The Long Road to the Near East

By Maynard Owen Williams

[The Independent, August 24, 1918]

Mr. Williams was for three years instructor in Syrian Protestant College, and for the past two years special correspondent to the "Christian Herald" for China, Japan, Russia, Armenia and Turkestan. For three months, ending February, 1918, he was the only American relief worker in that part of Turkey captured by the Russians. Mr. Williams speaks with first hand knowledge of the conditions in the Near East, and the answer he makes to the Near Eastern Question is the result of close contact with its suffering people.

Why are you Armenians, who have suffered as no people have ever suffered, so free from hate for the Turks and Kurds, who have tortured and massacred an unoffending but progressive race?"

Governor Hambartsoumiantz and I were returning from the mass of ruins that had once been Ardjesh. On both sides of the road, mounted guards covered every rise of land for a front of more than a mile. Trudging along the road, smiling and happy, were a hundred soldiers of the newly organized Armenian army, who had come out to rescue us from a party of ambushed Kurds beside a narrow ford.

The day before and that morning, he had had most friendly conferences with several powerful Kurd chiefs. These picturesque but bloodthirsty henchmen of the Hun had come in only after hostages had been sent to their camps. Yet their conference with the leader of the Van Armenians was marked with perfect confidence and good will.

It was dramatic, that strange meeting in Ardjesh. Over in the city, with its skeletons of former homes showing their eyeless sockets to the heavens, were four great pyramids of human bones—crumbling monuments to Turkish efficiency under German direction. The people laid down their arms in return for solemn promises of immunity from massacre.

Save your bullets for foxes," said the commander, and only a handful of half-crazed women and children escaped the inhuman slaughter which wiped out ten thousand lives.

All around us, that February day, were thousands of Kurds, starving but well armed, who restrained their blood-lust because it was understood that the Armenians had powerful and interested friends. It was the last good opportunity for compromise or conference. Two days later, the Armenian army at Erzerum retreated in a panic before the Turks. Today, no one knows but what another massacre has been incidental to the passage of a Turkish army across the face of Armenia from Erzerum to Tabriz.

The Kurds are not to blame," replied the Governor. "They are ignorant and know no better. You heard how Kamil Beg described the methods by which the Turks have kept his people poor and uneducated and then have used them as butchers. We cannot hate such dupes. Their condition is as bad as ours.

"When leaders attempt to carry out such cruel measures as were decided upon, the men who do the dirty work have to be given a free hand. The officers took the young women, but the other loot fell into the hands of the common fighters. The man we are after is not the untaught savage, trained as a brute, but the man who sits behind a polished table strewn with maps, and finding a spot where resistance to his greed for world-might may develop, says, 'Wipe it out!' Abdul Hamid was our first enemy. The Young Turks, jealous of Armenian worth, were next. But the arch-fiend of them all is the man who planned this thing years-ago, while giving churches to the Holy Land. Armenia's enemy today is not the Kurd, but the Kaiser."

Germany's Pan-Turanian dream seems to be materializing. Defeat on the western front will once more drive the German war-lords to seek victory elsewhere. Aside from a small band of Armenian patriots in the Erivan district, there is no definitely pro-Ally force from the Bosphorus to the English armies in Jerusalem and Mesopotamia. And even those forces will be endangered if German propaganda among the Tartars, Persians and other Moslems is successful, as it gave promise of being when I left the Caucasus last April.

The spirit of revenge for what the Turk has done, the desire to save the remnant of the Armenian race, and the determination to crush forever a Pan- German movement which might reach India itself—all seem to cry out to us to declare war on Turkey. But big, rich and brave as America is, she is unable to wage such a war at present. We have no men ready to make a declaration of war effective and France and Italy will need all the men we can train for months to come.

The dash of American arms has never been felt in the Turkish theater of war. But the power and humanity of American missionary and relief work has made itself felt for decades. If we declare war on Turkey, we can send force there only by lessening our shipments to France and Italy. But American relief work in Turkey would stop at once. During months of "paper war," new suffering would ensue, for which our rash act would be immediately responsible, and we would lose all our influence among a wavering people.

American missionaries are credited with keeping us out of a war for which in years past they have eagerly exhorted. But it is not fear that their lives will be taken, their relief work stopped or their property confiscated that makes them urge patience and forbearance now. It is the menace of the German army. They hold to the principle of war that the "army of the enemy is the objective" and they recognize Prussianism rather than Kurdish brutality as the power which must be crushed.

We cannot yet declare an effective war on Turkey, But we may be sure that every Allied success on the western front will be reflected in the thoughts and plans of the Near East—home of opportunists. Persians, Tartars, Georgians, Afghans, and Turkomen are judging the safety of their plans by the fortunes of war in France. But the western front alone is not enough. We must not remain idle when Germany is exerting every influence among ignorant people against us. We cannot remain idle when humanity is dying thru starvation. Christian relief work on the broadest lines is our only way out. Beginning at the Persian Gulf, we must fight German greed with American charity, German intrigue with American friendship, and German bribery with American food for the starving.

In four great colleges on Turkish soil, consecrated and trusted Americans are fighting German propaganda in the most effective way—a Christ-like humanity in the midst of moral and physical chaos. The Syrian Protestant College in Beirut has more than seven hundred students. Robert College, on the Bosphorus, and International College at Smyrna have a thousand more. The American College for Girls is still open. The Turkish Government is supplying these colleges with food and fuel at nominal prices. In a score of other centers, American relief work is being carried on where thousands are dying from starvation.

Is this kindly treatment of American institutions by a cruel government a bribe to America to prevent a declaration of war? The answer is found in the character of the men and women who are carrying on this work. Ambassador Morgenthau never tires of praising them. They are heroes, who would rather be killed than have their presence in Turkey operate against a righteous declaration of war. If Turkish kindness to them were preventing an outbreak of hostilities, they would be the first to protest. But they are on the ground. They know of Turkish irritation under the Prussian yoke. They know that many Turks look to America with friendliness and trust. They see the widespread German propaganda which can be fought only by limitless force or limitless love, and in the absence of force they are exerting the love.

Turkey is not the only problem. Persia must be won away from suicidal allegiance to the deep-laid German plans. American relief is planning the only possible method for winning the Persian to the Allied cause thru a proper and friendly approach in the midst of distrust and despair.

Dr. Harry Pratt Judson, heading a worthy commission to Persia under the auspices of the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief, has recently sailed.

The Allied advance on the west front will impress Turkey and the entire Near East more profoundly than a declaration of war. Christian relief work will impress the shrewd Levantines more than the most cleverly camouflaged scheme of world-domination hatched in Berlin.

The Potsdam crew still seem ignorant of righteousness and our boys in France are showing the might of American arms. But in the Near East the responsibility falls upon the missionary. If the missionary must be supplanted by the soldier, let the change be sure and swift. But the Near Eastern Question will never be settled until the German war lords are humbled. And the road to that polished table in Potsdam leads thru France.

In the Near East, America can exert two influences, both righteous. Charity and force offer ample field for American effort. But until force can become effective, it would be criminal to forsake the opportunity of Christian charity, even if it did not, as it surely does, offer the most probable solution to the problems that confront the Allies in the Near East.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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