August 17, 1917  Black Swallow of Death

French President Charles de Gaulle came to New York City in 1960, surprising media and dignitaries alike when all he wanted to do was to visit with a black elevator operator at the Rockefeller Center.

Eugene James Bullard was born October 9, 1894 in Columbus Georgia, the seventh of 10 children born to William Octave Bullard and an indigenous Creek named Josephine “Yokalee” Thomas.  Bullard’s father had come from Martinique, where his people could trace their lineage back to the Haitian Revolution.

Eugene wanted to leave behind the racial discrimination of his day.  The near-lynching of his father became the catalyst in 1902, when the boy was eight.  He ran away from home, spending the next four years doing odd jobs to survive  The elder Bullard had always told him “in France a man is accepted as a man regardless of the color of his skin”.   In 1906, the boy stowed away on a German ship to Aberdeen.

Bullard worked a number of odd jobs to support himself.  By age 16 he was becoming well known as a boxer, and moved to Paris at the first opportunity.

WWI broke out in August of 1914.  By the end of the year the French nation had suffered over a half million casualties.Ace-Website-Banner-1

Bullard enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, an American serving as one of 54 different nationalities serving in the Moroccan Division, Third Marching Regiment.

The Regiment was sent to the Somme front in 1915, where 300,000 Frenchmen were lost by the end of November. One unit of 500 men began the disastrous Champagne offensive of September.    At the end of the battle, 31 responded to the first evening’s roll call.

What remained of Bullard’s unit was disbanded to form the 170th Infantry, and sent to Verdun.  He thought he had arrived in hell, saying, “I thought I had seen fighting in other battles but no one has ever seen anything like Verdun – not ever before or ever since.”

Erich von Falkenhayn had designed his battle plan for Verdun to “bleed France white”, calling Verdun Operation Gericht.  Operation Execution Place.  Over 250,000 died in the 10 months long battle, more than 100,000 were missing and 300,000 gassed or wounded.

Bullard had been wounded four times before.  On March 5th 1916, he received the wounds that took him out of the ground war.  He was 8 months in hospital when the opportunity arose to join the French Flying Corps.  A white American buddy bet him $2,000 that he couldn’t get into aviation and become a pilot, and he took the challenge.  Bullard earned his wings on May 5, 1917, and received his $2,000 soon thereafter.

Bullard and JimmyBullard was assigned to the 93d Spad Squadron on August 17, 1917, flying Spad V11s and Nieuports with a mascot, a pet Rhesus Monkey he called “Jimmy”.  He said, “I was treated with respect and friendship – even by those from America.  Then I knew at last that there are good and bad white men just as there are good and bad black men.”

The first black combat pilot and the only one to serve in the Great War, Bullard painted a bleeding red heart pierced by a knife on the side of his Spad biplane. Below the heart were the words “Tout le Sang qui coule est rouge!” The phrase roughly translates as “All Blood Runs Red”.

Bullard is credited with two kills while flying for the 93rd, though one of the Germans crashed behind enemy lines so it remained unconfirmed.  He tried to join the American squadron when the US entered the war, but the whites only policy of the time prevented him from doing so.

Bullard married in 1923.  The marriage ended in divorce, with Bullard gaining custody of their two surviving daughters (a son had died of pneumonia in infancy).   He became a drummer at the jazz club, “Le Grand Duc”, later buying his own club and calling it “L’Escadrille”.  Bullard made several famous friends during this time, including Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, Langston Hughes and the French flying ace Charles Nungesser.

He volunteered with the 51st Infantry when WWII broke out, becoming wounded and escaping to the United States in 1940.Bullard, medals

Bullard spent his last days in obscurity. His daughters had married by the 1950s, and he lived alone in a New York apartment, decorated with pictures of his famous friends and a framed case containing his fifteen French war medals.  He worked as an elevator operator at the Rockefeller Center, where nobody knew anything about his service.

The French government requested his presence in 1954, when he and two white Frenchmen were accorded the honor of relighting the Eternal Flame at the Tomb of the Unknown French Soldier at l’Arc de Triomphe.

France honored Bullard once again in 1959, naming him a Knight of the Légion d’honneur in a lavish ceremony in New York City. Dave Garraway interviewed him on the Today Show, but he remained alone and unknown in his native country.quote-tout-le-sang-qui-coule-rouge-all-blood-is-red-eugene-bullard-71-83-05

French President Charles de Gaulle came to New York City in 1960, surprising media and dignitaries alike when all he wanted to do was to visit the black elevator operator who worked at the Rockefeller Center.

Eugene James “Jacques” Bullard died on October 12, 1961.  He was buried with the tri-color of France draping his coffin, laid to rest with full honors by the Federation of French War Officers at Flushing Cemetery in New York.

The first black fighter pilot, the “Black Swallow of Death”, was honored by the country he had loved and served during two world wars.  On August 23, 1994, 77 years after Bullard’s American flight physical, the USAF posthumously awarded Eugene Bullard a commission as a Lieutenant.

 

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  August 16, 1945  The Last Emperor

Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” of the late 1960s is estimated to have killed 40 to 70 million Chinese.  You’re really playing in the Big Leagues, when they can’t estimate your death toll to anything closer than the nearest 30 million.

At the age of 2 years and 10 months, Puyi was taken from his parents and installed on the Qing Dynasty throne, in the Chinese Imperial Palace in Beijing.  The year was 1908.

It must have been bewildering for this toddler who was terrified by the sound of the ceremonial drums. Grown men would kowtow and avert their eyes in his presence.  His wet nurse, Wen-Chao Wang, was the only familiar face in the Royal Court.  She was the only one who could console him.  She alone was allowed to accompany him to the Forbidden City.

Puyi’s abdication of the throne four years later marked the end of 1,000 years of dynastic rule in China, earning him the sobriquet “The Last Emperor” of China.

mukden
Japanese experts gathered to inspect the scene of the ‘railway sabotage’ on the railway line.

Today, the Tsingtao beer available in Chinese restaurants the world over, is one of the last cultural vestiges of European colonization of China. In the latter half of the 19th century, China became increasingly subjugated through colonization by British, French and German powers.

American President Millard Filmore dispatched Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan in 1852, forcing an opening of that nation’s economy to trade with the West, and commencing a half-century’s period of rapid industrialization in resource-poor Japan. The smaller nation grew in both economic and military power, while China suffered the humiliations of the first and second opium wars, and forced colonization by European interests.

Japan piled on in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, culminating in the massacre of much of Lüshun City (formerly “Port Arthur”), cession of Chinese territories, and the recognition of an independent Korea.

China declared war on Imperial Germany in August 1917, intending to send combat units to the western front, but never getting around to doing so. The move entitled them to a seat at the Paris Peace Conference, but all that got them was a secret list of 21 demands issued by the Japanese Empire.  Japan emerged from this period with greater influence over the Chinese economy, and increased Japanese control over the resource-rich regions of Northern China and Manchuria.

On September 18, 1931, a small quantity of dynamite was detonated by Japanese Lt. Kawamoto Suemori, near a railroad owned by Japan’s South Manchuria Railway near Mukden, in modern Shenyang.  It was a ruse, a bald pretext for the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in Northern China, and everyone knew it.Mukden_1931_japan_shenyang

The explosion was so weak that it failed to destroy the line and a train passed minutes later, but the script was already written.  The Imperial Japanese Army accused Chinese dissidents of the “Mukden Incident”, launching a full scale invasion.

Japan installed Puyi as Emporer Kangde of the puppet state of “Manchukuo”, all the while suppressing the native Han Chinese in one of the most brutal and genocidal occupations of the 20th century.

Puyi was kept on a short leash by his Japanese handlers, his life mainly consisting of signing laws prepared by Japan, reciting prayers, consulting oracles, and making formal visits throughout his state.

The Second world war was drawing to a close when the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, beginning its invasion of occupied China two days after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the day before Nagasaki.  Puyi was captured at an airfield on this day in 1945, and held in a Soviet gulag in Siberia until Mao Tse-Tung’s Communist party came to power in 1949.

JapaneseBeijing
Japanese occupation of Beijing, 1937 – 1945

Puyi spent ten years in the Fushun War Criminals Management Centre in Liaoning province until he was declared “reformed”, moving to Peking in 1959 and taking up residence as an ordinary citizen.Puyi-Manchukuo

Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” of the late 1960s is estimated to have killed 40 to 70 million Chinese.  You’re really playing in the Big Leagues, when they can’t estimate your death toll any closer than the nearest 30 million.

The Last Emperor was an easy target of the “Red Guards”.  He probably wouldn’t have survived the tender ministrations of the communist government, but he died quietly due to complications of Kidney Cancer on October 17, 1967.

The ashes of the last Emperor, a man who had  found himself at the head of over a half-billion people at a time when the world population was only 2 billion, were placed at the Babaoshan Cemetery, the former burial ground of imperial concubines and court eunuchs.

August 15, 1620 Pilgrims

There is a common misconception that the Pilgrims settled in Plymouth in pursuit of religious freedom, but that’s not the way it happened.  They had found their religious liberty in Holland.  What they sought in the New World, was a return to religious discipline.

In 16th century Tudor England, there was widespread belief that authority over the Church belonged with the monarchy, and not with Rome.  England broke with the Catholic Church over the Pope’s refusal to grant Henry VIII a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, the youngest surviving child of Ferdinand and Isabella, in 1533.

Strict conformity with the English, (Anglican) church, was enforced throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, when separatist groups were suppressed. The Puritans were one such group, though they maintained ties with the Anglican. Other separatist groups had irreconcilable differences with the Church of England, believing that worship should be organized independently of the trappings, traditions and organization of the central church.

Tobias Matthew was elected Anglican Archbishop in 1606, and promptly began a campaign to purge the archdiocese of nonconforming influences. Separatists and those wishing to return to the Catholic faith alike were confronted, fined, and imprisoned.  Many “recusants” were driven from the country.

William Bradford, the future 5-time Governor of the Plymouth Colony and signer of the Mayflower Compact, said of this period “[A]fter these things they could not long continue in any peaceable condition, but were hunted & persecuted on every side, so as their former afflictions were but as flea-bitings in comparison of these which now came upon them. For some were taken & clapt up in prison, others had their houses besett & watcht night and day, & hardly escaped their hands; and ye most were faine to flie & leave their howses & habitations, and the means of their livelehood“.

So it was that the group which came to be known as the Pilgrims left England not for the New World, but for Amsterdam, and later the city of Leiden, in the Netherlands.   There they stayed for 13 years.Pilgrims Voyage

By 1617, Bradford was writing of his concern that the younger members of the group were being “drawn away by evil examples into extravagance and dangerous courses“. He wrote positive terms of the “great hope for the propagating and advancing the gospell of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world.”

They considered moving to Virginia, near the existing settlement of Jamestown, but dismissed the idea out of fear that the political atmosphere might be too much like the one they left in England.

Mayflower and Speedwell in Dartmouth
Mayflower and Speedwell in Dartmouth

A land grant was obtained to the north of the existing Virginia territory, to be called New England. The 60-ton Speedwell departed Delfshaven with the Leiden colonists in July 1620, meeting with Mayflower at Southampton, Hampshire. The two vessels set out on August 15, but soon had to turn back as the Speedwell took on water. Speedwell was abandoned after the second failed attempt, Mayflower setting out alone on September 16, 1620, with 121 on board.

pilgrims65 days at sea brought them up on the outer reaches of Cape Cod in mid-November, near the present site of Provincetown Harbor.   There they stayed long enough to draw up the first written framework of government established in the United States, signing the Mayflower Compact off the shores of Provincetown on November 11, 1620.

A month in that place convinced them of its unsuitability.  By mid-December they had crossed Cape Cod Bay and fetched up at Plymouth Harbor.

More than half of these settlers died that first winter, of malnutrition and exposure.

Tisquantum, (Squanto), the English-speaking Pawtuxet, would mediate between the settlers and the native tribes, including Massasoit, chief of the Pokanoket.  Squanto taught them how to plant corn, as well as where to fish and how to hunt beaver.  The harvest feast of 1621, shared between the Pilgrims and the Pokanokets, is now considered the basis for our own Thanksgiving holiday, but that is a story for another day.Pilgrims Thanksgiving

Bradford and the other Plymouth settlers referred to themselves as “Old Comers.”  A manuscript was later discovered, in which Bradford called the settlers who left Holland “Saints” and “Pilgrimes.” 200 years after the colony’s founding, Daniel Webster referred to “Pilgrim Fathers” in a bicentennial address.  The name stuck.

There is a common misconception that the Pilgrims settled in Plymouth in pursuit of religious freedom, but that’s not the way it happened.  They had found their religious liberty in Holland.  What they sought in the New World, was a return to religious discipline.

August 14, 1945 A Kiss in Times Square

The lit message running around the Times Building read, “VJ, VJ, VJ, VJ” as George Mendonsa grabbed a stranger and kissed her. Two seconds later the moment was gone, but Alfred Eisenstaedt and his camera had been in the right place at the right time.

The most destructive war in history ended this day in 1945, with the unconditional surrender of the Empire of Japan.

It was morning on the East Coast.  President Harry Truman had not yet received the formal surrender. The White House official announcement was still hours away, but rumors had been flying since the early morning hours.

Born and raised in Austria, Greta Zimmer was 16 in 1939. Seeing the war bearing down on them, Greta’s parents sent her and her two sisters to America, not knowing if they would ever see them again. Six years later she was a dental assistant, working at the Manhattan office of Dr. J. L. Berke.

Greta’s lunch break came just after 1:00 that day.  Patients had been coming into the office all morning with rumors that the war was over. She set out for Times Square, knowing that the lit and moving type on the Times news zipper would give her the latest news.

Mendonsa, Zimmer
George Mendonsa, Greta Zimmer-Friedman

Petty Officer 1st Class George Mendonsa was on his last day of shore leave, spending the day with his new girlfriend, Rita Petry. They had heard the rumors too, but right now they were enjoying their last day together. The war could wait until tomorrow.

The couple went to a movie at Radio City Music Hall, but the film was interrupted by a theater employee who turned on the lights, announcing that the war was over. Leaving the theater, the couple joined the tide of humanity moving toward Times Square. The pair stopped at the Childs Restaurant on 7th Ave & 49th, where bartenders were pouring anything they could get hands on into waiting glasses.  Revelers were scooping them up as fast as the glasses were filled.

Mendonsa’s alcohol-powered walk/run from the restaurant left Rita trailing behind, but neither one seemed to mind. Times Square was going wild.

The sailor from the USS Sullivans had seen bloodshed. He’d been there on May 11, as kamikaze planes smashed into the USS Bunker Hill.  Explosions and fires killed 346 sailors that day.  43 of their bodies would never be found. Mendonsa had helped to pull the survivors, some of them hideously burned, out of the water. He had watched while Navy nurses tended to the injured and the dying.

When the sailor spotted Greta Zimmer, the dental assistant was dressed the same way.  To him, she must have seemed like one of those white-clad angels of mercy from those earlier months.

kiss-in-times-square-leica-2Reporters from the AP, NY Times, NY Daily News and others descended on Times Square to record the spontaneous celebration.

As a German Jew in the 1930s, Alfred Eisenstaedt had photographed the coming storm. He had photographed Benito Mussolini’s first meeting with Adolf Hitler in Venice in 1934. Now he and his Leica Illa rangefinder camera worked for Life Magazine, heading to Times Square in search of “The Picture”.

The lit message running around the Times Building read, “VJ, VJ, VJ, VJ” as George Mendonsa grabbed a stranger and kissed her. Two seconds later the moment was gone, but Eisenstaedt and his camera had been in the right place at the right time.Times Square Kiss

The image of the sailor kissing the nurse would become as famous as Joe Rosenthal’s photo of the flag raising at Iwo Jima, but not until years later.

The German made camera which took the iconic image recently went to auction at the Westlicht auction house in Vienna, where it was expected to sell for $30,000. The winning bid was almost $150,000.

After the war, Greta Zimmer learned that both of her parents had died in the camps. She later married and made her home in Frederick, Maryland.  Greta Zimmer Friedman never returned to Austria, and passed away last September, at the age of 92.

George Mendonsa and Rita Petry later married. George never saw the famous photograph until 1980.  At first he wasn’t sure he recognized himself.  Today, framed copies of it hang on the wall of their Rhode Island home.

MendonsaThis year, the couple celebrates their 68th wedding anniversary.  Rita says she wasn’t angry that her husband kissed another woman on their first date.  She points out that she can been seen grinning in the background of the famous picture.  She will admit, however, ‘In all these years, George has never kissed me like that.’

August 13, 3114BC  The End of the World

National Geographic explains that 12/21/12 brings to a close not the end of time, but the end of the 12th Bak’tun, an almost 400-year period in the Mayan Long Count calendar.  The world doesn’t end, according to this explanation, it just “rolls over” to the year zero and starts over, kind of like old cars used to do, when they reached 100,000 miles on the odometer.

MayanCalendarOne of the more profoundly silly bits of pop culture nonsense served up in the recent past, may be the world coming to an end on 12/21/12, according to the Mayan calendar. The calendar itself isn’t silly, it’s actually a very sophisticated mathematical construct, but the end of the world part certainly was.

According to linguist, anthropologist and Mayanist scholar Floyd Glenn Lounsbury and his “Lounsbury Correlation”, the Mayan Calendar dates back 5,131 years to August 13, 3114 BC.  This day seems as good as any, though I’m sure there can be little certainty about a date that far in the past.

The Mayans were skilled mathematicians, and it shows in their calendar.  They were the first to recognize the concept of zero, and worked extensively in a base 20 number system.

Long count glyphsThe Mayans used three separate calendars, each period represented by its own glyph. The Long Count was mainly used for historical purposes, able to specify any date within a 2,880,000 day cycle, about 7,885 solar years. The Haab was a civil calendar, consisting of 18 months of 20 days, and one 5-day Uayeb, a nameless period rounding out the 365-day year. The Tzolkin was the “divine” calendar, used mainly for ceremonial and religious purposes.  Consisting of 20 periods of 13 days, the Tzolkin goes through a complete cycle every 260 days. The significance of this cycle is unknown, though it may be connected with the 263 day orbit of Venus. There is no year in the Haab or Tzolkin calendars, though a Haab and Tzolkin date may be combined to specify a particular day within a 52-year cycle.

National Geographic explains that 12/21/12 brings to a close not the end of time, but the end of the 12th Bak’tun, an almost 400-year period in the Mayan Long Count calendar.  The world doesn’t end, according to this explanation, it “rolls over” to the year zero and starts over, kind of like old cars used to do, when the odometer reached 100,000 miles.

MayanCalendar-300x300It doesn’t really roll over to “zero”, either.  The base 20 numerical system means that 12/22/12 begins the next 400 year (actually 394.3 years) period to begin the 13th Bak’tun.  It will reset to zero at the end of the 20th Bak’tun, about 3,000 years from now.  Please let me know how that turns out.

The Mayan calendar system became extinct in most areas after the Spanish conquests of the 16th century, though it continues in use in many modern communities in highland Guatemala and in Veracruz, Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico.

The table of Long Count units below illustrates the Mayan units of measurement.  A day is a K’in, there are 20 K’ins in a Winal, and so on.  Today’s date, according to the Mayan calendar, is Long Count: 13.0.4.12.14, Calendar Round: 8 Ix 12 Yaxk’in, Year Bearer: 6 Ik’, Lord of Night: G2, 13 Bak’tun, 0 K’atun, 4 Tun, 12 Winal, 14 K’in, 8 Ix, G2, 12 Yaxk’in.  Got it?  Me neither.

Table of Long Count units

 

August 11, 1919 America’s Team

No other club in professional football history has won three consecutive championships. The Packers did it twice:  1929–1931, and 1965–1967.

The story begins with a sidewalk conversation sometime back in 1919, between Earl “Curly” Lambeau and George Whitney Calhoun. It went something like this: “Why don’t we start up a football team?” “Ok, what do we need to do”.

Curley LambeauLambeau worked for the Indian Packing Company in those days, making $250 a month as a shipping clerk. The two went to Lambeau’s employer and got a commitment for $500 for team uniforms, provided that the team use the company’s name. Today, “Green Bay Packers” is the oldest team name still in use in the NFL.

The team was founded on August 11, 1921, when Lambeau and Calhoun gathered with a group of young athletes, in the editorial room of the old Green Bay Press-Gazette building.  The team did well that first season, playing on an open field with no fences or bleachers. The money came from spectators “passing the hat”, while watching the team play to a 10-1 record.  You can imagine how that worked out.

The Packers became a professional franchise when they joined the newly formed American Professional Football Association on August 27, 1921. The league revoked their franchise at the end of the season, when the Packers were revealed to have used college players in a game. It turns out that the man who told the league about it was George Halas of the Chicago Staleys, which became “Da Bears” the following year. The incident began one of the most intense sports rivalries in history, one which rivals the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, and lasts to this day.

1919-team
1919 Team

In 1922, Lambeau obtained additional funding from a group of Green Bay businessmen, “The Hungry Five”, and bought the franchise back for $250, including $50 of his own money. Financial troubles continued through 1922. One game was rained out, and the insurance company wouldn’t pay off because the official amount of rain was 1/100″ short of the amount specified in the policy.

The Green Bay Football Corporation was formed to run the team in 1923, and continues to do so to this day. Other teams are owned by publicly traded corporations, such as the Atlanta Braves [Liberty Media, previously Time Warner], New York Rangers [Cablevision], and the Seattle Mariners [Nintendo of America], but the Green Bay Packers are the only franchise in American professional sports, directly owned by the public.Green Bay Uniforms

Financial troubles and micro-management persisted through the war years.  The club posted a dismal 1-10-1 record in 1958, one of the worst in league history. They hired away an assistant coach from the New York Giants that year, to be the new Head Coach.  His name was Vince Lombardi.  The first day on the job, Lombardi said “As of now, I’m in charge”.  The era of the front office running the game, was over.

The 1959 season got off to a good start, shutting out Chicago in the opener, and finishing 7-5 for their first winning record in 12 years. A 21-0 shutout of Washington on November 22 of that year, was the last Packers game to this date that didn’t sell out.

Green Bay has a population of only 105,139 according to the 2016 census, making it less than 1/10th the population of the typical NFL city. The Packers following comes from well beyond Green Bay, drawing crowds from all over Wisconsin and the Midwest. In fact, as late as 1995, the Packers played three home games a year in Milwaukee, one in pre-season, and two regular season.

SportsIllustrated_10jan1966No other club in professional football history has won three consecutive championships. The Packers did it twice:  1929–1931, and 1965–1967.

Green Bay won in 4 out of 5 Super Bowl victories, tied at 3rd with the New York Giants, behind the Pittsburgh Steelers with 6, a three-way tie at 5 each for the New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers & Dallas Cowboys.  They’ve won 13 championships since the ‘20s, more than any team in professional football history.  Chicago comes in second with only 9.  The last three seasons have been rough on Da Bears, where rumor has it that a recent game was called due to an unknown white substance on the field.  Play was resumed after it was determined that it was only the end zone.  It was unlikely that anyone from Chicago was going to run into it again, anytime soon.

August 10, 1920, Ottoman Empire

Throughout the period, the “secret sauce” of Ottoman power was an army of elite infantry called “Janissaries”.  Janissaries were Christian slaves, usually taken as spoils of war, or sold into slavery as children. They came from all over the Ottoman Empire, though the sons of Greek, Bosnian, Serbian and Bulgarian Christians were preferred. Turkic and Jewish boys were never forced to comply with the Janissary system.

The Anatolian Peninsula is the westernmost point of Asia, forming the northern coastline of the eastern Mediterranean.  Today we call it Turkey.  In the 13th century it was home to a collection of small emirates and Ghazi (Warrior for Islam) principalities, called ‘Beyliks’.

The Turkish tribes united under Osman Bey in 1299 grew to become one of the most powerful forces in history.  A 600-year empire called the Ottomans.

The Ottoman victory at Kosovo in 1389 marked the end of Serbian power in the Balkans.  Christian Europe launched a Crusade six years later, in an effort to relieve the Byzantine capitol of Constantinople, by then virtually all that remained of the eastern Roman Empire.  This, the last of the major Crusades, was crushed at Nicopolis, in modern day Bulgaria.  After the battle, a handful of nobles were held for ransom, those judged to be younger than 20 were sold into slavery.  The rest, as many as 3,000 knights, were bound together in groups of three, and systematically beheaded.  Never again would Greater Europe be altogether free of Islamic influence.

Ottoman Cannon
Siege Cannon of Sultan Mehmet II

By the 15th century, Ottoman controlled lands surrounded the Byzantine capitol of Constantinople.  The forces of 21-year-old Sultan Mehmed II laid siege to the city in 1453, its ultimate defeat and sack punctuating the end of the Eastern Roman Empire and the birth of the “New City” – Istanbul.

Throughout this period, the “secret sauce” of Ottoman power was an army of elite infantry called “Janissaries”.  Janissaries were Christian slaves, usually taken as spoils of war, or sold into slavery as children. They came from all over the Ottoman Empire, though the sons of Greek, Bosnian, Serbian and Bulgarian Christians were preferred. Turkic and Jewish boys were never forced into compliance with the Janissary system.

Janissary_Recruitment_in_the_Balkans-Suleymanname
Janissary recruitment in the Balkans

Janissaries weren’t free, nor were they common slaves. They were subject to severe discipline, but paid salaries and retirement pensions, forming a distinct social class in Ottoman society. As boys, usually 10 to 12, they were taken from their parents and given to Turkish families to learn the language and customs. They were then enrolled in Janissary training, indoctrinated into Islam, and kept under 24-hour supervision.

Janissaries were prohibited from growing beards and taking up a skill other than war, and were forbidden to marry.

They were an elite slave army, in many ways resembling a modern army.  Janissaries were the first to wear unique uniforms, first to be paid regular salaries for their service, the first to march in cadence, to music. They lived in barracks and made extensive use of firearms, campaigning with their own medical teams of Muslim and Jewish surgeons operating mobile hospitals behind the lines.

suleiman-i-2-sizedThe Ottoman Empire reached the height of its power during the 16th and 17th centuries, under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. One of the most powerful states in the world and ruling over 39 million subjects, the Ottoman Empire controlled a territory spanning three continents:  over two million square miles.

Serbia went to war with the Sultan for its independence in 1804, followed closely by Greece. Sultan Selim III attempted to modernize the army, but his reforms were opposed by the religious leadership and by the Janissary corps. Selim’s reforms would cost him his throne and ultimately his life, but internal order was restored in 1826, when Mahmud II put the Janissary Corps down in a bloody “reform”.

The Ottoman Empire then entered a period of decline, from which it would never emerge. Still one of the five continental Great Powers by the turn of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire was “the Sick Man of Europe”, with its many minority populations pushing for independence.

Loyalty-obsessed to the point of paranoia, Sultan Abdul Hamid II told a reporter in 1890 that he would give his Armenian Christian minority a “box on the ear”.  Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were murdered in the pogroms of 1894-96.

The Armenian genocide began in earnest with the arrest of Armenian intellectuals, a decapitation strike intended to deprive Armenians within the Ottoman Empire of any semblance of leadership and begun on “Red Sunday”, April 24.  Detainees began to be deported within the Ottoman Empire by the end of May, their number reaching 2,345.  Most, were eventually murdered.

genocide-2

Able bodied males were exterminated outright, or worked to death as conscripted labor.   Women, children, the elderly, and infirm were driven on death marches to the farthest reaches of the Syrian desert.  Goaded like livestock by military “escorts”, they were deprived of food and water, subjected at all times to robbery, rape, and outright murder. By the early 20s, as many as 1.5 million of the Ottoman Empire’s 2 million Armenian Christians, were dead.

The Armenian spyurk, an Aramaic cognate deriving from the Hebrew Galut, or “Diaspora”,  goes back some 1,700 years.  Today, the number of ethnic Armenians around the world tracing lineage back to this modern-day diaspora, numbers in the several millions.

Since 1919, Armenians around the world have marked April 24 as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.

To this day, it remains illegal in Turkey, to speak of the Armenian genocide.  The New York Times wouldn’t use the term, until 2004.

This April, President Donald Trump received a furious response from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for this seemingly-benign statement: “Beginning in 1915, one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in the final years of the Ottoman Empire.  I join the Armenian community in America and around the world in mourning the loss of innocent lives and the suffering endured by so many”.

The Ottoman Empire aligned itself with the losing side during WWI, its ultimate disintegration beginning on August 10, 1920, when representatives of Sultan Mehmed VI signed the Treaty of Sèvres.  Future conflicts and treaties would shape and refine the borders, but the “Middle East” as we know it, was borne of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.

Ottoman Empire c1900

Mustafa Kemal and his “Young Turks” demanded complete independence, the Treaty of Lausanne creating the Republic of Turkey on October 29, 1923.  Kemal became the country’s first president, granted the honorific “Atatürk” (“Father of the Turks”), in 1934.  Multi-party democracy was established in 1946.  Ever since, the Turkish military and judiciary have viewed themselves as defenders of the Kemalist ideals of a secular Turkish state.

Today, the former seat of the Ottoman Empire is 95% Muslim.  The philosophical descendants of Atatürk vie with those of Erdoğan, the modern, constitutionally secular state, versus the fundamentalist theocracy.

Last year, elements of the Turkish military staged the 6th coup since 1960, in opposition to the increasingly Islamist policies of President Erdoğan, a man who once likened democracy to a bus:  It gets you to your destination…then you get off.  One man, one vote, one time.  The coup was put down with a death toll of 265. 3,000 soldiers were arrested, and some 2,700 judges, fired.

As a NATO member, Turkey is privy to some of the US’ most closely held military secrets. Some 50 thermonuclear weapons are housed at Incirlik Air Base, 68 miles from the Syrian border, currently the hottest combat zone, on the planet.  The strategic thinking behind such basing decisions are difficult to understand, at best.  No aircraft currently based in Turkey, is capable of carrying even one of these weapons.

One might wish the history unfolding before our eyes, was more of a political issue, here in the States.