When the U.S. Navy Shot Down a Civilian Airliner

Fox News keeps playing Ronald Reagan’s indignant response to the Soviets shooting down Korean Air Lines Flight 007 on September 1, 1983 and killing 269 passengers. (I just saw it again a few minutes ago on Jenine “Bomb Them, Bomb Them, Keep Bombing Them, Bomb Them Again and Again” Pirro’s Justice show.)  Reagan’s statement is supposedly a favorable contrast to Obama’s inept response to the recent shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. (Even a former progressive war blogger now turned Beltarian seems enraptured with the apotheosis of St. Reagan.)

Down the Memory Hole is Iran Air Flight 655, shot down by the USS Vincennes on July 3, 1988.  The Airbus A300 was flying in Iranian airspace and the Vincennes was sitting in Iranian waters. A total of 290 passengers (including 66 children) were killed.

Vincennes was known in the Navy as “Robo Cruiser,” a ship under the aggressive command of Captain Will Rogers III who, along with his crew, seemed to like to menace and shoot just about anything that moved.

Reagan’s contemptuous initial response to reporters: “Understandable…Ever been in combat?” he angrily snapped. Later on Reagan from Camp David:

We deeply regret any loss of life. The course of the Iranian civilian airliner was such that it was headed directly for the U.S.S. Vincennes, which was at the time engaged with five Iranian Boghammar boats that had attacked our forces. When the aircraft failed to heed repeated warnings, the Vincennes followed standing orders and widely publicized procedures, firing to protect itself against possible attack.

Navy Commander David Carlson, in charge of the USS Sides in the Gulf that day, begged to differ with Reagan on just about every detail.  In the September 1989 Naval Institute Proceedings, Carlson wrote:

When the decision was made to shoot down the Airbus, the airliner was climbing, not diving; it was showing the proper identification friend-or-foe (IFF Mode III); and it was in the correct flight corridor from Bandar Abbas to Dubai…The Vincennes was never under attack by Iranian aircraft…There was no coordinated attack involving the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps boats and Iranian military forces.

Having watched the performance of the Vincennes for a month before the incident, my impression was clearly that an atmosphere of restraint was not her long suit…Her actions appeared to be consistently aggressive, and had become a topic of wardroom conversation…’Robo Cruiser’ was the unamusing nickname that someone jokingly came up with for her, and it stuck.

At the time, the Navy asserted that Revolutionary Guard gunboats attacked the Vincennes first, but Carlson revealed that the Vincennes sought permission to open fire on them, a protocol unnecessary if the ship had already been under actual attack.

Unlike the South Koreans and Korean Air Lines Flight 007, Iranians never received an apology from the U.S. government for the killing of 254 Iranians and 36 others on Iran Air Flight 655. Nevertheless, U.S. taxpayers apparently got a bill for $132 million in compensation the U.S. paid to Iran to make Iran’s suit against the U.S. in the International Court of Justice go away.


9:38 pm on July 19, 2014

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