It is the 100th anniversary of “A Night to Remember”. Before there was James Cameron, Walter Lord’s 1955 book chronicled the RMS Titanic disaster. On its maiden voyage, the Titanic struck an iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912 and sank early the next morning.
There are so many reasons the Titanic tragedy captivates us. The tremendous number of souls lost; the myth of invincibility; the pride of wanting to set a transatlantic voyage record. For me, the most tragic element is the arrogance of ignoring the iceberg warnings. This tragedy was entirely preventable. Perhaps this last reason is why, in the catalog of maritime disasters, that this one is etched more deeply into our conscience.
We could take heart if the Titanic was the only example of the consequences of ignoring known dangers. When there is such loss of life there are inevitably cries of “never again!” But there is always a next time. Another example comes from Adam Hochschild’s book, “To End All Wars” which tells the story of World War I from the perspective of the dissenters. It was on April 22, 1915, that a terrible weapon of mass destruction made its first appearance: poisonous gas. The Germans were the first to deploy it, and the Allies were enraged, but should not have been surprised.
The Allied leadership had the information needed to prepare for a gas attack, but apparently refused to imagine one was possible. In their possession was an intercepted German requisition for 20,000 gas masks. A week before the attack, a deserter with one of these gas masks told of gas canisters stacked near their trenches. How could the Allied leadership ignore these warnings? Hochschild reasons that it was a reluctance to acknowledge that warfare could take this radical new direction. Man is not capable of imagining the full extent of the evil of which he is capable.
Why, in the midst of the brutal slaughter of trench warfare, did the use of gas provoke such rage? “For all of recorded history,” historian Trevor Wilson suggests, “soldiers had believed that victory went to the manly, the fearless, and the daring. Now, with deadly gas brought to you not from the hand of an enemy you could see and slay, but by the very wind, all bravery seemed useless.”
So who is judged more harshly? The leadership that is warned of danger and refuses to believe it, only to have the unimaginable become real? Or the leadership that acts on a warning of danger, and then finds out it isn’t real? Regarding the latter, would the civilized world and the media that caters to it have felt better had U.S. troops found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? We who stand in judgment of such decisions are rather selective in our indignation. Surely, Captain Smith of the Titanic would have been criticized for safely arriving in New York without setting a transatlantic crossing record.
So what is the answer? Heeding the warnings we’re given comes to mind, but that is much easier said that done. That is a function of judgment. So who really is to blame when good judgment is not at the top of the list of characteristics we value when we cast ballots for our leaders?