U.S. NATO Chief Blames Turkey for 'Ethnic Cleansing' of Greeks, Including Own Family

U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis, the senior American officer in both the U.S. European Command and NATO, blames Turkey for violence against its Greek minority, including his own family, almost 90 years ago.

In a first-person book he published last year, before he took over as NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), Stavridis termed Turkey's moves "ethnic cleansing" and a "pogrom," whose victims included his grandparents, expelled from their hometown of Izmir, and his father's uncle, who was killed by violent anti-Greek Turks.

Fighter planes from United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) and other elements under Stavridis' command were to have taken part in the Anatolian Eagle exercise, from which the U.S. withdrew earlier this week, after Turkey barred Israel from participating. Stavridis is closely supervising the upcoming American-Israeli Juniper Cobra air and missile defense exercise, and is scheduled to visit Israel soon.

After being nominated to his current position, a mere year after publishing these charges against Turkey, Stavridis dropped the negative reference to Turkish treatment of his family and other ethnic Greeks. His current, sanitized version depicts Turkey as a starting point for a one-stop journey west to America.

Stavridis, a 1976 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, was born in Florida and hardly speaks any Greek. As a child, he lived for two years in Athens, where his father, a U.S. Marine Corps officer, served in the American Embassy alongside a U.S. Navy officer whose daughter Stavridis later married. The four-star admiral is widely acclaimed as a brilliant officer, with a Ph.D. in international relations and an impressive record of command and staff positions. Currently, he wears two hats: In addition to his job at NATO - of which Turkey is a member, with forces serving in Afghanistan and working to prevent terrorist penetrations across its border with Iraq - he heads the U.S. European Command (EUCOM), which includes Greece, Turkey and Israel among its dozens of countries.

A prolific writer of books and articles, with his own blog ("From the Bridge") on the EUCOM web site, Stavridis kept a journal of his experiences during the 28 months he commanded the destroyer USS Barry, from early fall 1993 to December 1995. During that time, the Aegis-class warship, armed with powerful radar and anti-missile missiles (of the sort taking part in Juniper Cobra), was deployed in crises the world over - off Haiti, in the Mediterranean and in the Persian Gulf.

In 2008, before he learned he would be appointed NATO's military chief - the first ever from the navy - he published his 1990s journal as a book, "Destroyer Captain: Lessons of a First Command." Thus the manuscript he authored in his late thirties, as a relatively junior Commander, was launched into the public domain more than a dozen years later, when he was five ranks higher.

In "Destroyer Captain," Stavridis does not try to be diplomatic. "In the early 1920's," he wrote, "my grandfather, a short, stocky Greek schoolteacher named Dimitrious Stavridis, was expelled from Turkey as part of 'ethnic cleansing' (read pogrom) directed against Greeks living in the remains of the Ottoman Empire. He barely escaped with his life in a small boat crossing the Aegean Sea to Athens and thence to Ellis Island. His brother was not so lucky and was killed by the Turks as part of the violence directed at the Greek minority."

The "most amazing historical irony I could imagine," according to the author, was when a multinational NATO exercise off the coast of western Turkey brought him to the place his grandfather was forced out of: "His grandson, who speaks barely a few words of Greek, returns in command of a billion-dollar destroyer to the very city - Smyrna, now called Izmir - from which he sailed in a refugee craft all those years ago."

In an interview about "Destroyer Captain" on the U.S. Naval Institute web site, Stavridis remarked, "I'll let others decide if it's a good book, but I truly believe it is an honest book."

He was, however, less than fully candid last March, during his Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing. The ethnic cleansing he sharply rebuked in the book (and which he contrasted with U.S. efforts worldwide to prevent) underwent some semantic cleansing. "It's probably worth noting that although I'm ethnically Greek, my grandfather was actually born in Turkey and came through Greece on his way to the United States," he said, as if equally proud of his double origin, much like the child of divorced parents boasting that he now has two families rather than only one.

Last July, having visited Turkey as NATO and EUCOM chief, he again chose similar words to describe his personal connection to the country that ill-treated his grandparents. "Turkey is a vital and important NATO ally," he blogged, "and for me it was a chance to return to the nation from which my grandfather and grandmother emigrated to the United States, after stopping briefly in Greece."

The Turkish military is not in the habit of ignoring criticism, even from fellow officers. Last February, when Haaretz reported the stinging attack on Turkish actions in Cyprus and against Armenian civilians voiced by Israeli Ground Forces commander Maj. Gen. Avi Mizrahi, the uproar in Ankara made Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi call his counterpart, Gen. Ilker Sasbug, to distance the IDF from Mizrahi's "personal" opinion.