Armenian Rebellion at Van

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Book review: Justin McCarthy's rationalization for genocide makes for challenging reading

reviewed by John M. Evans
November 3, 2007

Given that Justin McCarthy is widely known as a leading denier of the Armenian Genocide, I did not exactly jump to respond when electronically offered to sell me his new book, The Armenian Rebellion at Van. My commitment to learning more about the events of 1915, and to hearing all sides of the story, though, eventually overcame my initial reluctance, and I ordered the book online.

When the book arrived, the first thing to strike me was that, in addition to Justin McCarthy, also listed on the cover were three coauthors of whom I had little or no knowledge: Esat Arslan, Cemalettin Taskiran, and Omer Turan. To be fair to Amazon, the fact that this book was a collaborative effort is available to the determined prospective purchaser who delves into the online reviews (one of the most laudatory of which is by David Saltzman, the Embassy of Turkey's lawyer and a law partner of the President-elect of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, Gunay Evinch); however, neither the institutional affiliations nor the academic credentials of the three Turkish coauthors are offered up on Amazon's website or within the book itself. Nor is there any explanation of how the four coauthors divided up their research and writing responsibilities. Google searches yielded references to Mr. McCarthy's three Turkish collaborators, giving their affiliations, some listings of their other publications, and the fact that Mr. Turan was Mr. McCarthy's supporting partner in the controversial postfilm debate portion of the PBS broadcast on the Armenian Genocide (which reviewer/lawyer David Saltzman tried to promote when serving as counsel to the ATAA). There are a lot of interconnections here.

A second salient feature of the book is that its production was funded by four Istanbul trade organizations: the Istanbul Chamber of Commerce, the Istanbul Chamber of Industry, the Istanbul and Marmara Aegean, Mediterranean and Black Sea Chamber of Shipping, and the Istanbul Commodity Exchange. Who pays for a book to be written is not always indicative of the likely direction the work will take, but caveat lector.

Already on page one of The Armenian Rebellion at Van the reader gets a strong signal of where the book is tending. Two American visitors to Van in 1919, Niles and Sutherland, are characterized as having "been fed on a diet of anti-Turkish propaganda that made the Armenians into saints and the Turks into devils," before they saw the light and "changed their minds." It is not made clear whether the Niles and Sutherland report, which the authors claim without further explanation was "deliberately suppressed by those who did not wish their account to be seen," is now readily available; but that report is mentioned only once in the remaining body of the text and is not listed in the bibliography apart from a reference to Mr. McCarthy's 1994 article "American Commissions to Anatolia and the Report of Niles and Sutherland." One wonders whether, in its totality, the report supports the authors' conclusions. I have since seen the report by Emory Niles and Arthur Sutherland cited approvingly by Bruce Fein of the Turkish Coalition of America (Washington Times, October 16, 2007, p. A16) but that hardly erases my doubts, as an amateur historian, as to whether the Niles-Sutherland testimony has been corroborated anywhere else, or indeed, is really relevant.

My main concern about this work, aside from some unfortunate disdainful comments about Armenians sprinkled into the text along the way, is that it repeatedly makes unsupported tendentious assertions of a global or general nature, such as "the Europeans did not care about the Muslims," (p. 37) or "were always watchful for signs of disruption in Eastern Anatolia," (p. 39) and "would not allow the Ottomans the tools that they themselves used to put down revolt." By contrast, relatively minor factual points are voluminously documented, and we are helpfully given the Turkish translation for one of the staple vegetables in the province of Van (broad beans = bakla).

In fact, it seems to me that the main failing of this book is to over-research and over-emphasize the importance of the doings in Van and to dispute the charge of "genocide" by viewing it through the resulting microcosm, rather than by considering more broadly what had been happening in the Ottoman Empire as a whole. There undoubtedly was great tension in Van between Armenians and the authorities, as well as with Kurds, and no doubt there were deaths on both sides, but isn't this microscopic treatment missing the forest for the trees? Pushing the narrow focus even further, McCarthy's book provides a list of sixty-three Muslim inhabitants of Mergehu village who are said to have been "murdered or annihilated with the utmost savagery by local Armenians who joined Armenian gangs strengthening the Russian Forces."

Ambassador Morgenthau reported to Washington that "it appears that a campaign of race extermination is in progress under a pretext of reprisal against rebellion." The argument of McCarthy's book is that the Armenian revolutionaries (especially the Dashnaks) brought a tragedy down upon the heads of Anatolia's Armenian population, while "remaining loyal to the Ottoman Empire would have been the better choice" (the last words of the book). But it is the Russians who actually are blamed repeatedly in this book: "It was the Russians, not the Armenian revolutionaries, who gave the first impetus to Armenian separatism." (p. 46) And the Russians -- not the Armenians -- are also credited with having carried out the "first major massacres of Muslim civilians." (p. 233)

Whoever was at fault, in this telling, it certainly was not the Turks.

And yet, some possibly unintentional elements of self-criticism sneak through. On page 92, the authors note that although "it did not become government policy until World War I, villages that supported rebels were sometimes (not often) burned." And Enver Pasa comes in for criticism of the adventure that led to the Ottoman defeat at Sarikamis. Furthermore, the misrule of Van Governor Cevdet who had set about killing local Armenian leaders is termed "brutal and illegal," although the overall assessment of his tenure is positive. The authors admit that such technically legal actions as drafting young Armenian men in the spring of 1915 "might indeed have cause the Armenians to fear," but then ask rhetorically, "what choice did the government have?" Such rhetorical questions smack more of sharp debating technique than of serious history.

There is some odd reasoning at work here as well. The basic argument with regard to the action at Van's Aygestan is that (1) Ottoman troops were the best but (2) the Armenians resisted rather successfully; therefore (3) there must have been more Armenians present than the Armenians claim. The authors seem nearly as concerned to defend Ottoman martial prowess as to prove that the Armenians were rebelling rather than acting in self-defense.

This ultimately unsatisfying account of the rebellion at Van ends by noting that "the Armenian rebellion could never have triumphed on its own, because Armenians were such a small minority in the territory they claimed" and that they were "dependent on intervention from a European power." The question this raises is: if the Armenians were such a small minority, why was the Committee of Union and Progress that then controlled the declining Ottoman State so obsessed with them that it arranged for the deportations and mass killings of Armenians of all ages and from all parts of Anatolia? Perhaps the oddest note is the authors' assertion that Mao Tse-Tung would doubtless have approved of killing the Armenian revolutionary leaders earlier, as they clearly believe the Ottoman authorities ought to have done. I'm not sure that constitutes a successful bid for most readers' sympathy. The book makes for challenging reading.

John M. Evans was the U.S. ambassador to Armenia from 2004 to 2006.

This article is used with permission from the Armenian Reporter