces was somewhat less inspirational. Mention has been made of Admiral Sir Sackville Hamilton Carden’s throwing a sickie at the crucial moment of the naval operation. Commander of the landings was General Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton. Well, with those names, it would be a fair guess that the military gentlemen concerned were blue-blooded scions of the English aristocracy – somewhat removed in experience from the lives of their own troops, never mind those of their colonial allies. Hamilton, watching the landing at Anzac Cove from the deck of the Royal Navy flagship Queen Elizabeth, is reported to have said, They are not charging up into this Sari Bair range for money or compulsion. They fight for love – all the way from the Southern Cross for love of the old country and of liberty.’

Possibly the dear old general was not aware that, according to the official New Zealand History website, 2600 conscientious objectors lost their civil rights, including being denied voting rights for 10 years and being barred from working for government or local bodies. Many received military punishments . . . were beaten and abused for their stance.

So that's what it was all about

So that’s what it was all about

‘Mark Briggs was called up in the third conscription ballot in early 1917. He refused to serve on socialist grounds. [Sent to] France in October 1917, he refused to walk, stand, salute or wear uniform. Field Punishment No. 1 failed to break his resolve, and he joined Archibald Baxter and Lawrence Kirwin in the trenches in February 1918. Every morning they were forced to walk 1000 yards up to the front line. Briggs refused. On the first day he was carried by sympathetic soldiers, but on the second day military policemen tied wire around his chest and dragged him to the front line, tearing his clothing and skin. At the line he was pulled through puddles of freezing water and told to ‘Drown yourself, now, you bastard.’ Dragged back to camp, he was denied medical treatment.’

Sad to say, in spite of heroic charges inspired by love of freedom and the old country, the invaders were unable to progress more than a few kilometres from the beaches, and General Hamilton was recalled to London on 16 October 1915, his military career at an end. The campaign stuttered along for another two months with little to show but 245,000 wounded and missing, and 59,000 confirmed killed. The defending Ottoman forces suffered similar losses.

Another high-level casualty in the region was Winston Churchill himself. Having failed to take a lesson from the Gallipoli fiasco, Winston and British Prime Minister Lloyd George attempted, in September 1922, to turn back the Turkish nationalist army, fresh from victory over the invading Greeks and now intent on liberating Istanbul/Constantinople. Outmanoeuvred politically this time by Mustafa Kemal, Churchill and Lloyd George failed to get support from their own parliament and imperial dominions. Obliged to back down in a major humiliation for Great Britain known as the Chanak Crisis, their government fell and Lloyd George’s political career was over.

In the last months of the Great War, a magazine, The Kia Ora Coo-ee was published in Cairo, ostensibly by Australian and NZ troops stationed in the region. I am quoting from the issue of April 15, 1918:

Fighting and falling in a glorious cause

Fighting and falling in a glorious cause

‘Just three short years, but in that period the names of Australia and New Zealand have penetrated every corner of the globe. The hearts of those “downunder” have glowed with pride, and the eyes of many mothers have filled with tears as they read of that wonderful landing on far away Gallipoli. They are proud of their sons, these parents. They know that in all the records of war they cannot find a parallel to the landing at Anzac. Their sons proved themselves equal to the veterans of the legions of Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Cromwell or any other warlord we may name . . . Those who are now mourning their dead feel that it is a privilege to fight and even to fall in so glorious a cause . . . Those who lie buried on or near the beach, among the gullies and ridges of Gallipoli have hung up their laurel-wreathed swords in the halls of the brave, bright with imperishable lustre. They heard the call of the Motherland and responded. Death has been their share of the conflict but they have gone under just as their forefathers went under, so that the grand old flag which carries freedom and civilisation to every corner of the world shall still fly above those they have left behind them.’

Possibly Prime Ministers Key and Abbott are lost in a time warp and actually still believe that kind of nonsense.

Anzac cemetery on Lone Pine Ridge

Anzac cemetery on Lone Pine Ridge

In 1988, New Zealand author Maurice Shadbolt published a book, ‘Voices of Gallipoli’. It was based on interviews he had recorded with Gallipoli veterans in old folks homes around the country. An 18 year-old in 1915 was well into his 80s by that time – but most of them had never spoken about their experiences to anyone in the intervening years. No one else wanted to know what it had really been like if it didn’t conform to the war according to Kia Ora Coo-ee. On Shadbolt’s recordings octogenarians could be heard breaking down in tears as they recounted their horrific experiences on those beaches, gullies and ridges – the hopeless bayonet charges into the mouths of machine guns firing 600 rounds per minute; the nightmarish injuries; the pathetic cries of mates dying in agony in no-man’s land; the realisation that they had more in common with the young guys in the enemy trenches than with the generals and politicians who were ordering them to charge and die.

What’s changed in a hundred years? In 1970 the Motown record label released one of the most successful anti-war songs of all time: Edwin Starr singing War? What is it good for? His conclusion was ‘Absolutely nothing’ – but that answer is, of course, extremely naïve. If it were true, there would be no more wars. The fact is, war is very good for some, namely those involved in the military-industrial complex and the transnational finance system that supports and is supported by it.

Harvey Broadbent, Associate Professor of history at Macquarie University, Sydney, published a book earlier this year, ‘Defending Gallipoli: The Turkish Story’. He dedicated it to ‘the memory of those soldiers whose stories have not been told and who perished by the folly of others’. Later he explains that those ‘others’ were ‘every person who was responsible for instigating that campaign and carrying it out in a way which led to all those deaths.’ Again, I take issue with the learned professor’s use of the word ‘folly’. I would substitute a phrase: ‘cynical self-interest and heedlessness of human life.’

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’: ‘So it goes. Poo-tee-weet?’


Further Reading:

Busting the Anzac Myth

Anzac Legend is more pork pies than bully beef

Gallipoli Rewatched – Another look at Peter Weir’s 1981 movie

Turkey, Armenia and the Tragedies of Wars

I came across this article on, and I’d like to share it with you. The writer, Merve Sebnem Oruç is a managing editor in online journalism and a commentator in Turkey.

Australians commemorating Anzac day at Gallipoli

Australians commemorating Anzac day at Gallipoli

“Gallipoli is a good place to start for resolving the historic dispute between Turkey and Armenians.

“The Battle of Gallipoli was one of the most critical scenes in Turkey’s history. Britain and France opened an overseas front in Gallipoli in East Thrace and tried to overcome the Ottomans. The Russian Empire was promised the capital Istanbul by the two of Entente Powers of World War I. It was a fight for the survival of a nation, a struggle for life or death.

“The victory in Gallipoli didn’t help Turks win the war but it gave hope to resist and start the war of independence a couple of years later. The resistance is honoured every year on March 18 in Gallipoli and on the shores of the Dardanelles.

“Gallipoli is of significant importance to others like Australia and New Zealand. Each year, on April 25, they commemorate the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who died in Gallipoli. This is known as ANZAC day.

“It was a battle away from home. It wasn’t even their war. They were dominions of the British Empire when the war broke out. Gallipoli is now a symbol of their national identity and existence. Their nations were born there.

Armenians remember 24 April with greater sorrow

Armenians remember 24 April with greater sorrow

“This year is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gallipoli. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has invited more than 100 world leaders, including Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, to attend centennial commemoration ceremonies. The UK’s Prince Charles and the prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand are expected to take part in the ceremonies as well.

“It is upsetting that Sargsyan has decided to reject the invitation, which would have helped lead us one step closer to understanding and reaching closure on the tragic events of 1915. The invitation, after all, was yet another historic move following Erdoğan’s statement.

“Turkey will commemorate the centennial on April 24 instead of the regular memorial date, March 18, in a symbolic gesture of compassion. April 24 also marks the start of the deportation of Armenians by Turkish unionist authorities – it is the day Armenians around the world traditionally commemorate their ancestors who were killed in that campaign.

“Ten years ago, merely talking about 1915 [in Turkey] was a feat of bravery, but now there is no taboo when discussing anything out loud.

“Discussing and understanding history is more conducive to progress than being stuck at the same point for years, and Gallipoli is one of the most appropriate places to start.” Read the whole artice.