Watership down 

Recalling the terror of another era’s unconscionable act

The unthinkable happens: an unconscionable attack on the lives of innocent civilians. A nation struggles to cope, mourning its losses as hundreds are presumed lost and the death toll continues to rise. Friends and relatives wait in vain for a sign that their loved ones are still alive. Numbed shock gives way to righteous fury. Voices clamoring for war drown out those pleading for caution and restraint.

Terrorism. Conspiracy. The sinister face of modern warfare. Sound familiar? Yes. It’s Saturday, May 8, 1915, the day after the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, torpedoed 10 miles off the coast of Ireland by a German U-boat with 1,198 lives lost—including 128 Americans. Half the world was still asleep when the ship went down, but they would awake to a flourishing trade in word-of-mouth tidbits of horrors unimaginable. By Saturday morning, proof of the unimaginable would be stamped in Second-Coming type size across the top of every newspaper. Everyone would remember where they were when they heard the news, and the terrible impotence of waiting to see what would happen next.

British author Diana Preston’s excellent new book about the Lusitania tragedy arrives on an unremarkable anniversary (the 87th) of the event itself, but provides much coincidental insight into another tragedy looming rather larger in recent memory. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy might be the last word on its subject, but reading it with Sept. 11 in mind is a real “negative pleasure” in the Kantian sense, a useful but accidental meditation on unconscionable attacks and the unthinkable happening.

Innocence, and the shattering thereof, is an evergreen theme for writers to riff on when writing about events as towering as Sept. 11 and the torpedoing of the Lusitania. Tellingly, it’s one of the first things to find its way into cliché. Interestingly enough, innocence seems to be a something of a renewable quality in describing America, which lost at least some of what it had on the Lusitania and in its subsequent experiences with trench warfare on the Western Front. Then again, and more this time, with Pearl Harbor and WWII, then again with the JFK assassination, and then maybe the last of it on Sept. 11. Is there any innocence left? Could be. Perhaps, though, in considering the trifecta of tragedies tied to WWI, WWII and the current one, it makes more sense to treat the supposed loss of this elusive quality as a matter of degrees instead of saying we lost it all at once on a couple of different occasions. In May 1915, the sentiment could have been “It can’t happen!” even though hundreds of thousands of young European men on both sides of the conflict were already dead from fighting for gains that could be measured in meters. With Pearl Harbor, it was “It can’t happen to us!” And, with Sept. 11, “It can’t happen here!”

The Lusitania, though a British ship, and hence from a country already at war, was in some respects the ultimate innocent civilian casualty, trusting in luck and a “Well, it can’t happen to me” attitude to make it to safety. Most of the passengers aboard the ship for what turned out to be its last voyage felt—or at least tried to feel—secure in the belief that no civilized nation would fire without warning on a passenger liner. However, they were not unmindful of the risk they were undertaking by steaming into waters around Great Britain known to be crawling with German submarines. On the day the Lusitania sailed from New York City, a notice had been printed at the expense of the Imperial German Embassy in more than half a dozen local papers, reminding passengers of the war between Great Britain and Germany, and that travelers sailing in the war zone did so at their own risk.

What happened next, though conceivably avoidable, was no less tragic for this hint of malice aforethought. The German submarine U-20, under the command of a 30-year-old captain, caught up with the Lusitania near Queenstown (now Cobh) on the southeast coast of Ireland. From half a mile away, the U-20 fired a single 20-foot, 3,000-pound torpedo into the ship’s starboard bow. Five seconds earlier or 20 seconds later, reports the technical account of the sinking included as an appendix, and the torpedo would have missed its target altogether.

The ship went down in less than 20 minutes, still plowing ahead at several knots of speed and listing at such an angle that getting most of the lifeboats away safely—in contrast to Titanic, there would have been enough room for everyone—was impossible. By the time this happens, author Preston has put us on friendly terms with dozens of the passengers: professors, nurses, tycoons, theatre producers, art collectors, gamblers, dozens of children. Some are homesick and anxious to get to England, others are looking forward to wonderful vacations. One man is on a mission that’s tragic enough already, headed for a Liverpool insane asylum to determine if a deranged woman there is actually the wife he presumed lost on an earlier shipwreck in the St. Lawrence River.

Preston’s description of the sinking itself, adapted from survivor accounts of the 20 minutes between the time the torpedo hit and the hundreds of people clinging to floating debris in the Irish Sea, is heartbreaking. Had this book been published on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the sinking, there wouldn’t yet have been a blockbuster movie version of the Titanic disaster to help readers visualize the enormity of a sinking ocean liner. What sticks with the reader here are the personal details, the web of smaller tragedies that add up to far more than 1,198, and the sad but strangely comforting thought that in spite of all we’ve heard this past year, there really isn’t anything new about any of it.

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