I saw bits of two Titanic films last night and began to realise why the event still has such moral force and the image especially of the band playing ‘Nearer, My God, To Thee’ on the tilting deck is so beautifully distressing.
It’s not because of the gallantry of the musicians, who know that they themselves will be dead in an hour, and their aim to soothe, uplift and sweeten the souls of their fellow travellers who have no longer to live. It’s not because the tune is so good, or the words so poignant. It’s because God, a caring God, was nowhere, truly nowhere, in the vicinity. He was far from the scene, he was out of business, he was long dead, and ‘Further, My God, From Thee’ was a fitter lyric for the sea-washed cock-up they were in. It was the first orchestral movement of the twentieth century’s atheism, of which the Great War was the second. And it was, of course, a masterful, dextrous act of Spin.
And it was Spin for the start of a century that used thereafter a lot of Spin. In Gallipoli, where no inch of ground was gained and more men died than in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden put together, while the Spin declared they ‘did not die in vain’. In America when the ‘homes fit for heroes’ were seized by the banks and the heroes of war went walking, a cardboard sign around their neck, ‘will work for food’, down the dusty lanes and rode the box cars of the New Oblivion. When millions of Jews after ‘relocation’ were promised a new life in Israel and ended, after chain-gang slavery, in the crematoria of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Where millions of Americans, sent to Vietnam in ‘a noble cause’, found it rather less than that, and came home deranged and brutish, wife-beating and suicidal after ten years of it, a war they lost, but will not admit they lost even now.
God was no nearer in any of those places, and a hundred million ordinary yearning sorrowful people died young for want of Him, and the Spin, nonetheless, went on. The Surge is working. The War on Drugs will be won. Afghanistan is winnable. Our task is to train the terrorists to kill us more efficiently, lest al-Qaeda be put out of pocket by their training. We must kill more Taliban, then form a coalition with them, trusting to their good humour and their kindliness to their enemies when we go away.
Titanic is also about incompetence, which became the larger story of the twentieth century. The hundreds of thousands of young men killed in the wire of No Man’s Land, ten thousand sometimes in a single morning, because three cousins disagreed. The hundred thousand men that surrendered to twenty thousand at Singapore. The Agent Orange meant to ‘defoliate’ Vietnam that caused mutant children in millions on both sides. The tens of thousands of babies killed in their humidicribs for possessing Weapons of Mass Destruction — atomic bombs, that is — which were not there. The monthly killing in Gaza of children descended from Ishmael but not Isaac, a capital crime, we are told by the IDF; the Messiah, possibly, among them.
There were not enough boats on the Titanic, by a factor of fifty percent, in order not to complicate, we are told, the deck-promenades of the first class passengers in the cool of the day, and a lot of the boats left the ship half-empty, dooming hundreds of immigrant children who might have improved American life as architects, musicians, rocket scientists, had they survived. As Kenneth More said last night, there were only seconds in it. If they hadn’t been speeding, or had seen the iceberg two seconds earlier, there might have been no need for evacuation, in freezing temperatures, at midnight, of women and children first, and First Class women first, nor the Class War on the deck for anguished young stewards forced to choose which poor infants, and which poor old women, would die in an hour as they themselves would die.
Incompetence is the tale less often told of that night, and the following century.
And it is the tale, a hundred years on, a hundred years this morning, we still are in.