Saturday, August 14, 2004

Burning Tigris -- conclusion 

As I mentioned in part 2, I did not want to read in too much detail the stories of the 1915 Genocide itself, for they can be quite gruesome.  Balakian did not offer as many details as he could have, but the pictures he draws with a minimum of breast-beating are graphic enough.  I thought of the families I visited today, relatives of mine (I'll write about that separately), and the history they went through.  The anger towards the Turks is still palpable among older Armenians here, belying the notion that the Genocide is remembered only among its old diaspora.  That certainly was not true today.

Anyway, what makes Balakian's book quite different is the focus on the U.S.' reaction to the Armenian question at the time of the Genocide.  In particular, when Woodrow WIlson went to Versailles to help write the treaty, he was clearly aware of the Genocide -- not only had it been in all the newspapers of the time, but his friends were the same missionaries who had established the missions that were reporting back the horrors to the newspapers.  Balakian tells the tale of how little by little American policy and then American attention turned from Armenia and human rights to Turkey and oil. 

On this, I think the book is quite weak in asserting that oil lied at the base, rather than simply seeing that Wilson had been outmaneuvered by the Europeans and made a fatal mistake in not declaring war on Turkey, thereby forfeiting a place at the table to negotiate the peace with Turkey after World War I.  Even so, the Treaty of Sevres had given Wilson an opening to draw boundaries between Armenia and Turkey which would have been much greater than its area today.  There were four provinces agreed even by Ataturk to have been historically Armenian.  These included ports on the Black Sea port of Batumi and the historic city of Kars and Lake Van.  But Wilson first dithered, and then took ill with a series of strokes and could not get the mandate he wanted passed by the Senate.  By this time Armenia had little choice but to negotiate a deal with the Soviet Union; the Turks had taken the four provinces to the west of the Araxes and the Russians did not desire to fight for them on behalf of the Armenians. 

It's not clear why Balakian chooses to pursue the oil angle, nor why he does not spend more time on Europe's indifference to Armenia's plight after the war. Europe has later on decided to recognize the genocide, with France leading the way.  The issue burns for many diaspora -- there is in fact a fairly strong Armenians for Kerry group that are convinced Kerry will do more for recognition of genocide than Bush has (on this, alas, Bush has indeed been quite unhelpful as it hopes to keep Turkey a friend in the GWOT.)  But I think Demon Oil is a touchstone of the leftist faith that Balakian could not let alone.   He leaves open the question of why Wilson did what he did, for which I think we should be grateful, but he's pretty clear that he thinks "greed" is the cause.  It's a shame the last chapter had to detract from the rest of this excellent book.  There is after that an epilogue of genocide denial in the second half of the 20th century, which is again an area which Balakian knows and explains well.