Fury and frustration still mount over the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, and justly so. But before accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of war crimes or dismissing the entire episode as a tragic fluke, it's worth looking back at another doomed passenger plane — Iran Air Flight 655—shot down on July 3, 1988, by a U.S. Navy captain in command of a cruiser called the Vincennes.
A quarter-century later, the Vincennes is almost completely forgotten, but it is one of the Pentagon's most inexcusable disgraces.
In several ways, the two calamities are similar. The Malaysian Boeing 777 wandered into a messy civil war in eastern Ukraine, near the Russian border; the Iranian Airbus A300 wandered into a naval skirmish — one of many clashes in the ongoing "Tanker War" — in the Strait of Hormuz. The likely pro-Russia rebel thought that he was shooting at a Ukrainian military-transport plane; the U.S. Navy captain, Will Rogers III, mistook the Airbus for an F-14 fighter jet. The Russian SA-11 surface-to-air missile that downed the Malaysian plane killed 298 passengers, including 80 children; the American SM-2 surface-to-air missile that downed the Iranian plane killed 290 passengers, including 66 children.
After last week's incident, Russian officials told various lies to cover up their culpability and blamed the Ukrainian government; after the 1988 incident, American officials told various lies and blamed the Iranian pilot. Not until eight years later did the U.S. government compensate the victims' families, and even then expressed "deep regret," not an apology.
Here's the truly dismaying part of the story. On Aug. 19, 1988, seven weeks after the event, the Pentagon issued a 53-page report on the incident. It found that nearly all the initial details about the shoot-down — the "facts" that senior officials cited to put all the blame on Iran Air's pilot — were wrong. And yet the August report still concluded that the captain and all the other Vincennes officers had acted properly.
For example, on July 3, at the first Pentagon press conference on the incident, Adm. William Crowe, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the Iranian plane had been flying at 9,000 feet and descending at a "high speed" of 450 knots, "headed directly" for the Vincennes. In fact, however, the Aug. 19 report — written by Rear Adm. William Fogarty of U.S. Central Command — concluded (from the Vincenne's computer tapes) that the plane was "ascending through 12,000 feet" at 380 knots. "At no time" did the Airbus "actually descend in altitude," the report stated.
There were other disturbing discrepancies between Crowe's July 3 comments and Fogarty's Aug. 19 report. Crowe had said the plane was flying "outside the prescribed commercial air route"; the report said it was flying "within the established air route." Crowe had said the plane's transponder was "squawking" a code over the "Mode 2" military channel; the report stated that it was squawking over the "Mode 3" civilian channel. Crowe had said the Vincennes issued several warnings; the report confirmed this, but noted, "Due to heavy pilot workload during take-off and climb-out, and the requirement to communicate with" two air traffic control centers, the pilot "probably was not monitoring" the international air-distress channel.
Adm. George B. Crist, head of U.S. Central Command, issued a "non-punitive letter of censure" to the ship's anti–air warfare officer, but Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci withdrew the letter. Two years later, Capt. Rogers was issued the Legion of Merit "for exceptionally meritorious conduct."
In 1992, four years after the event, 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 cruiser into those waters to pursue Iranian patrol boats — overkill at best, asking for trouble in any case.
Not long after the shoot-down, Iran asked the United Nations Security Council to censure the United States for its "criminal act." 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.
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.
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Putin and whoever fired that missile should be held accountable, just as Reagan and the crew of the Vincennes should have been. But holding them accountable 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 to help facilitate a peaceful, prosperous Ukraine. The secessionist fever, which Putin whipped up, sowed the climate 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.