Tuesday, October 23, 2007

When truth offends honour

Oct 23, 2007 04:30 AM
The Star
Mark Abley

One of the stupidest trends in Canadian education has been the decline in history teaching. History is a regular victim when school boards and education departments decide that glossy topics like "information technology" outweigh the past.

The trend is unfortunate for many reasons. One of them is this: We can't understand the contemporary world without some grasp of what formed it and deformed it.

Consider the uproar about a resolution now before the U.S. Congress, defining the Turkish killings of Armenians between 1915 and 1923 as "genocide." To Turkey's rulers, and most of its people, the idea is an outrage – an offence against national honour.

Those events happened so long ago that few eyewitnesses remain. One of the oldest survivors, Arousiag Aghazarian, died in Montreal last month at the age of 104. Throughout her adult life she was haunted by the memory of a girl's decapitated head in a pile of body parts, ribbons still attached to her ponytail.

Nearly all Armenians are convinced that their people's destruction was carefully planned. Before the atrocities, 2 million of them lived in the Ottoman Empire (the precursor to modern-day Turkey); about 500,000 survived.

Turkey, however, insists that the killings took place on a much smaller scale. It notes that most occurred in wartime, when the Ottomans were battling Russia; they saw Armenians as an internal enemy.

The rhetoric on both sides is heated. But the Armenians' evidence is strong. "I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this," wrote Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. "The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared to the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915."

Empty rhetoric? Not if you read what Turkey's allies were privately saying. Richard von Kuhlmann, Germany's foreign minister in 1917, deplored "the large-scale destruction of the Armenians" and warned that "this policy of extermination will for a long time stain the Turkish name."

Some Turks were prepared to admit responsibility. Gen. Mehmet Vehib, a celebrated army commander, wrote in 1919: "The massacre and destruction of the Armenians and the plunder and pillage of their goods were the results of decisions reached by the Central Committee (of Turkey's ruling party)."

So why the endless genocide denial by Vehib's successors – a denial that continues to affect how events unfold in the Middle East today?

History is not a bare list of dates and events; history also involves story and psychology. For Turks to admit what many of their grandparents and great-grandparents did would be to acknowledge the most shameful act any people can commit. Small wonder the admission sticks in their throat.

A much smaller admission sticks in ours. From the day its new building opened in 2005, the Canadian War Museum was attacked by veterans' groups who charged that its display concerning the carpet-bombing of German cities during World War II had reproachful overtones.

The veterans finally won. Two weeks ago, the museum changed the display's wording – even though its previous label was factually correct. Viewers are now told: "Allied aircrew conducted this gruelling offensive with great courage against heavy odds."

That's not the point. Or rather, it shouldn't be. As history makes clear, Allied bombs killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people for very dubious military reasons. But we don't like an offence to our national honour.

And so, like the Turks, we sometimes close our eyes to the truth.

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.



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