From Lusitania to Malaysia Flight 17, a tale of disasters that sparked crises and wars

tags: Lusitania, Malaysia Flight 17

J. Brooks Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one.

It was in the midst of World War I as the sleek modern British liner, the RMS Lusitania, headed towards the British Isles after crossing the Atlantic Ocean from America. The crossing had been uneventful enough for one taking place during wartime. But, then, on 7 May 1915, German U-boat U-20 lined up for a torpedo attack on the giant ship, fired a torpedo and the deed was done. In recent weeks, Germany had posted public notices in American newspapers about the possibilities of attacks on merchant ships flying British colours, but, regardless, there were over 1,900 people on board the ship, including many American passengers.

The ship sank in less than twenty minutes, 1,198 people died, and there were just 761 survivors. The United States was still a neutral nation but the German submarine attack on the Lusitania helped turn American opinion decisively away from any sympathy for Germany - and towards Britain in the war, even though the Germans moved away from unrestricted submarine warfare for a time after the Lusitania’s sinking. Any nation that would kill defenceless innocent shipboard passengers was engaged in barbaric forms of warfare. The Germans charged that the Lusitania was effectively acting as a part of the British war effort, even though all the passengers were non-combatants, but the opinion shift had been decisive – and the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare helped push America into the war by 1917.

At the time of the ship’s movements across the ocean on its final fateful voyage, through various inquiries, and for years thereafter, the British denied the ship had been carrying war material to Britain - and that the U-boat’s torpedo attack had been an attack on innocent civilians. Recently, however, the long-held view of the Lusitania’s innocent passage has been compromised following the discovery by divers of evidence that millions of rounds of US-made ammunition was in the ship’s holds en route to Britain for its war efforts.

While civilian casualties have always been a terrible part of warfare – the inevitable collateral damage of sieges, massed armies in battles that raged across populated landscapes, and even brutal assaults on and efforts to depopulate entire territories – World War I seems different. It was, effectively, the first time that large-scale passenger transportation and the newest military technology – torpedoes and then anti-aircraft missiles – have fatally collided. In the years after the Lusitania’s sinking, the combination of these two technologies has produced a growing litany of civilian deaths from miss-aimed missiles or miss-identified aircraft...

Read entire article at The Daily Maverick

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