The Time the United States Blew Up a Passenger Plane—and Tried to Cover It Up

Military analysis.
July 23 2014 5:17 PM

America’s Flight 17

The time the United States blew up a passenger plane—and tried to cover it up.

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One more shocking bit, which I didn’t know until just now: In 1992, four years after the event (and shortly after I moved on to a different beat), Adm. Crowe admitted on ABC’s Nightline that the Vincennes was in Iranian waters at the time it shot down the plane. Back in 1988, he and others had said that the ship was in international waters. It also came out that some other Navy officers had regarded Rogers as “aggressive” and found it strange that he was moving his Aegis cruiser into those waters to pursue Iranian patrol boats—overkill at best, asking for trouble in any case. The distractions of the chase, possibly combined with the fact that the Aegis radar-guided missile system was new at the time, may have led to his fatal misjudgment.

Not long after the shoot-down, Iran asked the United Nations Security Council to censure the United States for its “criminal act” against Iran Air Flight 655. Vice President George H.W. Bush, who was running to succeed Ronald Reagan as president, said on the campaign trail, “I will never apologize for the United States—I don’t care what the facts are.”

Finally, in 1996, President Bill Clinton’s administration expressed “deep regret” and paid the Iranian government $131.8 million in compensation, of which $61.8 million would go to the victims’ families. In exchange, Tehran agreed to drop its case against the United States in the International Court of Justice.

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Many Iranians continued to believe, for many years, that the shoot-down was deliberate. They found it hard to believe that the United States Navy, with its polish and dazzle, could have committed such a ghastly deed by mistake. And they were ready to believe that America—“the Great Satan,” after all—was capable of such evil.

None of this is meant to let Putin off the hook for whipping up secessionists in eastern Ukraine, giving them advanced weaponry, and training them how to use it. Nor do I mean to draw false equivalencies between Russia in Ukraine today and America in the Persian Gulf a quarter-century ago. That said, the Vincennes saga is more than a mere shocking bit of forgotten history. There are parallels between then and now, lessons to be learned.

First, things like this happen when the zones of war and normal life intersect. Best to avoid mingling the two or, if it can’t be helped, to hold the reins tight, as they slip out of control too easily.

More than this, it’s best to own up to horrible mistakes. America might have come away with a better image, at a crucial moment in Middle East conflicts, if President Reagan or George H.W. Bush had quickly acknowledged what was clear to several senior officers, admitted blame, and compensated the victims. Russia would do better if Putin did so now. Image isn’t everything; there are still policy disputes to be had. But to engage in such transparent deception only creates or confirms an impression of mendacity or evil.

Putin and whoever fired that missile should be held accountable, just as Reagan and the crewmen of the Vincennes should have been, even if they weren’t. But holding them accountable, meting out proper punishment, doesn’t mean tagging them as terrorists or war criminals. First, there’s a distinction between ghastly mistakes of war and monstrous acts of terrorism. Second, the West’s main interest in Ukraine is—or should be—to help facilitate a peaceful, prosperous Ukraine. The secessionist fever, which Putin whipped up, sowed the climate—crossed the zones of war and normal life—that made something like the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 tragedy possible. It may be a good moment now to change the climate. But that requires realism on all sides, not indulgent theatrics or the forgetting of history.