Last night I got to hear film director James Cameron speak about his exploration of the wreck of the infamous German battleship DKM Bismarck at the American Society of Naval Engineers (a venue that doesn't draw many English professors). I mention this here because Cameron's talk introduced me to maritime forensics, a fascinating field at the intersection of history, high-tech, and underwater archeology. In the course of his 45-minute talk, Cameron painstakingly detailed the difficulty of determining what actually sank the Bismarck, the shellfire and torpedoes of the British fleet or, as survivors have long claimed, the crew's own scuttling charges. The key witness is "the steel," the entity Cameron repeatedly invoked as a kind of synecdoche for the mute material evidence of the wreck.
What was most striking about the talk was how the brutal chaos and violence of a modern naval engagement could be reduced to the engineering teams' clinical reconstructions of the trajectories of specific shells, fired from a particular battery at a particular moment in the fighting. (Such feats are not uncommon in naval history, however: John Campbell's Jutland: An Analysis of the Fighting offers similar data on hundreds of shell strikes during the largest dreadnought battle of the First World War.) To obtain an accurate picture of the battle damage, however, Cameron's team first had to "subtract" (his word) the damage incurred when the ship plunged three miles to the ocean floor, impacted, and then slid down the side of an undersea mountain. The maritime forensics specialist must therefore become adept at differentiating and interpreting cryptic marks and shapes in the ship's steel, all that is left to testify to unimaginable stresses and trauma.
Bismarck's underwater remains are a grim reminder of that key dictum of forensic science that is also central to Mechanisms: every contact leaves a trace. It is also, however, a reminder of the intimate and essential connection between forensics and humanism, for while there were few things on earth as inhuman as the warship and the regime it served, Cameron compellingly demonstrated the eloquence of the signs we read in those twisted shards of steel when they intersect with survivor's memories to tell the stories that make up history.