Category Archives: History

..and on arrival at the Euphrates he asked permission to drown himself

Whilst I was Kaimakâm of the district of Kiakhta, in the Vilayet of Kharpout, I was acquainted with an Armenian Notable of that place, named Barsoum Agha. He was a worthy and courageous man, dealing well with Kurds, Turks, and Armenians, without distinction; he also showed much kindness to officials who were dismissed from their posts in the district. All the Kurdish Aghas thereabouts kept close watch over him, hating him because he was their rival in the supremacy of the place. When, after my banishment, I arrived at Sivrek and heard what had befallen the Armenians, I enquired about him and his family. I was told that when the Government disposed of the Armenians of Kiakhta he was summoned and ordered to produce the records of moneys owing to him (Kurds and Armenians in that district owed him a sum of 10,000 liras); he replied that he had torn up the records and released his debtors from their obligations. He was taken away with the other Armenians, and on arrival at the Euphrates he asked permission to drown himself. This was granted, and he endeavoured to do so, but failed, as he could not master himself. So he said to the gendarmes, “Life is dear and I cannot kill myself, so do as you have been ordered,” whereupon one of them shot him and then killed the rest of the family.

- Fa’iz El-Ghusein, Martyred Armenia (1917)

..visions of air-ships hovering over a doomed city

Military aeronautics, like submarine operations in naval warfare, have been somewhat overrated. Visions of air-ships hovering over a doomed city and devastating it with missiles dropped from above are mere fairy tales. Indeed the whole subject of aeronautics as an element in future human progress has excited far more attention than its intrinsic merits deserve.

A balloon is at the mercy of the wind and must remain so, while a true flying machine, which supports itself in the air by the operation of fans or similar devices, may be interesting as a toy, but cannot have much economical importance for the future. When man has the solid earth upon which to conduct his traffic, without the necessity of overcoming the force of gravitation by costly power, he would be foolish in the extreme to attempt to abandon the advantage which this gives him, and to commit himself to such an element as the air, in which the power required to lift himself and his goods would be immeasurably greater than that needed to transport them from place to place.

The amount of misdirected ingenuity that has been expended on these two problems of submarine and aerial navigation during the nineteenth century will offer one of the most curious and interesting studies to the future historian of technological progress.

- George Sutherland, Twentieth Century Inventions: A Forecast (1901) of those basking hamadryads of the State Department

Stanley Hornbeck was one of those basking hamadryads of the State Department who, having reached a place in the sun, lie coiled in wait for any creatures that might disturb its repose.  He had spent only four years of his life in China, teaching in government colleges at the time of the 1911 Revolution. He had scant knowledge of the language, even less of the country or its people. What little he knew he published in 1916 in an opaque book titled Contemporary Politics in the Far East, which quickly found its way to oblivion. Hornbeck got a job as a lecturer on Asia at Harvard in the twenties, published another book that did not stand up to serious scrutiny, and parlayed the book and his Harvard position into an appointment in 1928 as chief of Far Eastern Affairs at the Department of State.

This incredible stroke of misfortune for the nation gave Hornbeck control of the flow of information from Foreign Service officers to policy planners at State and to the presidential Cabinet. He withheld cables from the Secretary of State that were critical of Chiang, and once stated that “the United States Far Eastern policy is like a train running on a railroad track. It has been clearly laid out and where it is going is plain to all.” It was in fact bound for Saigon in 1975, with whistle stops along the way at Peking, Quemoy, Matsu, and the Yalu River.

- Sterling Seagrave, The Soong Dynasty (1985)

..transcending the need for facts, experience, and details

FDR was recklessly predisposed to help China. Because of his family’s old ties to the Shanghai opium trade, which his relatives never tired of ressurecting as evidence of their worldliness and sagacity, the President seemed to think he had a comprehension of China transcending the need for facts, experience, and details. Like many other Americans who imagined themselves to be old China hands, not least among them Henry Luce, FDR had a highly colored and idealized image of the Orient.  Knowing this through their diplomatic representatives in Washington, both T.V. Soong and H.H. Kung had taken advantage of their government posts in Naking over the years to write letters to Roosevelt, cultivating him, sending him gifts of tea that – with shrewd calculation – were not sufficiently ostentatious to be turned down as a bribe. T.V. had also sent Roosevelt the wooden model of a Hainan junk. These contacts had had the desired effect. T.V. was a foreign identity that the White House recognized. Now that he had adopted FDR’s cronies as his own, and was cultivating them shrewdly and lavishly, T.V. had a direct pipeline into the Oval Office.

- Sterling Seagrave, The Soong Dynasty (1985) China the drug became known as “Jesus opium”

By the 1930s, opium was taking a back seat to its more powerful products, morphine and heroin. The evolution was gradual. Morphine had been widely used by Western missionaries in the late 1800s to cure Chinese opium addicts: So in China the drug became known as “Jesus opium.” Then heroin, first derived from opium in 1874 by chemists at Bayer pharmaceuticals in Germany, and launched by Bayer as a patent medicine in 1898, showed promise as a treatment for morphine addicts. Chinese first became opium addicts, then graduated to morphine, then to heroin. By 1924, China was importing enough heroin from Japan each year to provide four strong doses of the drug to every one of the nation’s 400 million inhabitants. In that same year, however, the U.S. Congress, which had only recently banned alcohol, banned heroin as a patent medicine. Immediately, American mobsters, who were doing a thriving trade in bootlegging, plunged into the heroin trade. While European criminal syndicates drew their supplies of opium from the poppy fields of Persia and the so-called Golden Crescent, American mobs found it easier and cheaper to buy from China.

In 1931, Big-eared Tu held a great celebration in his own honor, to inaugurate an ancestral temple in his native village of Kaochiao in Pootung, across the river from Shanghai. Eighty thousand people turned out for the celebration, thousands of them government officials and national dignitaries invited personally by Tu. After everyone went home, the ancestral temple Tu had built became his largest clandestine morphine and heroin factory.

- Sterling Seagrave, The Soong Dynasty (1985)

..which stripped the field of flowers and left only weeds to grow

It is one of the truisms of government by assasination that it removes the most promising leaders from competition. This was certainly true of the period that ensued in China, which stripped the field of flowers and left only weeds to grow.

Among the early victims was thirty-one-year-old Sung Chiao-jen, a leader of the new KMT party and one of only four independent republicans remaining in [Yuan Shih-k'ai's] Cabinet.  This young politician had a capacity that was quite original for China – in addition to being a remarkable administrator, he was a grassroots campaigner, able to rouse popular support in the countryside, something even Dr. Sun had not attempted. Sun’s immediate circle held that peasants needed to be led for a time by an educated elite, before they could be entrusted with a more direct role in the democratic process. By comparison, the popular appeal of Sung Chiao-jen was a political phenomenon. When Yuan began his power grab, Sung Chiao-jen and the three other independent Cabinet members resigned in protest, creating a direct confrontation. On March 20, 1913, while Sung was boarding a train in Shanghai, an assassin shot him twice in the stomach. The bullets were aimed to cause the greatest agony. It took two days for him to die.

- Sterling Seagrave, The Soong Dynasty (1985)

..revolutionary passion lent a terrible drama to each horrific setback

Given [Sun Yat-Sen's] propensity for disaster, we might be forgiven for wondering how he maintained his hold on his followers. What was his magic? In retrospect, with the advantage of hindsight, Sun’s adventures take on a picaresque folly that would endear him to Viennese fans of opera bouffe. But this was not apparent in Sun’s day. The participants were too close to events. Revolutionary passion lent a terrible drama to each horrific setback. It was not possible to recognize the comic proportions of a fiasco when it resulted in gruesome beheadings, mutilations, and slow strangulation. Suns’s pratfalls were not comic opera so much as grand guignol, taken with deadly seriousness by the participants, if not by all of the audience.

Also, there were many conspirators involved, and Sun only appears to blame when his case is seen in isolation. He was unquestionable gifted. He was an impassioned orator, able to illuminate the cause he championed, and to inspire to action those who might otherwise have wasted their energy and ardor in drunken conspiratorial discussion, where most revolutions are stillborn. If he was in some respects superficial, it might have been this quality alone that kept him alive while other, better revolutionaries were being murdered. There was a great deal of carnage going on. Many firebrands and plotters died grisly deaths. Perhaps there were among them men and women of much greater nobility than Sun, but they were too engaged to last. Sun’s quirks kept him slightly disengaged, so Sun always survived.

- Sterling Seagrave, The Soong Dynasty (1985)

..such a governor could not ever again preside over the affairs of Takrit

“To break someone’s eye,” is an old Bedouin expression, which was turned into state policy in Iraq through the employment of a rapist like ‘Aziz Salih Ahmad. The people of Takrit were famous under the Ottomans for the way they would “break the eye” of any non-Takriti governor who  might be imposed on them by central government. The newly appointed governor, along with his wife and children, would be invited for a welcoming feast in the ho use of a local notable, On the way back, the party would be ambushed by a group of armed masked men. The governor would be forced to watch his wife being gang-raped, after which the men would whip off their masks, show the governor their faces, and disappear into the night, killing no one.  Such a governor could not ever again preside over the affairs of Takrit.  By the late 1970s, the most famous “aristocratic” Baghdadi families were having their eyes “broken” by the new upstart Ba’thi rulers, even though these families had long ceased to wield political influence or even economic power in the country. Young women from such families were kidnapped off the streets on their way to and from some of the famous clubs of Baghdad. They would disappear for a few weeks, and then reappear. Everybody would know what had happened to them, but no one would dare (or want) to say anything about it.

- Kanan Makiya, Cruelty and Silence (1993) breakdown and nationalist appeal seemed to impress the interrogator

Up to this point my interrogator had been speaking very quietly. Then he suddenly screamed in a voice that almost brought the roof down.

“I shall bring him this instant and hang him up here! GUARDS! Bring his father. Bring that bastard father of his!”

The tears almost drowned me out when he said this. I couldn’t see a thing and felt like a complete degenerate for having brought such pain on the man who brought me up.

Sayyidi, God preserve you, please, sayyidi, my father is paralyzed. He was one of Iraq’s nationalist officers in 1941, He is a sick man. Please, sayyidi, God preserve and watch over you, he is a great Arab nationalist.”

My breakdown and nationalist appeal seemed to impress the interrogator. I felt he respected me for the fact that I was trying to protect my father. Maybe he hadn’t known that my father had spent four years in the prisons of the ancien regime because of his role in 1941. The Rashid ‘Ali affair in 1941 is a big thing with the Ba’thists.

The following day, when I was on my ten-second Monkey Run to the toilet, I saw Nabeel, half naked, in filthy rags, just like everyone else. Nabeel had been playing the role of informer in a big charade prepared for my benefit. He was in the same boat as I was! Worse in fact. I spent forty-two days inside and was decreed innocent, whereas he, poor chap, got life imprisonment.

- “Omar”, quoted by Kanan Makiya in Cruelty and Silence (1993)

..promptly terminated the lifeblood of the intifada

Five to ten thousand armed Iraqi Shi’ites, organized in small bands and recruited from refugees expelled by the Ba’th during the late 1970′s and 1980′s, entered the country through the marshlands around Basra on the second or third day of the uprising. They were units from the Badr Brigade, organized by the Supreme Islamic Council headed by Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim. [..] The first action of these angry young men pouring in from Iran seems to have been the storming of the Sheraton Hotel and the burning of the bars and casinos of the city of Basra. They then proclaimed the establishment of a Shi’i Islamic Republic in Basra. Surrendering or captured army personnel were executed, occasionally in “trials” presided over by clerics. These judgments were implemented on men who were in the eyes of the rebels “enemies of God”. [..]

Such violence, justified in the name of Islam, but more often than not motivated by the desire for vengeance, promptly terminated the lifeblood of the intifada: the flow of defections from the army. This explains the ability of the regime to regroup its shattered forces and strike back.  In Najaf, as we have seen, attempts were made to check the descent into anarchy by resident notables and ‘ulema‘, learned religious men, acting through the prestige of Ayatollah Khoei. But in Basra and Kerbala, whatever leadership there was came from Iraqis based in Tehran. These are also the cities where some of the worst rebel excesses occured.

- Kanan Makiya, Cruelty and Silence (1993)