Friday, June 24, 2016

Summer Reading: Dead Wake

As I mentioned last week, my summer reading wasn't all churchy stuff. I read one and a half history books and two biographies. And summer, need I remind you, has only just begun.

Besides the surprising Church of Spies (which is a history book, too, but I'm counting it as "churchy stuff" since it demonstrates the participation of Pope Pius XII in the efforts to remove Hitler from power by whatever means necessary), I read Erik Larson's Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.

Larson positions us well to witness the sinking of the Lusitania. We are first introduced to Captain Turner, a dedicated and professional seaman, and to the duties of a passenger ship captain at the beginning of the 20th century. We learn the back stories of a number of passengers; why they booked passage on the luxurious liner for that May voyage in a time of hostilities in Europe. (It was 1915.) Indeed, the German embassy had placed a warning in the New York papers that vessels sailing under the British flag were at risk.

We are taken behind the scenes in Washington DC where there was little enthusiasm for getting involved in what was seen as a European conflict, and where the President was crushed with personal grief (and later, unexpected personal consolation). We read over the shoulders of German submarine captains as they slip through the seas, taking note of threats and tallying the tonnage sunk by their torpedos. And we also enter the Admiralty's War Room in London where British intelligence is gathered and acted upon. Recently the German's submarine communications had been intercepted and decoded. While this was a decided advantage for the British, they were reluctant to act too quickly on what they learned for fear that the enemy would recognize the breach and change tactics.

At sea some civilians (including a small number of Americans) had already perished because of German attacks, and British military craft rushing to the scene of a torpedo incident had been lost, too, to the waiting submarine. New policy forbade military vessels from going to the site of any future incidents. Then, too, there was the political value of a ship like the Lusitania. Setting out from New York, it carried almost two thousand souls, many of them Americans. Loss of a significant number of American lives would surely, English strategists predicted, bring the US into the war as an ally against Germany.

And so it was. Through a series of incidents that well could have remained innocuous, the grand ocean liner found itself in the path of a submarine that was already heading back to Germany. An immense but dull explosion got everyone's attention and the ship began to lean to one side. As the force traveled through the ship, other explosions followed. A single torpedo had struck an unexpectedly vulnerable part of the ship (the Admiralty would later insist that there were two torpedos, but the German captain's log lists only one).

As passengers attempted to secure a spot in the lifeboats and strap on their newly designed life vests, the radio man repeatedly sent out distress calls. The starboard list of the stricken ship left ranks of lifeboats unavailable, while other boats got tangled in their own ropes and dangled vertically, uselessly toward the sea. The only crew who had trained for the launching of lifeboats were already dead or trapped below. Only six lifeboats would actually set off. In addition, few people could figure out how to put the life vests on properly. (Bodies would be found wearing the vest in a way that forced the head below the surface of the water.) The sinking of the Lusitania was witnessed on shore (just ten miles away) and available craft in the port towns began setting out. The warship Juno  was among them. It was ordered back.

1,198 people died.

Late in the day on which I finished this riveting and meticulously researched read (57 pages of notes!), I saw the posts on social media about the Orlando shooting. It crossed my mind that the two events, a hundred years apart, had something very sad in common. Old school warfare took place on actual battlefields, with ranks of militiamen. Civilians were kept as much as possible out of harm's way. But the sinking of the Lusitania set a new precedent. It was an act of war in which civilians were treated as fair game. I'm no historian, but it seems to me that this may have been the beginning of the kind of warfare that has become almost commonplace; a war not limited to the military (whether the armed forces of a nation or those new self-appointed groups like Boko Haram or IS); a war where anyone, in any public place, may suddenly find him or herself a sudden and unwilling participant.

German submarine policy does not bear all the responsibility for the enormous number of lives lost in the sinking of the Lusitania. It seems that the political advantage of securing US involvement in the war played at least some part in the drama, particularly as Lusitania approached the war zone and received only vague warnings about submarine activity across an immense stretch of sea. (The British government unsuccessfully tried to blame the loss on Captain Turner, who survived despite being on deck as the ship went down. He was exonerated.)

Does this still happen? It would be naive to deny that ordinary people are often recruits in a war they know nothing about, and have nothing at stake in. It can take real faith to believe that beyond all the human and political machinations, God is still in charge of this world, somehow "making all things work together for good" (Rom 8:28).

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. In addition, I received a review copy of the book mentioned above for free in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. I am committed to giving as honest a review as possible, as part of my community's mission of putting media at the service of the truth. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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