Jan. 26, 2012
Think of an iceberg and a ship. What comes to mind? The Titanic, of course. And if you dont mentally picture the greatest luxury liner in history with her stern in the starry, moonless sky, about to break up and go under, you havent been to the movies. Unfortunately, Hollywood created a thoroughly dishonest account of that night to remember. The image of a bribed ships second officer who deliberately shot panicked civilians is only one of the many offenses against the well-documented truths of that night one hundred years ago.
I was researching an American history book several years ago when the subject of the Titanic came up in the text. Although some 1,500 lives were lost, she was not the greatest maritime disaster in history. So, what was the greatest? In those pre-Google days, I had to go hunting.
I learned that the greatest maritime disaster was the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff on January 11, 1945. That German vessel was evacuating terrified refugees from East Prussia. The Soviet Red Army was overrunning this Nazi territory, raping and murdering.
A Soviet submarine torpedoed the German ship and she went down with loss of 9,000 lives, mostly civilians, mostly women and children. The original name for the ship was to have been Adolf Hitler. Hitler, however, fearing the symbolism of any vessel bearing his name being sunk, had forbidden any such naming. So the vessel was named for the Nazi leader of Switzerland.
Ask any journalist what was the greatest maritime disaster and he or she would doubtless say Titanic. Thats understandable. Most Americans think the same thing. There will probably never be a movie made about the Gustloff sinking. Nine thousand lives lost in the midst of a horrific war are not as compelling a story as rich and famous people going down to their deaths on a clear night, with the sea like glass, near the end of a century of peace.
With compelling stories of the Costa Concordia shipwreck and gripping images of the great liner split open on the rocks, its not surprising that the news media focuses on a villain. It surely seems the captain of that stricken vessel is a villain. Id like to see more attention paid to the courageous divers who are searching the treacherous interior of the sunken ship. And Id like to see an interview with the Italian Coast Guardsman who ordered that ship captain to leave the safety of his lifeboat and get back on board his sinking ship to aid his passengers.
The day after Titanic went down in 1912, President Taft ordered the U.S. Coast Guard to take part in what became the International Ice Patrol. It continued for seventy years. In 1982, this boring but dangerous task was given over to satellite surveillance. When I spied a ball cap bearing the legend International Ice Patrol on its peak, I wasnt sure what it was. Then, it dawned on me: I had taken part in that iceberg patrol as a young enlisted man on board the Coast Guard Cutter Unimak.
Happily, dramatic stories of ships colliding with icebergs and sinking have been few since the Ice Patrol began. The Ice Patrol and later satellite surveillance have largely eliminated this seaborne terror. Eliminated as well has been most media attention. The amazing thing is not that a single great ship struck an iceberg and went down. The true miracle is that it hasnt happened again.
Im compelled to think of shipwrecks as I survey the current political stage. The news media are the last people who can give us a clear picture of reality. They are the last ones we should allow to vet candidates for the highest office in the land. Reporters set the parameters. They frame the questions. Like Uncle Walter Cronkite, they tell us thats the way it is.
Well, it aint. For example, Cuba is just 90 miles from our shores. The Islamist terror group Hezbollah is said have training camps there. Has there been a single question about Cuba in the dozens of presidential debates this year? Has there been a single question about Cuba in the fifty years of presidential debates?
Or, consider Quemoy and Matsu. These tiny fishing islands are a few miles away from the mainland of Communist China. They were the subject of fierce debate between Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. Nixon alleged that Kennedy was soft of communism because he was unwilling to commit U.S. troops to defend Quemoy and Matsu. Nixon pounded Kennedy on the campaign trail for weeks after they debated Quemoy and Matsu on television. Kennedy won that election, very narrowly.
Nixon was elected eight years later. And four years after that, Nixon essentially abandoned not only Quemoy and Matsu, but Taiwan itself. Nixons famous overture to Red China was hailed as a master stroke of diplomacy.
Nothing on Cuba. First Quemoy and Matsu loom large, then they disappear down the memory hole. Thats how unreal, how farcical, how unpresidential these debates are.
Sean Hannity says he looks to see blood all over the stage in these debates. And he thinks this is a good thing. I can tell Sean that blood on the floor or on deck is very slippery, very dangerous.
If we doubt the danger of these debates, we have only to consult the unfavorable ratings of some of the leading candidates. For the media, these debates are an ocean of good ink. When conservatives fight, the media will gladly hold their coats. But for many of us, these debates look increasingly like a shipwreck.