Saturday, March 06, 2010

A study on the etiquette of drowning

The Titanic in Southampton Harbor April 1912 (Click to view any photo full size)

The Titanic depicted on the night of 14-15 April 1912

A post card of the RMS Lusitania in happier days.

Murder on the high seas. The Lusitania sinks in less then 20 minutes after being torpedoed.
It's hard to remember your manners when you think you're about to die. The human species may have developed an elaborate social and behavioral code, but we drop it fast when we're scared enough — as any stampeding mob reveals.

That primal push-pull is at work during wars, natural disasters and any other time our hides are on the line. It was perhaps never more poignantly played out than during the two greatest maritime disasters in history: the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania. A team of behavioral economists from Switzerland and Australia have published a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that takes an imaginative new look at who survived and who perished aboard the two ships, and what the demographics of death say about how well social norms hold up in a crisis.

The Lusitania and the Titanic are often thought of as sister vessels; they in fact belonged to two separate owners, but the error is understandable. Both ships were huge: the Titanic was carrying 2,207 passengers and crew on the night it went down; the Lusitania had 1,949. The mortality figures were even closer, with a 68.7% death rate aboard the Titanic and 67.3% for the Lusitania. What's more, the ships sank just three years apart — the Titanic was claimed by an iceberg on April 14, 1912, and the Lusitania by a German U-Boat on May 7, 1915. But on the decks and in the passageways and all the other places where people fought for their lives, the vessels' respective ends played out very differently.
Read the rest here.

I'm not sure a vast study was required of this. As a hobby I have had more than a passing interest in the history of the great ocean liners. And I am familiar with the tragic stories of both ships. One being the victim of a tragic accident compounded by hubris, and the other the victim of one of the more shocking war crimes in history. (Yes, I am well aware of allegations that the Lusitania was carrying war contraband. But even if true that does not justify sinking an unarmed ship known to be carrying thousands of passengers including women and children.)

The two ships were indeed remarkably similar in many respects including appearance. But really... was a detailed study required to tell them what they found? People in a traumatic emergency situation will panic and some will act badly. Others with time to think and collect themselves tend to behave better. Anyone with a modicum of common sense would know that. And anyone with a working knowledge of the demise of the two steamers could have told them that they went down under very different circumstances.

I guess I am just wondering at the big deal over something that I already knew when I was in High School. Still for those not familiar with basic psychology and or the history of these two tragic ships, the article makes for a good read.


Visibilium said...

The Lusitania was an auxiliary cruiser in the Royal Navy and was therefore fair game. The war crime was Brits' cynical strategy to bring America into a strictly European and Euro-colonial affair.

German U Boat commanders had attempted apply civilized standards to sinking ships earlier in the war, but Allied captains had adopted a nasty habit of radioing U Boat positions. The U Boat commanders chose survival over being nice.

Frankly, I have no love for the papalizing Habsburg Empire or her Hun/Turk friends, but let's be honest about the Allies' perfidity in the Great War.

John (Ad Orientem) said...

Actually the Lusitania had been removed from the Royal Navy's roster of aux cruisers in late 1914. She was not fair game. There is some evidence that the British were cheating by shipping several boxes of lead casings used for bullets on the ship (although the Germans had no way of knowing this). And there is no question that the Admiralty tried to cover its own ass after the fact.

But none of this can in any way justify the premeditated attack on what was an unarmed passenger ship in clear violation of the universally recognized laws of war. The U boat had not been sited and it was in no danger. It was a sneak attack on a passenger ship. Schweiger was a war criminal.


Visibilium said...

Lead casings? She was carrying ammunition and other war materiel--and using innocent American life as a human shield.

Maxim said...

It was not a sneak attack; they let it be known that they were shipping war materials, then thumbed their nose at the Germans and dared them to attack. The War Criminals are the British and American authorities who used the thousands of innocent passengers as instruments of foreign policy.

John (Ad Orientem) said...

That Britain (with a nod and wink from the United States) was cheating is not in dispute. But that was certainly not public knowledge. And in no way would any of this justify an attack on an unarmed passenger ship without warning. International law is and was then, quite clear on these matters. Even when dealing with violations of international law by Britain the law of proportionality still applies.

Visibilium said...

1) International law was far from being as monolithic as you state. In the matter of carrying ammunition, for example, Germany and America viewed it as contraband, while Britain didn't. Cunard, the owner of the Lusitania, deliberately didn't list the ammunition on the manifest. Hmmmm. Further, America believed that its citizens should be able to travel on combatants' flagged ships without being harmed, while Germany believed otherwise and advertised her view in American newspapers.

2) An attack on an unarmed "passenger" ship is justified if that ship is an armed merchant cruiser and an auxiliary cruiser carrying munitions. Even if we assume your statement about the delisting of the Lusitania as a auxiliary cruiser is correct, she was publicly listed as such at the commencement of hostilities.

3) The Germans gave up trying to be chivalrous in permitting crews and passengers to disembark from ships targeted by U Boats and other warships owing to the Allied captains' acquired habit of radioing the positions of the enemy. The survival of the German captain and crews necessitated sneak attacks.

Sorry, John, but Walther Schweiger gets a free pass. When labeling someone a war criminal, it'd behoove you to be more conscientious in your accusations.

John (Ad Orientem) said...

I think we are going to have to agree to disagree. Your reading of the situation seems to ignore the rule of proportionality which is integral in the law of war. The idea that to stop the shipment of some rifle rounds and lead casings it was permissible to sink an unarmed ship known to be carrying thousands of innocent civilians is not one that I believe would have passed muster in any war crimes court, then or now.

Employing similar logic, the United States would be justified in carpet bombing cities suspected of harboring terrorists.

All of which said, Britain and the United States under the Wilson Administration were guilty of shocking abuses of international law in the matter. Wilson remains on my list of the worst presidents in US history.


Visibilium said...

We disagree agreeably.

What do you think of the asassination of Archduke Ferdinand?

John (Ad Orientem) said...

Thanks for the gracious reply. History has pretty clearly shown the murder of the Archduke FF to have been a terrorist act in which a lot of high ranking officials in Serbia were complicit. If I had been the Czar I think I wold have had a hard time rising to Serbia's defense (religious affinity notwithstanding). When you allow your secret intelligence service to assist in the assassination of the heir to the throne of a powerful neighbor there are going to be consequences.

Visibilium said...

Aside from the general principle that no killing is meritorious, I have no serious objections, other than prudential and tactical ones, to the destruction of a papalized Empire dedicated to grinding the Orthodox Church into dust. The Archduke wasn't the most hard-line imperialist around, but a counterrevolution has to start somewhere.