Monday, July 21, 2014

A Century Old Historical Mashup: Malaysian Flight MH 17 and the RMS Lusitania

by Nomad

They often say history repeats itself but that's not actually true. Usually some elements of past history are re-formed to create something vaguely familiar.

The downing of Malaysian Flight MH 17 bears some strange and ominous similarities to the sinking of the RMS Lusitania nearly one hundred years earlier.

Last month marked the 100-year anniversary of the advent of World War I. On 28 June 1914, a seemingly regional event, the Sarajevo assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife by a Serbian nationalist, set off a chain of unexpected events that led to global war. 
It seems, historians tell us, that no nation was prepared to back down. The inescapable gravity of war pulled nations into a conflict that would eventually lead to the deaths of millions of lives. 

That conflict also marked the first use of poison gas on the battlefield.  In January 1915, the German military fired shells of a lethal gas, xylyl bromide, at Russian troops near the Polish village of Bolimów on the eastern front. More than 1,000 were reportedly killed as a result of this frightening new weapon. Had it not been for the cold weather, the number of fatalities could have been far higher. 

Yet as dreadful as that was, it turned out to be just a preview of things to come.

On April 22, 1915, German forces shocked Allied soldiers along the western front by firing more than 150 tons of lethal chlorine gas against two French colonial divisions at Ypres, Belgium.

The release of the gas formed a gray-green cloud that drifted across positions held by French Colonial troops from Martinique. The soldiers were terrified and fled, abandoning their trenches and left the front line exposed. In spite of that "success", the German army was unable to seize the advantage. They too were terrified of the effects of the gas.

This was a red line that no other nation had yet dared to cross.
When Allied armies claimed the gas was a clear violation of international law, the Germans simply argued that technically it was not. That ban, they claimed, cover chemical shells. The lethal gas in this battle was released through gas projectors, (or spraying mist projectors similar to those used in neighbors mosquito eradication.)

The Dangerous Illusion of Security 
As horrible as the escalation was, it too, only a month later, the world would be shocked speechless into abject revulsion.
On May 15, 1915, the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat  while  en route from New York to Liverpool, England. Warnings from the German Embassy had been published in newspapers about the risks of traveling into a war zone.

In February of that year, the German navy had adopted a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare and ,had decided to up the ante by blockade the British shipping lanes (Later investigations proved that the Germans were correct in their assumptions that munitions were being shipped via the passenger ship. That did not make the sinking of an unarmed passenger liner any less of an atrocity, of course.)

To the travelers, however,  that risk was thought to be exaggerated. The very idea of any civilized nation daring sink a huge commercial liner filled with innocent victims.
It was unthinkable.
And yet, tragically, the unthinkable sometimes happens.

The passenger ship made an easy target for the U-boat commander. It had not been an accident. That was part of the horror of it. It had been a coldly-calculated attack on a defenseless vessel.

Within 18 minutes, the massive liner had passed beneath the surface, as the crowds of passengers scrambled, fought and died in the Atlantic ocean.

The U-boat commander, Walter Schwieger, watched through his periscope as the torpedo exploded. He noted in his log:
"The ship stops immediately and heals over to starboard quickly, immersing simultaneously at the bow. It appears as if the ship were going to capsize very shortly. Great confusion is rife on board; the boats are made ready and some of them lowered into the water. In connection therewith great panic must have reigned; some boats, full to capacity are rushed from above, touch the water with either stem or stern first and founder immediately."
While the Lusitania had been equipped with sufficient life boats- a lesson learned from the Titanic disaster just a  year earlier- the listing of the ship prevented most of the lifeboat from being deployed.

More than 1,100 of the approximately 1,900 passengers and crew members on board perished, including more than 120 Americans. That high death toll, as well as the unspeakable horror of the event, stunned the world.  

While cooler heads in Washington eventually prevailed. public opinion in American began to turn against Germany. The United States was able to maintain- at least ostensively- its neutrality in the rapidly unraveling European conflict, and did not enter into the World War for another three years.

Nevertheless, the Lusitania tragedy was to show to the world (if there had been previous doubts) that a new age of warfare had begun. The age of total war had been launched, in which there were no innocent bystanders. Nobody was safe and wherever there was fighting, security was a very dangerous illusion.
Wherever war rages- even seemingly isolated regional conflicts- there is the very real danger that the conflict could spin out of control or hapless civilians could be caught in the cross-fire. Whether high in the sky or out in the middle of the ocean, that fact of the modern age is just as true today. 

The Downing of MH 17
This week a deconstructed form of century old history repeated itself. Many of the elements were there but in a re-ordered form. A variation of the Lusitania tragedy was replayed when a Malaysian flight was brought down- as the facts seem to support- by Ukrainian separatists.
Unlike the Lusitania tragedy, the Malaysian flight disaster was more like to be a terrible error based on a deadly misidentification. (The German U-boat commander, on the other hand, made no mistake. He lovingly described the mayhem as the ship sank.)
In spite of the difference, the result was the same, completely innocent passengers, who thought they were safe, needlessly died.

Many have suggested that the sophisticated missile technology, required to accomplish this infamy, was most likely supplied to the them by Russia. The full details are still not clear.

However, if true, (and the doubts are dissolving every hour), then Vladimir Putin's Crimean gambit has backfired in his face. Putin's response has bordered on deceptive. The reaction from Moscow has not inspired anybody in Europe or America with very much confidence.

Rather than admitting his mistake, he has turned up the volume on his propaganda machine, attempting to claim that the available evidence is wrong, wrong and wrong.

In fact, according to the Russian narrative, it is the Ukrainians who were responsible. Russia Today - the Kremlin's newest version of Pravda- has worked rather feverishly to fog the facts and dig up preposterous conspiracy theories. Smoking gun recordings of rebels reporting the news to their commanders about the accidental shooting down of the liner? Russia simply claims that they have been been altered by the Ukrainians.
(One separatist commander surrealistically tried to claim that the flight was loaded with already dead bodies. Go to Amsterdam and explain that to the grieving relatives.)

The black boxes which could shed some light in the investigation - or incriminate those responsible- are now in the hands of those most likely to have committed the atrocity.
In addition, there are growing concerns and anger at how both the wreckage and the remains of the victims are being handled by the Russian-backed rebels on the ground.

With this latest miscalculation, coupled with his Syrian obstructionist policy even after its use of poison gas, Putin's foreign policy has lost whatever credibility it once had in the world community.
In this week's mashup of history, Putin's Russia has been cast to play the part of  Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany whose cold-blooded calculations made the horrors of Europe's first modern war all but inevitable.

War historians tell us that the causes of that catastrophe were a reliance on militarism, as a solution, rather than intelligent diplomacy. a complex web of European alliances, dreams of empire matched with the unyielding ambitions of nationalism
Some say that given all of these causes, it is unlikely that World War could have been prevented.  The seeds of war, as one source notes, were planted by human nature. Those seeds were:
nurtured and perpetuated by power hungry leaders who filled their citizenry with unrealistic aspirations of national glory, backed and facilitated by an arms race that furthered the belief that their nation and way of life was superior to all others. All of these ridiculous assertions coupled with the endless tangled alliances placed all the major European Powers on a collision course that would end inevitably with the outbreak of war.
Sadly, a century has passed and those causes are to be found everywhere we choose to look. As one mourner at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam where most of the Malaysian flight victims began their final flight, said:
"It's like the whole world has gone out of its mind."
Undoubtedly there were many Americans and British members of the public who back in 1915 said the same thing when they heard the news of the deliberate sinking of the RMS Lusitania.  But then, they could not have imagined what the coming years would bring.

This week we have been reminded that when history begins to repeat itself, we should all heed its warning.