Reports by various commissions of inquiry – national as well as international – into politically significant tragic events tend to be distorted by politics. The Dutch-led inquiry report into last year’s downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, released on October 13, is no exception.
The British Lusitania Inquiry, chaired by Lord Mersey one hundred years ago, provides an early example of the problem. It concluded, in July 1915, that the loss of the ship and 1,197 of its passengers two months earlier – including 123 Americans – was “caused by torpedoes fired by a submarine of German nationality whereby the ship sank.” In its opinion this was done not merely with the intention of sinking the ship, but also “with the intention of destroying the lives of the people on board.” In other words premeditated murder most foul. German claims that the Lusitania was a legal and legitimate target because it was carrying ordnance for Britain were dismissed out of hand as “propaganda” on both sides of the Atlantic.
When a survivor of the disaster, Professor Joseph Marichal (a former French army officer), testified at the Inquiry that the ship had sunk in a matter of minutes in all probability because a hidden cargo of munitions had triggered a massive second explosion after the torpedo struck, his testimony was duly dismissed. The British authorities went out of their way to undermine Marichal’s credibility, and especially his insistence that as a military man he knew the difference in sound, speed and magnitude between the main boiler’s bursting pipes (as officially claimed) and the detonation of high-power explosives. Marichal was killed on the Western Front in 1916, but the suspicion of foul play did not die with him.
In the United States a case was filed against Cunard Line by 68 American survivors and heirs of the dead. Judge Julius Mayer decided in 1918 – by which time the United Statees was at war with Germany – that no question could be raised in his court regarding whether Lusitania had been armed or carrying troops or ammunition. He ruled that “the cause of the sinking was the illegal act of the Imperial German Government,” and that any claims for compensation should be therefore addressed to Berlin.
Fast-forward to 1982, when the start of a salvage operation on the wreck of the Lusitania caused consternation in London, prompting a senior Foreign Office official to warn that the ship could still “literally blow up on us.” UK government files declassified only last year reveal that the Ministry of Defence warned the divers in August 1982 of “danger to life and limb” from previously undeclared war munitions and explosives still resting inside the wreck. The Foreign Office voiced concerns that a final British admission that there were high explosives on the Lusitania could still trigger serious political repercussions – in relations with the United States in particular – the passage of almost 70 years notwithstanding. “Successive British governments have always maintained that there was no munitions on board the Lusitania and that the Germans were therefore in the wrong to claim to the contrary as an excuse for sinking the ship,” wrote Noel Marshall, head of the Foreign Office North America department, on July 30, 1982:
“The facts are that there is a large amount of ammunition in the wreck, some of which is highly dangerous. The Treasury have decided that they must inform the salvage company of this fact in the interests of the safety of all concerned. Although there have been rumours in the press that the previous denial of the presence of munitions was untrue, this would be the first acknowledgement of the facts by HMG.” Marshall said the disclosure of the true nature of the Lusitania’s cargo was likely to spark a public, academic and journalistic debate. He also reveals that Treasury solicitors had even gone so far as to consider whether the relatives of American victims of the sinking could still sue the British government if it was shown the German claims were well-founded.
“The facts are that there is a large amount of ammunition in the wreck,” Mr. Marshall stated rather blandly – as if the matter was common knowledge among his Whitehall peers – and later that summer it was agreed at the highest level of the British government to stick to the old official fib that there had been no military-grade munitions aboard. A piquant element of the story concerns the well-grounded suspicion that British intelligence agents in the U.S. deliberately allowed their German counterparts to obtain information that the Lusitania was carrying that “large amount of ammunition” to Britain, in order to prompt them to intercept and destroy her.
Cui bono? The Lusitania affair helped turn the public opinion in the United States rapidly and drastically against Germany. In conjunction with Admiral Tirpitz’s renewal of unrestricted submarine warfare, it prepared the ground for a previously isolationist Congress to declare war on the Kaiserreich in April 1917. In the attainment of that outcome, the Lusitania was pure gold for the British propaganda machine and its American interventionist constituency.
The MH17 affair and its mainstream media treatment have replicated many features of the Lusitania affair. Of course America, Britain and their allies are not in a shooting war with Russia (not for now, thank God, but that could change if the War Party lunatics in Washington have their way). They are in an escalating global geopolitical and propaganda contest with her, however. It is in this context that the results of the Dutch-led inquiry into the shooting down of the Malaysian plane need to be scrutinized. Its most important undisputed finding is that the air space above the war zone in eastern Ukraine was left inexplicably open to civilian air traffic by the Kiev authorities. To what end, and with what expectations? Again, cui bono? On October 13 the New York Times described this potentially crucial question as a “stray detail.” That in itself highlights its importance.
Atrocity management pays immediate political dividends, and it rarely matters if the facts that eventually emerge turn out to be different from the official narrative (remember Pearl Harbor!). Caveat emptor.