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Did Cold War mentality contribute to death of sailors?

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The loved ones of 118 Russian sailors who perished in the explosion of the Russian submarine Kursk tossed flowers in the Barents Sea this week.

They grieved for the loss of their husbands, fathers and brothers. Their sorrow was compounded by the Russian government's bumbling of the incident — the dearth of communication to the families; the horrifying delays in asking for assistance and the show of false pride intended to mask what a shambles Russia's military has become in post-Cold War era.

Early on, the American government offered its help. So did the Norwegian government and the United Kingdom. When it was far too late, the Russian government summoned the aid of Norwegian divers, who determined that the hull had been breached and all on board were dead.

We ask ourselves "What if?" "What if help had been summoned immediately? Might a few lives been saved?"

We query, "Isn't the Cold War over? Is it so far-fetched for the Russians to believe that the United States, Britain and the Norwegian governments were more interested in saving lives than getting a glimpse of the Kursk's nuclear firepower?"

I've struggled with these issues this past week. When the story broke, I flashed to my family's recent visit to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland. Docked behind the museum on the Willamette River is the Blueback, among our Navy's last non-nuclear submarines.

As submarines go, the Blueback is tiny. Part of the barbel class of subs, the Blueback is just 219 feet long, 29 feet wide and 29 feet tall. She carried a fleet of 85 men on tours lasting roughly two months each. The sailors worked in shifts so one's bunk was very likely still warm from the last shift when it came the next group's turn to rest. The men could shower once every two weeks. Although the Blueback was decommissioned 10 years ago, she still reeks of the diesel used to fuel the engines that charged the giant bank of batteries that powered the sub. Our tour group marveled at the cramped quarters and the sterile surroundings.

What struck me as odd were the bunks above the racks of torpedoes in the torpedo hold. They were coveted places to sleep because the torpedo hold was the quietest part of the submarine. Yet, I wondered how anyone could sleep knowing the munitions were just inches from their beds.

I thought of those bunks as the reports of the fate of the Kursk have come forth. I've wondered if similar bunks were occupied when the explosion occurred. I wonder what the rest of the sailors were doing when the blast tore through the vessel.

Some accounts suggest that most of the sailors died immediately. I hope and pray that was the case. There would be nothing more hopeless than being mired on the ocean floor in such a confined space, unable to call for help.

If anyone survived, I wonder if they believed they would be rescued or if their government would sacrifice their lives in the interest of perpetuating the myth of Russia's military might. We know no lives were saved. We struggle to understand why.

What the world witnessed was a Russia still very plugged into the Soviet tradition of placing the interests of the state above all; a country that apparently is too insecure to accept help.

Now Russia is experiencing an unprecedented backlash. Russians have been openly critical of their government for its ham-handed treatment of this disaster. Worldwide, Putin's credibility has been called into question.

New reports say it could be as long as a year until the bodies of the Russian soldiers are recovered, if they ever are.

As I watched the families and friends of the Kursk crew scatter flowers on the Barents Sea, I couldn't help but think of my grandparents. My grandfather volunteered for the U.S. Navy and a tour in the Pacific Theater during World War II and re-enlisted for the Korean conflict.

He saw a lot of action and earned a Purple Heart. As he and his shipmates aboard battleships and destroyers fought to preserve our freedoms, my grandmother helped the war effort at home. The loneliness and uncertainty made her bitter. But my grandfather has told me that he never felt more alive than he did while he was at sea. On the rare occasions he'd pop open his footlocker to show us his war memorabilia, his pride and sense of wonder were evident.

It is my fervent wish that the loved ones of the Kursk crew had, at some point, a glimpse into the psyches of their sailors. Perhaps then, they will begin to understand why they made the sacrifices they did in the defense of their country. Perhaps then they will begin to experience some closure over their most unfortunate and untimely deaths. Perhaps then they can start to forgive their government for brushing off help as some of its bravest and most loyal sons perished.


Deseret News editorial writer Marjorie Cortez may be e-mailed at marjorie@desnews.com