Quite a lot of history is autobiographical. It writes a loose interpretation of its true self many years after the people who would remember it best have passed away. For those of you who recognize the maxim in the title, it also re-affirms another basic principle of history: The past is written by the “winners.”
This past Thursday the United States took some flak in the foreign policy arena when the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs passed a non-binding resolution to henceforth refer to the 1915-19 treatment of Armenian citizens by the Ottoman Empire as “genocide.” The government of Turkey takes issue with this use of this word, because it sees itself as the contemporary incarnation of the Ottoman territories.
I am not an expert on genocide, but arguably one doesn’t need to be an expert to know whether more than one million people being tortured, raped and slaughtered before being marched into the Syrian desert constitutes “genocide.” Not to mention the fact that virtually all of those people were Armenian Christians. If the language is too drastic for modern Turkey to deal with, we could call it, “a four–year survival walk” or “serving at the pleasure of nationalism and paranoia.”
While there really is no argument against the label of genocide, the Turkish government recalled its U.S. ambassador, Namik Tan, according to the Al-Jazeera news agency. It was also reported that protestors gathered in front of the U.S. embassy in Ankara, Turkey, chanting, among other things, “God damn American imperialism!”
Though this response might seem radical, in retrospect Turkey is not making unwarranted accusations.
Americans have a history of painting certain nations as “bad guys” belonging to some constantly changing “axis of evil” and then sanctioning, embargoing and invading those nations. Recently, however, the United States and
Turkey have been on good speaking terms; President Barack Obama was well received when he held speeches in Turkey addressing “the Muslim world” shortly after his election, and Turkey has aided with NATO campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The real reason why the Turkish government sees the word “genocide” as such an insult has more to do with contemporary politics than actual history.
To date, the border between Armenia and Turkey is closed. Even after nearly a century there remains an ultra-nationalist movement in Turkey, albeit a small one. The wounds run deep in Armenia, and its people refuse to seal those wounds until Turkey takes responsibility for what happened.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul released a statement saying that the adoption of the word genocide, “is one-sided and far from the historical truth.” The official position of the Turkish government is that the deaths of Armenians during and after World War I was incidental, and was not the result of any organized systematic extermination. Not ironically, while the Turkish government has qualms about the label of genocide, the Armenian government issued a statement to the BBC saying the U.S. resolution “Is an important step towards the prevention of crimes against humanity.”
Even though this resolution passed in committee, it has yet to pass a general vote in the House. Already the White House has issued a contrary statement, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered on Friday, saying, “The Obama administration strongly opposes the resolution that was passed by only one vote in the House Committee, and we’ll work very hard to make sure it does not go to the House floor.”
Based on the narrow passage of the resolution in committee and the overall sense that Congress is sticking its nose in the wrong debate at a very bad time, it is unlikely that the resolution will ever become binding. Yet this series of events contains an Orwellian undercurrent that has to be remarked on. The deaths of nearly 1.5 million Armenians is not something that can be excused; all of their property, their homes, their neighborhoods were utterly destroyed and never returned.
Humans periodically and conveniently forget events in order to justify actions in the present. Governments rewrite the past to create an idyllic national dream that they can sell to people when they feel a need to go to war, or commit atrocities. Western imperial colonialism killed somewhere between 10 million to 100 million Native Americans according to most estimates but even so, those figures cannot be verified with any certainty (we didn’t count the bodies).
The U.S. government is no exception, having committed genocides, declared unjustified wars and lied to the American people when they could get away with it. That does not necessarily mean that the rest of the world has forgotten that those are convenient lies to protect the legitimacy of their authority.
The sadness of this debate isn’t that we cannot forget the past, or even whether it is in the interest of the United States to call historical events genocide or otherwise. The sadness in this debate is that without apology and admittance of guilt, the world will only continue to produce more prideful and obstinate atrocities. It is the same for all nations.
If, in 20 years, the U.S. cannot admit that it unjustly invaded two countries because it felt threatened by Islamic radicals, then the U.S. will be as guilty as Turkey for not admitting that it unjustly detained and eliminated Armenian Christians a hundred years ago because it felt threatened during a time of war. Even today we cannot completely admit that the U.S. unjustly invaded Vietnam because we were afraid of communism.
He who controls the past, controls the future. We should rise above our pasts by admitting that they are tarnished, tattered and covered in blood. Nations do not have clean records, they must atone for them. The cost for atonement is exceedingly greater than the cost to commit a crime—that is what Turkey and all other countries are refusing to accept. In the false hope that we can forget the past, we run the risk of repeating it. It has been a long and terrible century.