Trinidad and Tobago


Not the CNN version

August 23, 2000

The shaping of world opinion about Russia has largely been through the efforts of western media, echoing for the most part, Uncle Sam's legendary anti-communism imagery; by painting a series of revolting red pictures American news networks have derived continuing gratification from portraying Soviet leaders as uncouth drunkards or latter-day tyrannical czars, dedicated to the oppression of a docile, dim-witted population, whose only escape was via vodka. Then there is Russian roulette.

After a lifetime of demanding leadership, the best known image of Nikita Kruschev remains that of a pig who took off his shoe and banged it on the table at a meeting of the UN Security Council. Mikhail Gorbachev could only demolish the Berlin Wall after receiving clear instructions from US President Ronald Reagan. Boris Yeltsin became the world's best-known lush.

It was, therefore, predictable that Russia's current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would be savaged by the same sabre, no matter how he handled the recent tragedy that resulted in the death of 118 sailors aboard the submarine Kursk.

Indeed, it was a gruesome end for the crew who, trapped in a steel casket 100 metres below the unkind Barents Sea, were forced to sit in darkness, expecting death. Whether their end came shortly after the explosion that immobilised the submarine, or with the greater horror of awaiting the inevitable, the sailors of the Kursk must rank among the most tortured martyrs in military history.

It was not difficult to notice that, for the western media, the focus soon shifted from the suffocating sailors to the Russian refusal of American assistance. At every sequence, Putin was made to appear singularly inured to the plight of the sailors. We were shown images of the Russian people, outraged by his "procrastination" and in one dramatic news-clip, an old woman deemed him "a brutal murderer".

What the Americans were not as eager to make public is the fact that their interest in boarding the Kursk may not have been inspired by purely humanitarian motives. The newest of ten Oscar II class attack submarines in the Russian fleet, the Kursk was a frequent topic in the US Navy's conference rooms, primarily for its utilisation of advanced stealth technology.

The Oscar II class subs were expressly designed to stalk US carrier groups and are armed with nuclear cruise missiles. Last summer, the very Kursk shadowed a US carrier battle group to the point of embarrassment, as the fleet made its way across the Mediterranean.

Testifying to the US Congress last October, Vice Admiral Daniel J Murphy jnr, commander of the Mediterranean-based Sixth Fleet, described that encounter as "inconvenient" for US forces and described the Kursk as having "the very best technology". Its demise, therefore, would not have brought a flood of tears to American military chiefs.

Ponder, too, in the current scenario, the curious reluctance of US television networks to bombard us with historical data on similar tragedies, fact files about maritime safety procedures and a slew of commentators attesting to American invulnerability.

But in this case, such an approach may have exposed a black blemish on Uncle Sam's otherwise lily-white resume. No proper investigation could have excluded The Port Chicago Disaster of 1944 and would, therefore, have fuelled the ongoing argument that it was a ruthless test by the American navy of the effect of a nuclear device on living persons.

Of the 320 fatalities, 200 were black men, as were 226 of another 330 military and civilian personnel severely injured. These ratios, experts say, were unusual for the American military in 1944; giving rise to a guinea-pig theory that just will not go away, even after 57 years. None of the theories supplied by a military court that sat for 39 days could stand up to expert scrutiny.

And it got worse. So far as any human error could be identified, the burden of blame was appointed to the black enlisted men killed in the explosion.

Survivors were not given the customary shore leave to visit families, nor were they offered counselling.

But when the same survivors objected to loading ammunition on another ship three weeks later, 258 of them were arrested, charged with mutiny and threatened with summary execution. On October 24, 1944, a group of 50 black men, whom the Navy deemed ringleaders, were sentenced to prison terms ranging from eight to 15 years and all were dishonourably discharged.

Does that sound like the behaviour of a nice little navy, whose heart goes out to sailors?

We cannot be so na´ve as to think that superpowers on both sides of the political divide will never sacrifice human lives to protect military secrets, or be callous enough to use them in nuclear experiments.

So, particularly if Prime Minister Putin subscribed to a widely-held view that the 118 on the Kursk were dead from first impact, he had more than enough reason for refusing American help.

At least he could explain how his men died.


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