By Gerry Bill
The tragic downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 by Iran in Iranian airspace on Jan. 8 was, unfortunately, reminiscent of the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 by the United States in Iranian air space on July 3, 1988. Neither incident should have happened, and the senseless loss of life in both cases is really horrible.
In case you don’t remember (or were not even born 32 years ago), the 1988 incident involved a U.S. warship shooting down a civilian airliner in Iranian waters in the Strait of Hormuz. Ronald Reagan was president at the time.
In the 1988 incident, 290 lives were lost. In the 2020 incident, 176 lives were lost. Maybe the numbers are not that important. In both cases, too many innocent people died.
Both incidents were called “mistakes” by the countries responsible. In the recent case, Iranian forces apparently thought there was a plane or missile about to strike one of their air bases. In the 1988 case, the U.S. naval officer who ordered the shootdown claimed he thought his ship was under attack by an Iranian aircraft.
The whole story on the recent shootdown is not yet known, and we might get more information in the future. However, 32 years have passed since Flight 655 was shot down, and we now know quite a bit about it. When I say “we,” I mean the scholars and researchers who follow such things. Most of the U.S. public probably still believes the official U.S. government version given back in July 1988.
The official version, provided by the Reagan administration, made the whole thing seem tragic but justifiable. The way it was reported to the public at the time included many “facts” that later turned out to be false.
- They claimed that the U.S. warship involved, the USS Vincennes, was in international waters at the time.
- They claimed the Vincennes was involved in a naval skirmish initiated by the Iranians.
- They claimed that the Airbus A300 looked to the crew like a F-14 fighter jet on their radar.
- They claimed the plane was outside the normal civilian airliner corridor.
- They claimed the plane was descending toward the ship at a high rate of speed.
- They claimed the plane was not identifying itself properly on the normal radio channels.
If all of the above were true, it would make the shootdown appear to be a tragic but justifiable mistake. However, subsequent investigations by the Navy revealed the following to be true:
- The Vincennes was actually in Iranian territorial waters.
- The Vincennes had initiated a gunfight with the Iranian gunboats in those territorial waters.
- An Airbus A300 is much bigger and slower than an F-14, not an easy mistake to make.
- The Vincennes actually had determined at the time that the plane was within a normal civilian aviation corridor and following a normal commercial air flight plan.
- The Vincennes radar at the time showed that the plane was ascending, not descending, as they had claimed.
- The plane was properly identifying itself in the normal way on the normal radio channels, and the Vincennes knew that at the time.
It appears that the U.S. government made up a lot of convenient “alternative facts” in July 1988 to cover up the embarrassing truth of the matter. Reagan repeated the falsehoods in multiple public statements.
As I.F. Stone said, “All governments lie.” I would add that they are especially likely to lie when the truth would be embarrassing to them, as in the case of Flight 655.
The several lies were refuted one by one as time went by, but there was not a final reckoning until 1996, during the Clinton presidency. Iran had sued the United States in the International Court of Justice in May 1989, and the United States finally settled out of court in 1996 with an apology and a monetary settlement of $61.8 million to the families of the victims. Few people in the United States heard about that settlement or paid any attention to it. Most still believe the story Reagan told them 32 years ago.
Did the Iranian government also lie about the recent shootdown? Yes, it did, perhaps confirming Stone’s point. However, looking at the time line, it seems the Iranian government came clean much more quickly than did the U.S. government.
Within about three days, the Iranians changed their story from a “mechanical issue” to a mistaken shootdown of the airliner. It took the United States about eight years to get to that point.
Maybe the Iranians would have kept the lies going longer if they had been able to do so, but the evidence against them was too overwhelming. Who knows? In any case, they did correct their initial lie much more quickly than the United States had done in the 1988 shootdown.
Neither the captain nor the crew of the Vincennes were ever held accountable. Quite the contrary. Captain Will Rogers of the Vincennes was presented with the Legion of Merit award for “exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service.”
His combat systems officer, Lt. Commander Scott Lustig, received two commendation medals and was praised for “heroic achievement” for his actions at the time. The whole crew received combat action ribbons for the incident. I guess the U.S. Navy knows how to take care of its own, regardless of the facts.
The recent Iranian shootdown of the Ukrainian airliner might play out differently. As of this writing, there are reports that some of the troops responsible for the incident are now under arrest. Maybe they are really the ones to blame, or maybe they are scapegoats. I am not in a position to determine that. However, I doubt that they will be receiving medals.
All of this is pretty horrific stuff. There are lessons to be learned, though:
- Governments are not to be trusted when it comes to their reporting on such incidents.
- The armed forces of every nation are capable of doing great harm without justification and then covering it up, for a while at least.
- Heightened tensions between nations, perhaps on the verge of war, make such tragic incidents more likely to happen.
- Ergo—we shouldn’t let tensions get to that point but should find ways to deescalate much sooner.
(Author’s note: For more information, see the July 3, 2017, issue of Foreign Policy Journal.)
Gerry Bill is professor emeritus of sociology and American studies at Fresno City College. He is a board member and treasurer of the Fresno Free College Foundation and is on the boards of the Eco Village Project of Fresno, Peace Fresno and the Fresno Center for Nonviolence.