The Armenians are a people with a prominent place on the long list of those shafted by history. They may consider, as Congress wavers on an Armenian genocide resolution so tantalizingly close, that they are about to get it again.
Like others in their ancestral neighborhood, the Armenians are a proud people who consider themselves to represent the ancient origins of man and civilization. In their case, direct descent from Noah, who landed his ark on their sacred mountain of Ararat, currently and regrettably located on the wrong side of the Turkish border. They will also proudly tell you that they were the first to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301 A.D. And that more or less ever since, they’ve waged a rearguard action for Christianity and western civilization.
Armenia once stretched from the Mediterranean to the Caspian. Today, there is an Armenia of memory and dreams, preserved and nurtured in multi-generational exile in California, Massachusetts, France and Lebanon. Actual Armenia is a wretchedly poor rump state, landlocked, wedged between enemies in Turkey and Azerbaijan, with unstable Georgia to the north and pariah Iran to the south, a survivor of the highly successful Turkish ethnic cleansing campaign of 1915-22, and a victim of the Soviet political and economic oppression that followed.
It is a tortured history. The Armenians have been fighting for a very long time, often without friends, in a part of the world where it is sometimes necessary to choose one’s allies and one’s enemies according to the circumstances as they present themselves. Their experience has made them tough, bitter, resourceful and determined, a people not to be trifled with. It has also made them very practical.
Consider the example of General Dro.
Drastamat “Dro” Kanayan was born during an earthquake in 1884, an Armenian in what is now eastern Turkey. He was buried in exile in a New England blizzard in 1956. In 2000, accompanying the party that brought his exhumed remains home, I witnessed his final triumphal return amid hail and the crash of lightning to Bash Abaran, the scene of his 1918 rout of a Turkish division.
Dro started his career as a terrorist, fighting the Russian occupiers of eastern Armenia. By 21, he had committed three political assassinations — two Russian officials and one Armenian collaborator. But in 1914, he chose the Russians over the Turks as the lesser of two evils. Czar Nicholas would later decorate him for bravery.
“I am a soldier,” Dro is reported to have said as he prepared to join the Russian army to fight the Turks. “I know nothing about politics. But I am convinced that this will be the last and decisive battle. Freedom or death. And I also have a feeling that many of us will not return from the battlefield. Great work requires many victims.”
Dro’s lifelong concern was Armenia’s survival. Who he aligned himself with and how he might feel about them was secondary to the needs of his people in the moment. Because he had no other choice. Czarist Russians against Ottoman Turks. German Nazis against Soviet Russians. Turkish-allied Americans against the Soviet Union. Dro had to make his calculations and make his choices in a life spent at war.
So Dro threw his lot with his erstwhile enemies, the Russians. By 1918, Russia was involved in its own revolution and Armenia was left to defend itself against the Turks. Dro is noted in Armenian history for insisting forcefully that Armenia sacrifice territory to Turkey — including his own hometown of Igdir — so that the outnumbered Armenian troops could consolidate on a smaller front and save something of Armenia.
Then, as the Turkish army advanced and Armenia’s politicians in Yerevan considered capitulating before they were overrun, Dro demanded that the army be allowed to fight until the end. The Turks were routed weeks later in two key battles, one of which was fought by Dro and his men.
In the last days of May 1918, the roads over the mountain passes leading to Yerevan were clogged with thousands of desperate refugees and bedraggled Armenian soldiers, retreating ahead of the Turkish army. Armenian officer Arthur Ayvazian described chaos, panic, death and starvation.
“Men, women, children, babies, deserting Armenian soldiers in military uniforms, cows, donkeys, carts, etc., were all together in one solid mass, going nowhere,” he wrote. “I saw … hungry Armenian refugees, mostly women, with sunken eyes and cheeks, bent over, like a herd of sheep, plucking green grass with their fingers and eating it. …I saw the bodies of dead babies wrapped in rags.”
Turkish forces were closing in on Yerevan from the west in a three-pronged attack at Sardarabad to the south, the mountain pass at Bash Abaran in the center, and Karakilisa farther north, according to UCLA professor Richard Hovannisian and other sources. Armenian forces managed to halt the southern Turkish advance at Sardarabad on May 22.
At Abaran, Dro, then 33, commanded a brigade of about 3,000 Russian-trained regulars and guerrillas. On May 25, he sent his cavalry against the Turkish line near the village of Knodakhsaz. But where they had expected to find a regiment of Turks, they found a division of 10,000. Dro’s cavalry were pushed back with heavy losses.
On May 26, the Turks counterattacked with a pincer movement, attempting to encircle Dro’s smaller force. His men dug in and held along a line of villages. Dro, known for his fearlessness as a military leader, is said to have used the cover of a sleet storm to personally reconnoiter the Turkish positions and rearrange his own troops.
On May 28, he lured the Turks into the open. He had concealed the arrival of 1,700 reinforcements, which he sent forward in a furious assault.
“Half the cavalry was slaughtered,” said Martin Kanayan, the general’s son. “But when the cavalry charged them, even though they lost so many, it terrified the Turks and broke their line.
“After they had repelled the Turks, his comment was, `My sons, my brothers. There is no way you can stop and rest. You have to keep pushing them over the horizon,'” Dro’s son said. The routed Turks abandoned equipment and weapons as they fled. Dro’s troops recaptured Bash Abaran May 29, securing the route to Yerevan and sending the Turks in full retreat.
The news of the victories lifted the spirits of the refugees and inspired soldiers further up the line, leading to a successful push against the northern Turkish advance at Karakilisa.
“It was a beautiful spring evening, but the road was covered with disorganized soldiers, covered with mud, tired and dispirited. The endless row of wagons of refugees, horsemen here and there, a cannon on wheels, cries, noise, confusion,” recalled one veteran, quoted by Hovannisian. “But then suddenly the news and everyone listening emotionally to news that our side had crushed the enemy. … Excitement and joy for those tired and depressed people. `Our boys have triumphed, we have defeated them.’ … It was a miracle.”
Within two years, that miracle had expired. At the age of 35, Dro began a lifelong exile after the Soviets invaded his briefly independent Armenia, ending up in Romania by the start of World War II.
Turkish critics, who accuse Dro of a long list of war crimes, have slammed him for collaborating with the Germans after they occupied Romania. A fierce anti-communist, promised of a free Armenia by the Nazis, Dro raised and led an Armenian force that was part of the German Army on the Russian Front. Armenian scholars say he was not a Nazi and claim he used his influence among the Germans to save captured Red Army Armenians from Nazi death camps.
By Dro’s bier in Yerevan in 2000, I met an old Soviet Red Army veteran, there to pay his respects to the forceful Armenian in a German uniform who he said intervened to save him, when Germans had ordered him shot in the Ukraine in 1944.
“He saved my life. What else can I say,” said Arutyun Sevoyan, 78, his chest full of Soviet medals. “I have tears of happiness, of joy, to see Dro’s body returned to his homeland. He was a god who saved my life, and those of 5,000 to 7,000 other Armenians. Dro was a hero then and always will be in my eyes.”
Dro himself was later saved from Soviet imprisonment and probable death when Allied intelligence officers, with whom he is said to have maintained contact during the war, spirited him to America and allegedly employed him as an agent in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East.
America, Armenia’s best hope, was ironically allied with Armenia’s old enemy, Turkey, against a new common enemy, the Soviet Union. Dro’s reburial in free Armenia in 2000 did not just honor his victory over the Turks that allowed what is left of Armenia to exist. It represented a final triumph over the Soviets and not least a triumph over bitter political divisions within the larger Armenian diaspora.
Dro’s is a tale of resourcefulness, determination, brinksmanship and practical compromise in a war that never ended, with only partial victories and few satisfactions.
Recognition of the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians and the theft of their property by the Turks remains a burning issue for Armenians today. Armenians in Nagorno Karabagh have fought bitter war to hold Armenian lands against the Turkic Azeris as recently as the 1990s.
Armenians are justified in their frustration and anger over the world’s failure to acknowledge the murderous injury they suffered, and Turkey’s absurd denials and prosections that continue to this day, and have campaigned long and hard for the United States and other nations to address that.
Many in Congress are recognizing, however, that in the bad neighborhood that is the Middle East, America has an ongoing war of its own, and needs to choose its enemies carefully. The Armenian genocide is, outside Turkey, universally accepted history, and Turkey only makes itself look foolish by denying it. But Turkey is a vital supply route for the U.S. military in Iraq, and there are also highly sensitive issues surrounding Kurdish rebels use of Iraqi territory in their guerrilla war against the Turks. Revisiting the more sordid aspects of Turkish history, some congressmen are beginning to recognize, may run counter to vital American interests in time of war.
War supply issues aside, current events may have superceded Congress’ moral concerns. Kurdish separatist attacks and the Turkish military response in the last few days have raised the specter of a new combat zone in a formerly quiet corner of Iraq. It’s a prospect that may have sobered even the Democratic-led United States Congress, notoriously unconcerned about the consequences of its actions regarding Iraq.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had said she would go ahead with a vote on the Armenian Genocide resolution, but late last week was said to be wavering in the face of opposition. Her poor choice of enemies in this case is now being called one of her greatest missteps.
Questions have been raised about the extent to which Pelosi’s desire for Armenian justice is a principled moral stand, as opposed to an underhanded effort to undercut a war she has not been able to influence the progress of the war more directly. If that is the case, it is beyond ironic that Pelosi would risk new hazards for American soldiers, and pursue a course toward enabling a new genocide in Iraq, through a symbolic assignment of blame on the murders of 90 years ago. Given Pelosi’s earlier efforts to boost Syria, an overt adversary of the United States, it is heartening to see her own party’s membership apparently acting as a check on her dangerously poor judgment. It is probably too much to hope that Pelosi, having made a poor choice of enemies, risks losing allies.
But Armenians themselves may want to consider whether it advances their cause to expect Americans in time of war to act against America’s interest on their symbolic behalf. The blood of Armenian genocide victims does cry out for recognition. But the example of their own hero suggests that each day is another day, each battle another battle, and you have to choose your allies and your enemies carefully.
Read more from Jules Crittenden at Forward Movement.