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The Armenian Genocide and America's Response

October 19, 2003, Sunday

Human Rights Watch
By Belinda Cooper

The Armenian Genocide
and America's Response.
By Peter Balakian.
Illustrated. 475 pp. New York:
HarperCollins Publishers. $26.95.

THE 20th century opened with an event that has been considered the template for the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews: the deportation and murder of as many as 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks during World War I. Yet while the Holocaust conjures up a host of images in our minds, we have no similar familiarity with the Armenian murders (which most serious observers agree fit the definition of genocide) nor the even less-known massacres of Armenians in the 1890's and in 1909. As Peter Balakian puts it in ''The Burning Tigris,'' they form a ''narrative lost to the public.''

Balakian, an Armenian-American poet who in 1997 published the acclaimed memoir ''Black Dog of Fate,'' a moving portrayal of growing up in the United States with the legacy of the Armenian genocide, seeks in ''The Burning Tigris'' to remind us that this neglect was not always the case. As he shows, the killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire generated an enormous humanitarian response. Beginning with the 1894-96 massacres under Sultan Abdul Hamid II, in which 200,000 died, they galvanized American public opinion and sparked a countrywide campaign that would continue through World War I to aid the ''starving Armenians.'' It was spearheaded by prominent suffragists, industrialists and former abolitionists and was aided by a developing sensationalist press that found the massacres ''a compelling story.'' Americans received much of their information from Protestant missionaries who had been active among Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire for years, as well as from diplomats, doctors and relief workers like the Red Cross head Clara Barton.

Balakian sees the aid campaign as setting the stage for the 20th-century development of American human rights relief work, and he spends several chapters portraying its leading participants. Yet the book's real power derives from the eyewitness accounts of the genocide itself. The sheer volume of outsiders' testimony that Balakian compiles, and the horrifying similarity of their observations of men, women and children beaten, tortured, burned to death in churches or sent out into the desert to starve, is an overwhelmingly convincing retort to genocide deniers. Balakian also cites the evidence and confessions gathered in the promising, though quickly abandoned, postwar trials of Turkish officials.

Nevertheless, the Turkish government argues to this day that the deaths resulted not from a systematic campaign of extermination but from civil conflict instigated by rebellious Armenians. And it has used its importance as a strategic ally to make Western leaders complicit in this burial of history. As late as 2000, a resolution by the United States House of Representatives that would have officially labeled the killings ''genocide'' was tabled in the face of Turkish threats to cut access to military bases. Only recently, as Turkey moves to join the European Union, have some Turkish historians begun to question the official story.

The relative dearth of accessible literature on the Armenian genocide, and the growing interest today in questions of international justice and humanitarian intervention, make this book timely and welcome. Disappointingly, however, Balakian fails to weave the various strands of his account -- the genocide, the relief efforts and the wider issue of why the great powers failed to intervene -- into a consistent historical or analytical framework. Instead, he presents a disorganized, largely descriptive narrative that ultimately raises more questions than it answers. His main story, the genocide itself, is an unremitting depiction of irrational barbarism by sociopathic Turkish leaders and a fanatical population against a generally unresisting minority. Yet even the most terrible historical events are rarely this simple, as the countless volumes devoted to every aspect of the Nazi Holocaust attest. Attention to the complexities of causation and context in no way reduces the evil of the genocide or the culpability of the perpetrators.

Balakian agrees with the social psychologist Irwin Staub that ''a progression of changes in a culture and individuals'' is a prerequisite for genocide, but he provides only a superficial sense of the changes in the centuries-old relationship between Turks and Armenians that could unleash such violence. He offers a fascinating but typically all-too-fleeting glimpse of American Protestant missionaries' influence on the Christian Armenians and the tensions it created with the Muslim Turkish community.

As more immediate motives for the violence, Balakian mentions budding nationalism on both sides, Armenian demands for rights, the Ottoman empire's panic at its progressive loss of territory, jealousy of the Armenians' financial success and profits from confiscation of their property, Islamic fundamentalism and the great powers' reluctance to intervene. But he never pulls these factors together into a coherent backdrop. Nor does he provide much insight into the Armenian community in Turkey, leaving the reader to wonder why, as he describes it, Armenians continued to assert their loyalty to the Ottoman Empire even after it became clear that the Turkish aim was annihilation. Why -- as has been asked, and answered, about the European Jews -- was there not more resistance? His sources speak of Turks who opposed what was happening -- who were they, and how numerous were they? As the narration unfolds, such questions inevitably arise, but remain unaddressed.

Despite these weaknesses, ''The Burning Tigris'' does succeed in resurrecting a little-known chapter of American as well as Armenian history. It also underscores a crucial point about humanitarian responses to violations of human rights: outrage and outpourings of sympathy and aid may save some lives, but -- as the 20th century would show time and again -- they have little real impact in the face of state interests that militate against intervention. With ''The Burning Tigris'' Peter Balakian forcefully reminds us that almost a century after the Armenian genocide, the international community has yet to find a means of implementing Charlotte Perkins Gilman's vision, as pertinent today as it was in 1903: ''National crimes demand international law, to restrain, prohibit, punish, best of all, prevent.''

Belinda Cooper is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute.

Published: 10 - 19 - 2003 , Late Edition - Final , Section 7 , Column 1 , Page 35 , New York Times Book Review

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