The Lessons of the Titanic (and Iraq) Revisited

The very name “Titanic” evokes the image of one of history’s great, avoidable tragedies.  On its maiden voyage in 1912, this luxurious and supposedly “unsinkable” new ocean liner – featuring many watertight compartments – hit an iceberg and sank in about two and one-half hours. Some 1500 of the 2200 people on board perished, most of them by freezing to death in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.

Over the years many lessons have been drawn from the numerous “what ifs” that played a role in this disaster – lessons that are still relevant today. What if there had been enough lifeboats for everyone on board? Incredibly, this was not required of merchant vessels in those days. There were only 20 lifeboats on Titanic, enough for about half of the passengers and crew, and many of these boats left the stricken ship with partial loads.

What if the ship’s highly experienced captain, Edward Smith, had heeded the ice warnings radioed from other ships and had slowed down?  Instead, he had ordered an increase to full speed earlier in the day at the behest of Bruce Ismay, President of the White Star Line (the ship’s proud owner), who was aboard for the maiden voyage and wanted to set a new record for early arrival in New York harbor.

What if the ship’s lookouts had been provided with binoculars?  These had mysteriously gone missing before the departure.  Or what if the duty officer on the bridge that fateful night (William Murdoch), when he first spotted the iceberg, had not mistakenly ordered that the engines be thrown into reverse, which actually reduced the ability of the ship to turn and avoid a collision?

What makes this long-ago episode still timely is the recent finding by researchers (reported in The New York Times) that many of the Titanic’s rivets were of poor quality.  It seems there was a great shortage of rivets when the Titanic and a sister ship were being built simultaneously at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Northern Ireland – and many rivets were purchased indiscriminately from small, low-quality producers.

We now know, and this is confirmed by the sea floor investigations of Titanic’s broken hull by oceanographer Robert Ballard and his colleagues, that the iceberg did not penetrate the many steel plates that formed the ship’s outer skin.  It popped the rivets that were holding them together and opened up a seam under the water line that was more than 200 feet long. Seawater immediately began to rush into six of the forward-most compartments.  As these filled, water spilled over their open tops into compartments that were farther aft, enough water ultimately to sink the vessel.

So now another “what if” has been added to the list.  What if the shipbuilder had been more scrupulous about using only the highest grade of rivets, even though it would have delayed the completion date for the much-heralded super-liner?  If any one of these and other “what ifs” had been different, the Titanic’s fate might have been very different.   Yet all of the particular causes obscure the most important factor. The thread that ties all of the “what ifs” together – call it the “ultimate cause” – resonates with many other historic disasters, including most recently the war in Iraq.

Underlying all of the many failures was an arrogant ambition – the single-minded pursuit of a grand objective by the key players that subverted their objectivity and prudence. They aspired to build “the ship of dreams” and trump an arch rival in the New York passenger trade, the Cunard Line. They were abetted by an over-weaning hubris (they apparently believed their own propaganda that the ship’s design made it practically unsinkable). And they were negligent in ignoring circumstances and facts on the ground that, if taken seriously and acted upon, would have obstructed or diminished their achievement.  In short, it was the ego-driven pursuit of economic, political and personal goals in a context of supreme over confidence that created the fatal mix of “what ifs.”

Thus, most of the repeated ice warning signals from other ships were stuffed into the pockets of Bruce Ismay and Captain Smith rather than being posted on the bridge where the duty officer would see them. In fact, Captain Smith was not even on the bridge during the period of maximum danger, which was heightened by the rare combination of a dark, moonless night and a flat calm, making it extremely difficult to spot icebergs. Captain Smith was well aware of this condition (based on a documented conversation on the bridge earlier that night). Had he been on the bridge and fully alert to the threat that lay ahead, he might have proceeded more slowly. (At least one other ship in the area had actually stopped its engines).  Perhaps, too, he might not have made the mistake of throwing the engines into reverse when the iceberg loomed.

As fate also had it, the person who was the chief designer of the ship and who had supervised its construction, Harland and Wolff’s managing director Robert Andrews, was also aboard for the maiden voyage and surely must have known about the rivets problem. The increased vulnerability of the ship’s hull and the extreme shortage of lifeboats created a serious risk and required extra caution. (The original plan called for twice as many lifeboats, but these were ultimately omitted to allow more space for a passenger promenade.) However, none of the three principal actors aboard (Ismay, Smith and Andrews) seemed to have been concerned about the potential danger.  The old expression “blind ambition” sums it up.

Our own modern-day Titanic disaster, the war in Iraq, shares with its namesake the same lethal combination of vaulting ambition, overconfidence and a failure to exercise due diligence.  In the Iraq war as in the Titanic tragedy, passionate dedication to a cause, or an organization, or a leader can override objectivity and induce resistance or even a denial of contrary or conflicting information.  As Mark Twain put it, history may not repeat itself, but it does tend to rhyme.

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