One hundred and one years ago, the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine. It is widely credited for getting the United States to enter the war. It seemed a heartless act: the Germans sinking a ship filled with civilians. But if there is one thing that I have learned in this life, it is that things are never that simple. In general, people have reasons for doing things. They don’t just go around doing evil things for the hell of it. It is a matter of perspective. Yet everywhere I look in the world, I see people who don’t understand this. As smart a guy as Sam Harris seems to think no deeper about the 9/11 attacks than George Bush’s facile, “They hate our freedoms.”
Both sides in the early days of World War I gradually increased the field of battle. On 4 February 1915, Germany announced that the entire sea around the United Kingdom was now a war zone. I’m not clear why the Lusitania was not given military escort into the United Kingdom. It was, nominally, a civilian ship. But it was carrying a lot of military equipment, including over four million rifle cartridges. Technically, everything it was carrying was legal, but the information was kept from the public given that it did tend to muddy the waters. It made it seem much less black and white.
I understand the outrage factor of the sinking of the Lusitania. Just the same, in an objective sense, it doesn’t mean much. World War I was a terrible tragedy. There were roughly 10 million military deaths and over two million civilian deaths. When the slaughter gets that big, it is hard to put a face on it. But the sinking of the Lusitania was a much greater tragedy in terms to pushing the war forward than it was because of the 1,200 people directly killed — tragic as that alone was.
So we mark this sad day just over a century ago.