Summary: Airliners are occasionally shot down (collateral damage) by modern air defense systems. Like children run over cross the street, it’s an ugly fact of modern life. These extreme (but fortunately rare) events reveal much about the behavior of governments — and about us. Governments lie; they do so because we believe them (no matter how much we pretend no to). We can learn from our past; we can do better.
“Never believe anything about the government until it has been officially denied.”
— Attributed to Bismarck.
“Since becoming a journalist I had often heard the advice to “believe nothing until it has been officially denied”.
— Claud Cockburn (Irish journalist), A Discord of Trumpets (1956)
The young men running modern air defense systems can shoot down an airliner with the push of a button. No matter how well trained, and they’re often not, under pressure the complex (often confusing) flood of information on their screens lead to bad decisions.
(1) Russia’s military shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 on 1 September 1983, followed by the usual false stories. Only in 1992 did they release vital information about the event. They never apologized.
(2) Ukraine’s military shot down Siberia Airlines Flight 1812 on 4 October 2001. For 9 days they denied responsibility.
The FM website is about America. We too have shot down a civilian airliner. The incident deserves attention because it can – and should — enlighten us about the nature of our government, and ourselves. It’s a standard drama of our time, repeated frequently, from which we seem unable to learn. But first let’s step back in history.
The Soviet Union shoots down a U-2
In 1960 the Soviet Union shot down Gary Powers’ U2 flight. The US denied that he was flying over their territory. They lied to fool us, since the Soviet Union’s officials knew the facts. The truth quickly emerged. US officials then made a discovery of the sort that changes the fate of nation: there were no consequences to lies, even when caught. No penalties. No laughter when they lie again; not even skepticism.
The shooting of Iran Air Flight 655
The USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655 on 3 July 1988. The US initially denied it (see this AP story, and the transcript of the DoD Press Briefing. The next day we took responsibility, but made a wide range of claims in defense about the location of the ship and the behavior of the aircraft — all of which justified the shooting.
On 28 July DoD published its Formal Investigation, which won the Doublespeak award for 1988 for “omission, distortion, contradiction, and misdirection”, presented by the National Council of Teachers of English (“Doublespeak and Iran Air Flight 655″).
On 8 September 1988 DoD presented these lies to the House Armed Services Committee, as ritualistic a performance as Noh but without the art and music (see the transcript).
Most Americans, while professing skepticism about our government, believed the official story. The US story unraveled during the next five years. Contrary to US claims, the Vincennes was in Iranian waters. The plane was flying the correct course and behaving properly (it was ascending, not descending). Of course, people reading foreign news media learned the truth at the time.
On 21 July 1992 the House Armed Services Committee again held a hearing on this incident, at which they learned they had been lied to (see the transcript). As with the Church Committee hearings in 1975 about CIA misdeeds, and the current fuss about CIA torture and illegal NSA surveillance, they concluded that boys will be boys. Applause for the festivities and life continues undisturbed in the Versailles on the Potomac.
Now that it was safe to tell the truth, Newsweek and ABC News did a joint “investigation”. Here’s the transcript of “The USS Vincennes: Public War, Secret War” on Ted Koppel’s Nightline, 1 July 1992. Newsweek ran a more detailed story: “Sea of Lies“, 13 July 1992 — “The inside story of how an America naval vessel blundered into an attack on Iran Air 655 at the height of tensions during the Iran-Iraq War, and how the Pentagon tried to cover its tracks after 290 innocent civilians died.”
Faux outrage! Drama! Much excitement among the outer party; the proles were uninterested.
For painfully detailed analysis of our lies in this matter see “Vincennes: A Case Study“, David Evans (Lt Colonel, USMC, retired), Proceedings (US Naval Institute), August 1993.
But there was a small bit of justice, eventually. Iran sued in the International Court of Justice. The US paid compensation in 1996 to avoid a trial. The US has never apologized.
For More Information
Posts about the crisis in Ukraine:
- A warning from Germany about our new cold war: “The West on the wrong path”, 9 August 2014
- Let’s stop the 2-minute hate on Putin & think before we reignite the Cold War, 11 August 2014
- We can learn much from the tragedy of Flight MH17 – about ourselves, 12 August 2014