Going Down Fighting

By Harutyun Marutyan
Most of the initiatives and events to commemorate the Armenian Genocide Centennial were mainly aimed at the world at large and at Turkey specifically, which was to be expected. The Genocide Centennial, however, is a milestone and a starting point for addressing a myriad of national issues as well.
As a rule, every year references to and publications on the Armenian Genocide tend to focus on the victims and sometimes by extension on Armenian irregular units and their defense tactics. Yet no official mention of them is made, which perpetuates the victim mentality on a scale of the whole nation. 
Meanwhile, the years of the Armenian Genocide and World War I in particular witnessed another reality. The official documents of the Russian Supreme Command state that since the outbreak of the war, over 300,000 soldiers of Armenian descent had fought on the Western and Caucasus fronts of the Russian Empire. The seven Armenian volunteer units recruited 6,000 people. These sources tell of a greater number of volunteers from other regions of Russia and foreign countries – apart from Armenia and Transcaucasia – but the Command of the Caucasian Army, as instructed by the government, intentionally abandoned the strategy of enrolling more volunteers. The Eastern Legion, a unit composed of over 5,000 Armenian militants established within the French Army in November of 1916, was renamed the Armenian Legion in December of 1918.
During the Genocide Armenians were driven to defensive positions throughout the Ottoman Empire. In 1915 the Armenian population in Shatagh/Tagh, Van, Shabin-Karahisar, Muş, Fitinchag, Urfa, and afterward (in 1920-1921) in Hadjin and Antep was forced to take up arms. Defensive battles were waged in cities and comparatively large settlements as well as in provinces, namely Gevaş, Pesandasht, Armenian villages in Yozgat, Sason, Musa Dagh and Armenian villages in Hınıs and Hodiçor.
Though in some of the scattered fights Armenians were overpowered instantly, on some occasions they lived to fight another week or month, organized and scattered, armed and unarmed alike. One thing is certain – in many instances Armenian civilians were not “sheep to be slaughtered” without a fight. An Armenian earnestly defended himself and his family, their lives and dignity. Could a nation without statehood unite in the face of adversity, wage defensive battles and emerge victorious in Sardarapat and Aparan in May 1918 (during World War I) and then stage acts of defiance in Karakilisa, consequently saving Eastern Armenians from an imminent Genocide? 
In the meantime, the Armenian world has commemorated the Armenian Genocide victims for over a century, either officially or informally. Participants of the famous and still unknown defensive battles are thus referred to as victims. Over decades this very interpretation has evoked manifestations of an inferiority complex, a view of the Genocide memories as a burden, and, frequently, a belief that it is crucial to sweep these memories away.
It takes decades for a memory-driven policy to crystalize and for its impact on society to become apparent. Sometimes the memory factor emerges spontaneously in turbulent times; sometimes a society lives with it by choice. Memory becomes a permanent part of the people's self-expression and identity. Thousands of fragments are weaved with unseen threads into one composition, making this memory-driven policy whole.
One hundred years after the Armenian Genocide we know of documented acts of defiance during the massacres; we have 25 years of national statehood; we have the Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) victories. Therefore, it is crucial to review and redefine the meaning of “Remembrance Day,” or at least to shift the emphasis and rephrase the commonly accepted wording into “Armenian Genocide and Heroic Defense Remembrance Day.”
Doctor Harutyun Marutyan is a leading research fellow at the Department of Contemporary Anthropological Studies at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, National Academy of Sciences of Armenia, and visiting professor of Anthropology at Yerevan State University. He is an IREX/RSEP (Michigan University, 1998), Fulbright (MIT, 2003-2004) and DAAD (Berlin, 2013) alumnus. His research interests include national identity transformation, Armenian Genocide memory, mo¬dern national movements, iconography, traditional Armenian culture, and poverty. Harutyun Marutyan is the author of three monographs and more than a hundred scholarly articles. He is recipient of the President of the Republic of Armenia Prize for his valuable contribution to the recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
Display type: 
Why April 24 should be an "Armenian Genocide and Heroic Defense Remembrance Day"