Between Counterinsurgency and Genocide

September 18, 2014
Armenians marched

Edward J. Erickson, Ottomans and Armenians: A Study in Counterinsurgency (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)


It is rare that a military historical study simultaneously informs professional debate and viscerally angers segments of the general audience, but Edward Erickson’s Ottomans and Armenians seems destined to do just that. The book provides valuable insights on the interrelationship of insurgency, counter-insurgency, atrocity, and conventional war. Military officers and general readers will find in Erickson’s work a nuanced discussion of the dilemmas and shortcomings of counterinsurgency as a mode of warfare. They may also be surprised at the complexity of the situation faced by Ottoman armies in the east in 1915. This is a welcome contribution, given the still unsettled debate on counterinsurgency in the wake of drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan and the still contentious history surrounding the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The latter issue grants the book policy relevance beyond what one finds in most recent texts on counterinsurgency. This book can help stimulate and inform a higher level political debate that is certain to intensify over the coming year: whether the United States should formally recognize the killings of Armenians in eastern Anatolia during the First World War as genocide, in the centennial year of 1915.

Relatively little has been published in English specifically about the Ottoman eastern fronts. Past authors have either covered the charges of genocide without detailed treatment of military considerations (such as Hovannisian), or focused on conventional military operations with little on the deportations (such as Allen and Muratoff). Erickson ignores neither Ottoman strategists nor the Armenian deportees; instead, he argues that the desperation of the former tragically led to the annihilation of the latter. He argues that the Ottoman political and military leadership did not initiate the brutal campaign of Armenian deportations in the Ottoman east in order to destroy a people, but did so in response to serious strategic threats to vulnerable lines of communication and to incitement of Armenian rebellion by the Entente powers. His conclusions are the result of his time studying Ottoman archival materials, providing a logical, evidence-based perspective about Ottoman motives and plans that have been viewed previously through polemical or conjectural perspectives. Under international law, to prove genocide one must have accurate knowledge of the mindset of the killers toward the victims: they must have intended to destroy a people. To date, the lack of an examination of Ottoman perspectives has been a key gap in our historical understanding of the period. Erickson is to be commended for moving the debate forward on this ground.

Who might find Erickson’s work outrageous? Armenian civil society groups may condemn the book. Such groups frequently assert that assessing Ottoman motives amounts to justification of Ottoman war crimes or minimization of the enormity of Armenian suffering. Scholars of genocide, too, may take umbrage – a good number of them consider the Armenian genocide to be beyond historical debate. Unfortunately, many studies of the Armenian case dismiss contrary arguments or evidence as not worth examining, and frequently conflate presentation of such evidence with denial of an established moral and material fact (Armenian Weekly, Balakian, Smith et al). This approach blurs the important distinction between denying that certain events occurred and debating how to characterize them. More importantly, it attacks the act of presenting a contrary argument as immoral in and of itself. Readers and researchers should be sensitive when their topics are potentially inflammatory or hurtful to other people. At the same time, though, readers should be suspicious of those seeking to shut down debate on controversial topics, especially when documentary evidence and historical argument have not been exhausted. With that in mind, Erickson’s study merits a balanced read.

Key Arguments

Erickson’s central contribution is to provide the political, strategic, and military context of the 1915 events as the Ottoman military leaders saw it. Five key factors shaped their view of the unfolding struggle in eastern Anatolia:

  • The strategic exhaustion of the Ottoman state;
  • The precarious deployment of Ottoman armies at the outset of war;
  • The provocative actions of the Entente powers on the eve of war;
  • The perception of a serious threat posed by Armenian insurgents (çeteciler);
  • And the nature of counterinsurgency campaigns conducted by other imperial powers in the decades prior to 1915 (e.g., the U.S. in the Philippines, the Spanish in Cuba, and the British in South Africa).

He argues that these factors formed a causal chain that led the Ottomans to see relocation or deportation of civilian populations sustaining the çeteciler as the only way to prevent the collapse of the Ottoman east and its occupation by the Entente powers. This operational imperative became a tragedy of immense proportions because the Ottomans lacked sufficient transportation and logistics networks. They also lacked sufficient troops or political will to protect Armenians from local officials, irregular militias, or Kurdish tribesmen during deportation (Toros Sarian). The reader then must struggle with the question of whether a military plan so poorly conceived and resourced that it kills hundreds of thousands of people unintentionally constitutes genocide. Put another way, were the Armenians at greater risk from a well-executed plan for genocide or from depredations and deprivations stemming from military insufficiency? It is worth remembering in this regard that the Turks lost 75,000 of their own troops, most through exposure, during an inept and abortive offensive at Sarikamiş over a month of fighting the previous winter (Allen and Muratoff).

Erickson’s evidence helps make sense of Ottoman decisions before and during the First World War. The Ottoman state was suffering from strategic exhaustion after a series of disastrous small wars and insurgencies that left the Turks low on money, manpower, political unity, and operationally deployable forces.   Ottoman armies were deployed precariously far forward along exposed frontiers in Thrace and eastern Anatolia. Its more defensible borderlands were lost to the Russians and Balkan states during the previous several decades. German advisors and Ottoman political leaders believed the empire had to take the offensive early in the coming war to avoid occupation and partition. As a result, the interior of Anatolia, including sensitive lines of communication and transportation, was left to the mercy of irregular and insurgent forces, primarily Armenian komitaci groups. The long distances made communication with and supply of dispersed forces dependent on a very limited road and rail network. The Armenian population centers lay astride the key rail lines and seaports necessary to enable Ottoman strategic mobility, and Armenian fighters had a symbiotic relationship with those population centers. Meanwhile, British and Russian forces were preparing for military operations on Ottoman territory and were actively courting the empire’s Armenian populations to support and participate in those operations. By early 1915, Ottoman political and military leaders sincerely believed that they faced a major Armenian insurgency acting as a proxy of its powerful state enemies. In response, they turned to the mass, forced movement of populations, which typified counter-insurgency campaigns carried out in previous decades by the United States, Great Britain, and Spain. Just as the U.S. military has taken its lessons (somewhat selectively) from recent counterinsurgency campaigns, the Ottomans did the same 100 years ago.

Erickson demonstrates that the removal of civilian communities from contested, strategically critical areas was consistent with both the military logic and the strategic dilemma the Ottomans faced. The impact of this campaign in practice was devastating and horrific. Unfortunately for the civilian populations involved, wars of that era might kill hundreds of thousands incidentally, whether or not that was the primary intention of national leadership (in this case the Triumvirate and the German-influenced Ottoman General Staff). Only in recent decades – some would argue still not yet – have the majority of belligerent states stopped fighting insurgency through “…terror against the population as a dominant strategy.” More exhaustive historical research may provide a more complete picture of Ottoman motivations and the balance between operational exigency and genocidal intent, but Erickson’s work makes it difficult to assert that the former played no role.

For all its strengths, the book suffers from two noticeable flaws. The first is that the author fails to account for the term “genocide” in its full sense. Is it possible that the Ottoman campaign to pacify eastern Anatolia was both counterinsurgency and genocide? To answer this question, we need a more nuanced discussion of genocide than the book contains. Erickson focused only on the legal definition, rather than the popular usage of “genocide.” The second is that his articulation and refutation of counter-arguments is shunted into an appendix, rather than integrated into his main argument and the various chapters. This reduces the book’s persuasiveness somewhat, as many readers are not eager to engage with an expanded appendix after finishing the main text.

Why This Book Matters

This book matters greatly as a contribution to the public debate that will likely build over the next year regarding formal recognition of the Armenian genocide by the United States. Supporters of recognition will argue that the key elements of the case have been settled, and that the time has come for the United States to reinforce anti-genocide norms by censuring this early instance of it. Proponents of this generally hold the following views:

  • The Ottoman deportations of Armenians beginning in 1915 marked the start of the first modern genocide, comparable in type and degree to the Holocaust;
  • This was an intentional act, centrally planned and systematically carried out against a loyal, non-combatant Ottoman minority;
  • The Ottomans had no real military justification and no real interest in relocating Armenians;
  • Ottoman military losses against the Russians led to a lust for revenge;
  • Western witnesses to atrocities were generally reliable; the Turks reflexively lied (then) and deny (now), and Turkish documents therefore only matter insofar as they verify guilt;
  • The Republic of Turkey bears responsibility today for these events;
  • To dispute any of these facts is tantamount to perpetuation of the crime.

These elements comprise the dominant narrative for the charges of genocide, and recognition apparently entails adoption of each and every element. Such recognition would have deep implications regarding potential reparations payments, could worsen relations between Turkey and Armenia, and might exacerbate Christian-Muslim tensions on a regional or global scale. Most significantly for War on the Rocks readers, if the United States were to recognize the Ottoman treatment of the Armenians as genocide, its relations with Turkey would be forever changed. If the case was clear-cut from a legal and evidentiary standpoint, these might be acceptable, or even necessary, complications and costs. Erickson raises enough nagging issues about the law, evidence and context, however, that we might conclude that further study is still needed. First, the Ottoman documents and narratives have yet to be sufficiently studied or critically characterized. Second, the context of a global war and the actions of all relevant actors has not been included in the dominant narrative; the actions of the countries planning the partition of the Ottoman Empire certainly impacted Ottoman thinking, and must be part of the analysis of military actions or violence against civilian communities. Third, there are unresolved theoretical and practical concerns over applying a convention adopted in 1948 to actions carried out decades earlier and not systematically documented at the time; chief among these is the issue of mens rea(specific genocidal intent). In short, discussion and investigation should continue. Possible recognition should result from, rather than precede, such examination.

The Turkish public has begun to more openly discuss the reality of the genocide charge, and the erosion of the taboo bodes well for future attempts by Turks, Armenians, and Westerners to come to a mutually intelligible characterization of tragic historical events and resulting responsibilities. After decades of restrictions, the Turks are allowing reasonably free and unfettered access to their archival materials. This is a delicate process and one that is open to disruption should premature recognition prompt a nationalist backlash in Turkey. The possibility of a joint historical commission to review the documentary record of the period holds merit, and may ultimately replace the cycle of accusation and denial with a deeper understanding of how war poses a perpetual threat to civilian communities. Such a cooperative effort might include the study of Muslim peoples slaughtered or expelled from the Caucasus and the Balkans by the Russians and their allies, or might note the variance between popular and legal use of the term genocide and, accordingly, change the nature of Turkey’s liability from strategic and economic concern to symbolic and political. To the extent that his work helps inform that process, Erickson’s book is a worthy read indeed.


Rich Outzen is a U.S. Army officer currently serving on faculty at the National Defense University. A Middle East Foreign Area Officer, he has served in diplomatic and operational assignments in Turkey, Israel, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The opinions expressed are his own and do not represent the positions of the U.S. Army, the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.