That Sinking Feeling

Bullets litter the bottom of the North Atlantic off the southern coast of Ireland. The bullets, .303 caliber, are almost 100 years old, and they surround the wreckage of the luxury liner Lusitania.


So what?

Those bullets are part of a story that shows – surprise – some countries, the “good guys,” sometimes knowingly put civilians at risk for the sake of war. And sometimes lie a bit too.

I won’t go too heavily into the historical background. It was 1915, and World War I had been raging for almost a year. The Americans were technically neutral but obviously favored Great Britain and its allies in the battle against the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. So, when the Lusitania set sail from New York on May 1, it carried 4.2 million rounds of bullets and other military supplies for the British along with its 1,950 or so passengers and crew. The British regularly used civilian ships this way, and the Americans knew it.

Germany had declared the waters around Great Britain a war zone. British civilian ships were targets. A notice in New York papers warned prospective passengers of British steamships of the dangers they faced. Cunard, the owner of the Lusitania, assured everyone the sleek liner, which held the speed record for crossing the Atlantic, could outrun German U-boats. Some U.S. officials knew the risk Americans faced, but President Woodrow Wilson would not ban their sailing on British ships.

So this next part, most of you know: on May 7, a German submarine brings down the Lusitania with a single torpedo. Almost 1,200 people die, including 128 Americans. The British decry the sinking of a civilian ship. The Germans assert the ship was carrying war materiel. Did they know that for a fact, were they merely speculating, or would they have said it regardless? All moot now. But Gregg Bemis hopes to learn more about what exactly the Lusitania was carrying while sailing through a war zone.

Remains of the Lusitania

Remains of the Lusitania

Historians knew about the bullets before, through documents. Bemis now has the concrete proof. Since 1982, Bemis has spent several million dollars of his own money investigating the remains of the Lusitania. Recently, as reported today by NPR, he and his crew have begun bringing up some of the millions of bullets that were stuffed in the ship’s hold.

Bemis thinks other still-unknown munitions on the ship triggered the second explosion, after the torpedo blast, that brought down the massive ship so quickly – just 18 minutes. Deep-sea scientist and explorer Robert Ballard, who did his own work around the wreckage site in 1993, thought that a combustible blend of coal dust and oxygen sparked the blast. Patrick O’Sullivan, author of a book on the Lusitania, says 46 tons of aluminum fine powder in the hold was the source. Another theory puts the root of the blast in the ship’s steam room.

Only a few hours have passed since I heard about Bemis and the bullets and began writing this. Some books I have on hand and several web searches told me more about the Lusitania than I had known before. The story is much more complex than I imagined, with supposed missing documents; conspiracy theories that the British wanted the Lusitania hit, to bring the Americans into the war; and the suggestion that Wilson knew about other undeclared munitions on board.

Hearing the NPR report, I was struck at how history is a living thing: new evidence appears (in this case, thanks to technology), new and sometimes-competing theories emerge. Then I began thinking about the ideological uses of history. Some conservatives in the media seem content to take the official version of history. Any challenges that suggest the “good guys” are less than good is branded with the epithet “revisionist.” Once that meant Marxist, and hence suspect. Today, the term seems to get used whenever a historian presents a fact or interpretation that seems to say the United States did something bad. I think revising history is not about ideology; it’s about using new evidence to reach a deeper meaning of that elusive (some would say subjective) objective, the truth. It’s a good thing, and it should go on every day.

The Gulf of Tonkin - What, My Lai?

The Gulf of Tonkin - What, My Lai?

The Lusitania story also reminded me, again, that sometimes leaders will lie to either cover up their tracks or manipulate events. Yes, even the “good guys.” So does that mean there are no good guys, just less-bad guys? Not sure I want to say that. All I know is, when we hear reports from a battlefield or explanations of why some enemy is dangerous and we’re always good, remember the Lusitania. Or the Maine. Or the Gulf of Tonkin. Or Iran-Contragate. Or yellowcake. Or…


~ by mburgan on November 22, 2008.

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