Sept. 11, 1922, is the day that the destruction of Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey) went from bad to worse. Giles Milton's Paradise Lost, Smyrna, 1922: The Destruction of a Christian City in the Islamic World (Basic, 2008) is the gripping tale of ethnic struggle in Turkey that led to the death of 100,000 people of Greek ancestry, with millions left homeless.
Smyrna-site of one of the seven churches in Revelation-was a tolerant, cosmopolitan city on the Aegean that became majority Muslim when war between Greece and Turkey ended, and Turkish troops sacked what they saw as the home of infidels. Shamefully, the captains of the 21 foreign battleships in Smyrna's harbor were under strict orders not to rescue the residents who were being tortured, raped, and murdered before their eyes. Their countries wanted to have good relations with Turkey's government.
Milton writes that aboard one British ship, "the officers dressed for dinner in their white mess jackets that evening, despite the unfolding vision of hell. When the screams from the distant quayside grew too loud to be ignored, the captain ordered the ship's band to strike up tunes. Other ships followed suit and the shrill cries of the desperate refugees were soon overlaid with a medley of sea shanties." But shrieks from Smyrna drowned out the operatic arias that another ship played.
This Milton's Paradise Lost-if his last name had been Dante he could have titled his book "The Inferno"-includes many eyewitness accounts. One seaman watched Turkish soldiers "deliberately severing the victims' arms." British Maj. Arthur Maxwell "watched Turkish soldiers pouring buckets of liquids over the refugees. He thought they were attempting to douse the flames, until he saw a sheet of fire flare up at exactly that point on the quay."
A few heroes emerged. Asa Jennings, 45, "a devout Methodist minister from New York" who worked at Smyrna's YMCA, received permission from Turkish authorities and the Italian consul to load 2,000 women and children onto an Italian ship. He then goaded and shamed Greek, American, British, and Turkish authorities, sometimes playing off one against the other, and was instrumental in the rescue of tens of thousands more.
Overall, though, the tragedy had no silver lining. Milton quotes one man who hid in a graveyard, Georgios Tsoubariotis: "The sea was full of bodies. . . . There were so many that if you fell into the water you wouldn't sink because all those bodies would keep you on the surface." Tsoubariotis told of Turkish boys swimming among the corpses to find valuables: "Their noses were covered by scarves tied on the back of their heads, so they wouldn't breathe in the stench of rotting bodies. They held a sharp knife and skillfully cut from the bodies the fingers that wore rings, and the ends of the ears that wore earrings, to take those jewels."
The compassion of Asa Jennings is still evident in the work of many Christians. Robert Wuthnow's Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches (University of California Press, 2009) offers scholarly evidence against press accusations that U.S. congregations "have imploded, serving as self-help societies for their own members, and doing little to help people outside their communities, let alone outside the United States."
Another Man's War by Sam Childers (and ghostwriter John Perry; Thomas Nelson, 2009) is a lively Sudan story of "a gun-toting preacher, a rebel army led by a madman, and entire villages slaughtered just because they were in the way." Childers shoots back and teaches others to do the same.
In the United States, happily, the national government may take our wallets but we don't have to fear gunships blasting our houses, so our memoirs don't have to be as sensational. Cliff Lea's Give Me Your Heart (CrossBooks, 2009) is a respectful account of a godly Christian dad: Such a book is good but unsurprising except in this era when some sons write memoirs that emphasize the warts of prominent fathers.