From Lusitania to Malaysia Flight 17, a tale of disasters that sparked crises and wars

From Lusitania to Malaysia Flight 17, a tale of disasters that sparked crises and wars

The terrible results of the missile strike that hit MH017 are abundantly clear - what with pictures of the twisted wreckage of the jet's engines, fragments of the wings and fuselage, and the detritus of personal belongings scattered across the fields. However, at least until now, it is not yet clear who, exactly, fired the missile that brought down the aircraft. Still, what’s clear from history - if history is to repeat itself - is that the disaster is momentous, illustrative, and a game-changer. By J. BROOKS SPECTOR.

It was in the midst of World War I as the sleek modern British liner, the RMS Lusitania, headed towards the British Isles after crossing the Atlantic Ocean from America. The crossing had been uneventful enough for one taking place during wartime. But, then, on 7 May 1915, German U-boat U-20 lined up for a torpedo attack on the giant ship, fired a torpedo and the deed was done. In recent weeks, Germany had posted public notices in American newspapers about the possibilities of attacks on merchant ships flying British colours, but, regardless, there were over 1,900 people on board the ship, including many American passengers.

The ship sank in less than twenty minutes, 1,198 people died, and there were just 761 survivors. The United States was still a neutral nation but the German submarine attack on the Lusitania helped turn American opinion decisively away from any sympathy for Germany – and towards Britain in the war, even though the Germans moved away from unrestricted submarine warfare for a time after the Lusitania’s sinking. Any nation that would kill defenceless innocent shipboard passengers was engaged in barbaric forms of warfare. The Germans charged that the Lusitania was effectively acting as a part of the British war effort, even though all the passengers were non-combatants, but the opinion shift had been decisive – and the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare helped push America into the war by 1917.

At the time of the ship’s movements across the ocean on its final fateful voyage, through various inquiries, and for years thereafter, the British denied the ship had been carrying war material to Britain – and that the U-boat’s torpedo attack had been an attack on innocent civilians. Recently, however, the long-held view of the Lusitania’s innocent passage has been compromised following the discovery by divers of evidence that millions of rounds of US-made ammunition was in the ship’s holds en route to Britain for its war efforts.

While civilian casualties have always been a terrible part of warfare – the inevitable collateral damage of sieges, massed armies in battles that raged across populated landscapes, and even brutal assaults on and efforts to depopulate entire territories – World War I seems different. It was, effectively, the first time that large-scale passenger transportation and the newest military technology – torpedoes and then anti-aircraft missiles – have fatally collided. In the years after the Lusitania’s sinking, the combination of these two technologies has produced a growing litany of civilian deaths from miss-aimed missiles or miss-identified aircraft.

The intersection of hostilities – or near hostilities – and commercial aircraft has produced a whole roster of shootings, beginning in 1940. In that year, Soviet bombers shot down a Finnish aircraft on a flight between Helsinki and Tallinn, Estonia – in the interregnum in the fighting between Finland and the Soviet Union’s two wars. Two years later, a Dutch aircraft, flying from Bandung in the then-Dutch East Indies to Broome, Australia, was attacked by Japanese fighter aircraft. The plane’s large, mysterious cargo of diamonds was never recovered (Is there a mystery novel here waiting to be written?). And then, of course, there was that 1943 BOAC Flight from Lisbon to Bristol that was attacked by German fighters over the Bay of Biscay. In that incident, heartthrob actor Leslie Howard was one of the victims.

In 1954, Chinese fighters brought down a Cathay Pacific flight en route from Bangkok to Hong Kong off Hainan Island. And a year later, an El Al plane, flying from Vienna to Tel Aviv, strayed into Bulgarian airspace, whereupon Bulgarian jets intercepted it and shot it down. Then there was the mysterious 1968 incident when an Air France Flight was brought down by a flawed French weapons test.

In 1973, Israeli jets brought down a Libyan Airlines Flight that had apparently had become very lost as a result of equipment failure and bad weather over the then-Israeli controlled Sinai Peninsula. Five years after that, a Korean Airlines Flight that overflew Russian airspace was shot down near Murmansk but fortunately succeeded in landing on a frozen lake. Miraculously most of the crew and passengers survived that encounter.

That same year, ZIPRA guerrillas brought down an Air Rhodesia flight between Harare and Kariba with a ground-to-air missile. A year later, yet another flight on the same route was downed by another missile. Then, on 27 June 1980, an Aerolinee Itavia flight was brought down over the Tyrrhenian Sea. While there is no definitive judgment about the cause, the signs have pointed to an accidental shooting by unidentified NATO forces.

Then, of course, one of the most infamous shootings down of a civilian craft was the attack by Russian fighters on the Korean Airlines Flight 007 over Sakhalin Island off the coast of Siberia in 1983. While some loose ends remain, experts now believe it was a series of tragic events beginning with the pilots miss-entry of key control numbers into the plane’s autopilot to set a mistaken flight path over Kamchatka and Sakhalin, compounded by a Russian fighter command’s nervousness over the possibility they were tracking a spy plane – and then, finally, the inability of the Russian pilots to communicate effectively with the Korean Air crew that led to tragedy.

Two years after that, Polisaro Front guerrillas downed a research craft on the way back from Antarctica after a stopover in Dakar, Senegal. (Several years later, a crop-dusting craft being used to control locust swarms was also shot down when guerrillas believed that one was a Moroccan air force plane.) Two years after that, still in Africa, an Air Malawi flight from Blantyre to Lilongwe whose flight path took it over Mozambique during that country’s civil war was shot down as well.

In that same year, the US guided missile cruiser, the USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655 with a ship-to-air missile while the plane was en route between Bandar Abbas, Iran to Dubai. The incident killed 290 passengers and crew. The official explanation was that the ship’s crew had miss-identified the jet as an Iranian fighter – because the ship had been operating in Iranian waters and the crew believed they were under an imminent threat from the craft.

More recently still, ten years later, three Georgian airliners took missile and anti-aircraft fire while overflying the country’s rebellious province of Abkhazia. And then in 2001, a Siberia Airlines flight was apparently hit by surface to air missiles fired from Ukrainian forces during a training exercise in the Crimea. Not surprisingly, there have also been a number of cargo planes operating out of Iraqi airfields that have been hit by ground fire.

In each of these cases, the combination of tensions between hostile sides, nervousness about incursions over territory or accidental over-flights, twitchy fingers on triggers or firing buttons, planes operating near or over war zones have been a combustible – and often fatal – mix with innocent casualties.  And it has set the machinery in motion for the kind of calamity the world saw most recently high above the open steppes of the eastern Ukraine.

While it is not yet proved conclusively, based on the data being assembled by western analysts, it is becoming increasingly likely that Malaysian Airways Flight 17 was hit by a ground-to-air missile on 17 May, while flying more than 10,000 metres above ground – en route between Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur – using a major fly way for intercontinental traffic from northern Europe to Southeast Asia (International airlines are now diverting their traffic around the zone of hostilities to avoid any repetition of this disaster). All of the 298 people on board were killed, including a major contingent of HIV/AIDS researchers on their way to an international conference on the disease.

Even though it is not yet clear who pulled the fatal firing pin, the charges and counter-charges over responsibility for the disaster, as with the Lusitania, are flying fast and furiously. This comes as anger over the cavalier way the separatist irregular forces have treated the crash site –and the victims’ remains – continues to rise among the nations where the victims have come from. Of course Malaysia Airlines has now been hit with a double whammy as this is the second major disaster faced by the airline inside of six months and international airline business experts say it is an open question whether the airline can successfully survive as a viable business after this second crash. (While this latest crash cannot realistically be laid at the feet of the airline, its business is sure to suffer as customers shift to other airlines on Malaysia Airlines’ more popular routes.)

A particular bone of contention internationally has been the way these forces on the ground have been treating the crash site before specialised investigators can even begin to examine the site for the kind of detailed analysis needed to obtain a full and complete depiction of what happened to flight MH017. In addition, while early claims that the (orange coloured) black boxes – the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder – had been discovered and were now on their way to Russia have been disavowed, there are still concerns these vital tools for determining exactly what happened will be mishandled, or even destroyed, before analysts can gain access to the data contained within them.

The terrible results of the missile strike that hit MH017 are abundantly clear – what with pictures in the international media of the twisted wreckage of the jet’s engines, fragments of the wings and fuselage, and the detritus of personal belongings scattered across the summer sunflower fields in the eastern Ukraine. However, at least up until now, it is not yet indisputably clear who, exactly, fired the missile that brought down the aircraft. There are three plausible culprits for the shooting down of MH017, namely, the Russian military itself, Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, or the Ukrainian government. On the face of it, a case could conceivably be made that either one of the three could have a reason for shooting down a civilian craft. Nevertheless, the growing preponderance of evidence now seems clearly to be heading in the direction of Ukrainian separatists, given their previous boasts of having already downed several Ukrainian military aircraft in recent weeks.

Over the weekend, Anne Applebaum, Director of the Global Transitions Program at the Legatum Institute in London, has argued that regardless of whoever actually pushed the firing button on the missile launcher, the ultimate cause of the disaster was Russian efforts to create legal, political and military chaos in the eastern Ukraine. As she wrote, “Without this chaos, a surface-to-air missile would not have been fired at a passenger plane. From the beginning, the Russian government did not send regular soldiers to Ukraine. Instead, it sent Russian mercenaries and security service operatives such as Igor Stelkov — the commander in chief in Donetsk and a Russian secret police colonel who fought in both Chechen wars — and Vladimir Antyufeyev, the Donetsk ‘deputy prime minister’ who led the Latvian KGB’s attempt to overthrow the independent Latvian government in 1991.”

Applebaum went on to argue, “With the help of local thugs, these Russian security men besieged police stations, government offices and other symbols of political authority to delegitimise the Ukrainian state. In this task, they were assisted by the Russian government and by Russia’s state-controlled mass media, both of which still constantly denigrate Ukraine and its ‘Nazi’ government. Just in the past week, Russian reporting on Ukraine reached a new pitch of hysteria, with fake stories about the supposed crucifixion of a child and an extraordinary documentary comparing the Ukrainian army’s defense of its own country with the Rwandan genocide.”

Into this murky cauldron, the Russian military has been conveying a flow of heavy weapons, including anti-aircraft missiles, and man-portable air defence systems. In fact, beyond those earlier claims of shooting down several Ukrainian aircraft, including fixed wing transport craft, last Thursday, Strelkov actually claimed to have shot down yet another military plane, just before an apparent realisation that it was MH017 that had been hit, rather than a Ukrainian military craft.

The military environment in the eastern Ukraine region is now an increasingly lawless environment where irregulars may well have been rather poor at reading radar and targeting aircraft, along with, as Applebaum writes, “a nihilistic disregard for human life; scorn for international norms, rules or standards. Just for the record: There weren’t any Ukrainian government-controlled anti-aircraft missiles in eastern Ukraine because the separatists were not flying airplanes.”

But it is increasingly likely that the destruction of MH017 has now closed off any idea that the fighting in the eastern Ukraine is not a real war or that it only affects the Donetsk in the far eastern part of nation. Whatever comes next in the way Russia deals with the aftermath of the shooting down of the Malaysian craft may well be a real window onto Vladimir Putin’s goals in region (as well as a test of Barack Obama’s ability, finally, to shape a cogent response to Russian intentions, of course). But, by the same token, this crisis can also offer an opportunity for the Russian leader to reverse course and be the apparent saviour of the situation – by denouncing the separatist movement for its excesses, or putting a chokehold on its receipt of new military supplies. But an unwillingness to do that almost guarantees more such incidents in future as a result of the chaos in the region. DM

Photo: Sinking of Lusitania, a 1915 painting.

Read more:

  • Malaysia Airlines Ukraine Crash: Rebels Put Bodies in Rail Cars at Time;
  • Pro-Russian separatists removed bodies from crash site, officials and observers say at the Washington Post;
  • With Jet Strike, War in Ukraine Is Felt Globally in the New York Times;
  • What Happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in the New York Times;
  • The Malaysia Airlines crash is the end of Russia’s fairy tale, a column by Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post;
  • Jetliner Explodes Over Ukraine; Struck by Missile, Officials Say at the New York Times;
  • US outlines case against Russia on downed plane at the AP;
  • Rebels take full control of plane crash bodies at the AP;
  • Q&A: How Malaysia Airlines can salvage its brand at the AP;
  • MH17 Malaysia plane crash in Ukraine: What we know at the BBC.

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