Monday, July 27, 2015

"The Great Fire" by Lou Ureneck (2015)

I’m not exactly sure why both the media and historians have chosen 2015 to commemorate the Armenian Massacre as the first Genocide of the 20th Century.  The first of the killings began in 1912 as the Ottoman Empire continued to crumble from lack of new lands to conquer and tax. This trend had begun in the 1800’s and by the early part of the 20th Century the Ottoman Empire; as such; was doomed. But the massacres began before 1915 and continued on through 1922 and the events at Smyrna; in present day Izmir. This book is chiefly about the massacre at Smyrna; though the author also does a masterful job of giving the reader the entire historical context which led up to it.

Nothing ever really changes in reference to the Middle East and Islam. The lines change; the names change; but the killings go on. IN this masterfully written account of the Massacre at Smyrna in 1922 author Lou Ureneck does a masterful job at bringing to life one of the most awful historical events of the early 20th century. That he does so in such a way as to leave the reader more informed about the present day political situation in regards to ISIS and ISIL makes the book even more remarkable.

They say that the only thing new is the history you don’t know; and this book serves to prove the point. When the First World War came to an end for most of the world, the Greeks and Turks were still fighting. The Ottoman Empire had been scaled back and the Turks were fighting to keep all of the land that they could. 

Mustapha Kemal; who is known more widely as Ataturk, would become the man who would lead Turkey into the 20th Century and remake the nation as a secular one. That struggle continues today with the Turkish government doing a tightrope walk between the secular principles established by Kemal, and the pull of radical Islam in the form of ISIS.

The Greeks were fighting the Turks for several reasons; chief among them being that King Constantine was deemed at fault for losing the war to the Ottomans and he was also being opposed by Greek Nationalists, who would eventually remove him in the days following the events at Smyrna. 

The heroes of this book are a sickly missionary named Asa Jennings; and 2 feisty young American naval Lt. Commanders named Halsey Powell and J.B. Rhodes. Together these 3 men bucked a callous and unfeeling Admiral named Mark Bristol and essentially formulated their own foreign policy in order to save almost a million people from being slaughtered on the Quay in Smyrna.

Against the wishes of the Turkish government; and under the most severe of conditions; these 3 men organized a relief effort to remove the helpless Armenian Christians to a safer haven. How they did this, in the age before instant communication, is an unbelievable story of human compassion and the will to do what is right.

This book will do more to inform the reader of the current situation in the Middle East than a month of reading today’s newspapers. Between these covers lay the history of the Ottoman Empire and how it has grown and ebbed in the past; providing a window to the present for those who will take the time and thought to make the connections.

The following excerpts are from Ernest Hemingway’s “On the Quay at Smyrna” and are quoted by the author in the book. They will do more to move you than anything I can hope to write. I offer them here as an inducement for you to read this masterfully written account by Mr. Ureneck.

“The strange thing was,” he said, “how they screamed every night at midnight. I do not know why they screamed at that time. We were in the harbor and they were all on the pier and at midnight they started screaming. We used to turn the searchlight on them to quiet them. That always did the trick. We'd run the searchlight up and down over them two or three times and they stopped it.”

“The worst,” he said, “were the women with dead babies. You couldn't get the women to give up their dead babies. They'd have babies dead for six days. Wouldn't give them up. Nothing you could do about it. Had to take them away finally…”

Also consider this quote from page 243 of the text; 

“At 4AM on May 26, 1908, the drill struck oil, and it gushed 50 feet over the rig. A young British Lieutenant who was present, along with 20 rifleman to protect the operation against bandits, sent the news back to the British government in code; “See Pslam 104 Verse 15 third sentence.”  The passage read; “And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face shine…”

“Gusher followed gusher, and the Near East oil industry was born. In 1909, the British syndicate was reformulated under as the Anglo- Persian Oil Company; later to be named BP, British Petroleum.”

“All this, by way of a winding road, led to World War One, the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, Smyrna, and (Admiral) Bristol’s inexcusable response to a humanitarian disaster.”

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