Every July 3rd we pass over a notable chapter in our history of "American Exceptionalism". This year marks 28 years since the US downing of Iran Air 655 killing all 290 people on board.
July 4th is a day defined by patriotism and the celebration of our country’s armed forces. Television networks run war movie marathons, newspaper pundits write patriotic op-eds, and politicians make lofty speeches about the sanctity of what is called American Exceptionalism. What will go unmentioned, as it goes unmentioned virtually every year, is a little known anniversary which takes place the day before, on July 3rd. This July 3rd will mark 28 years since the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian civilian airliner carrying 290 people, killing them all.
To give a brief historical look at this crime, it might be good to start with the 1979 Iranian Revolution which allowed the Shia of Iran to assert autonomy from Western control. The revolution panicked Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein who was nervous that it might influence Iraq’s Shia majority. In order to destroy this perceived threat Saddam invaded Iran and started the Iran-Iraq war of 1984-1988. Saddam, fully supported by the United States, felt confident that his victory would be swift. However, victory was far from swift, and an exceedingly bloody stalemate took hold, with the US heavily funding Saddam, while also selling weapons to Iran on the side. After a long stalemate the tide had started to turn on Iraq, and by 1987 Saddam was becoming increasingly nervous about the situation. In 1988, the US, anxious to save their friend Saddam from destruction, began attacking Iranian oil platforms and ships. US operations had killed 56 Iranians by June of 1988.
One US naval vessel dispatched to the region was the USS Vincennes, commanded by Captain Will Rogers III. The Vincennes was a state-of-the-art Aegis cruiser, designed to fight against advanced Soviet weaponry. The Vincennes was purported to be able to shoot down 200 incoming missiles at once. As Newsweek would later write in its in depth analysis of the events, “The Vincennes had a dubious reputation inside the U.S. fleet in the gulf…By early July, Rogers was widely regarded as ‘trigger happy,’ according to several high-ranking officers.” Indeed, few could scarcely imagine just how apt this description would prove to be.
On the morning of July 3rd, 1988, Rogers provoked Iranian gunboats into attacking his recon helicopter which he had sent into Iranian territorial waters. Rogers quickly rushed to engage the gunboats despite it being a clear violation of Iranian sovereignty. When he arrived, the helicopter was no longer in any danger. However, even though the boats posed no threat to the Vincennes, (which Newsweek speculates the gunboats might not have even seen) Rogers radioed his headquarters claiming that the gunboats were headed towards him and that he needed to engage in self-defense. Watching this scenario unfold, was David Carlson, the captain of the USS Sides. Carlson wondered why if Rogers in his billion-dollar Aegis Cruiser felt threatened by the gunboats (little more than speedboats with crude weapons attached), Rogers simply turn around and leave? Rogers proceeded to engage the gunboats, however, unfortunately for Rogers, the Aegis cruiser was designed to shoot down advanced Soviet weaponry, not destroy lightly armed speedboats. The task proved more difficult than Rogers first imagined it would be and he became involved in a protracted battle between his billion-dollar ship and four speedboats with small guns attached to them. For no reason.
Right around this time, Iran Air Flight 655 was taking off from Bandar Abbas Airport with 290 people on board. The flight was on its regularly scheduled flight to Dubai, which it ran twice every week. At the time of take off the USS Vincennes detected a signal coming from Bandar Abbas Airport which it identified as “assumed hostile,” and sent a computerized query to the airplane’s transponder to see if it was civilian or military. The plane’s computer identified itself to the Vincennes as civilian, but Vincennes crew-members were suspicious. The ship’s Petty Officer, Andrew Anderson, was tasked with checking Iran Air 655’s time of takeoff with the Navy’s book of commercial air traffic. Apparently confused by the time zones of the Gulf, he did not find the regularly scheduled flight in the book and speculated that the plane might be an F-14 fighter posing as civilian. Anderson alerted his commander Scott Lustig and Lustig alerted the captain that a possible Iranian F-14 was inbound. After failing to reset his signaling equipment, Anderson began receiving a military signal which was coming from a military transport plane on the runway at Bandar Abbas Airport which Anderson misidentified as being from Iran Air 655. The plane was now 12,000 feet and climbing; much too high to pose any threat to the Vincennes. However, Anderson misread the information and instead reported that the plane was at 7,000 feet and descending.
Even if it was an F-14, the models that the Iranians owned (which were sold by the US to the Shah of Iran in the 1970s), were outdated and designed only for air-to-air combat, and therefore could do little against the Vincennes. However, after trying to hail the plane on military channels (which of course the passenger flight did not respond to because it was communicating on civilian channels) Rogers gave the green light to shoot down the aircraft. After announcing his intentions over military channels to take down the aircraft, USS Sides captain David Carlson, “wondered aloud in disbelief”, but assumed that the Vincennes must have some information that he did not. Attempting to fire, Scott Lustig pressed the wrong keys on his console 23 times before finally launching the missiles. Upon confirming that the missiles struck their target the crew of the Vincennes issued “a spontaneous cheer,” as Rogers would later recount in his farcical book, Storm Center.
Soon reality came crashing down on the crew of the Vincennes as wreckage and bodies from the civilian airliner began falling. All 290 passengers, including 66 children were killed. An entire Iranian family of sixteen, on their way to a wedding in Dubai, was killed, the children wearing their wedding clothes. It is assumed that many, if not most of the passengers were alive as they fell from the sky.
The reaction of Western leaders and the media was despicable. In an address to the UN Security Council Vice President George HW Bush said that the Vincennes acted “in self-defense,” and that “Iran, too, must bear a substantial measure of responsibility for what happened.” Bush went on saying, “There are three ways for Iran to avoid future tragedies…Keep airliners away from combat. Stop attacking innocent ships. Or, better still, the best way is peace.” An op-ed written on July 5th in the New York Times argues that Rogers “had little choice” other than to shoot down the airliner. “Blame may lie with the Iran Air pilot for failing to acknowledge the ship's warnings and flying outside the civilian corridor. Iran, too, may bear responsibility for failing to warn civilian planes away from the combat zone of an action it had initiated.” Conveniently, the Iran Air pilot, Mohsen Rezaian, was not alive to counter these accusations. Another concocted justification given that would later be disproved was the claim that the Vincennes was engaged with Iranian gunboats to protect a German merchant vessel. William Safire wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “As the plane approached, ignoring repeated warnings and reportedly sending conflicting signals, the naval officer must have thought of the fate of the frigate.” Safire went on to criticize what he called, “military second-guessers”, and that “responsibility lies with the nation that started the war (Iraq) [sic] and the nation that grimly demands victory (Iran) [sic].” Never mind, of course, that the war was started by a US ally who was given every form of support that the US could afford him, including shipments of chemical weapons.
Another concocted justification for this crime against humanity was the claim that the flight was descending in “attack mode” rather than ascending. This initial lie led to disgusting op-eds in Western media outlets speculating that the Iranian pilot was trying to fly his plane into the Vincennes. However, David Carlson and the crew of a nearby Italian naval vessel spoke out and told press that the plane was ascending not descending. The claim that the Vincennes was rushing to the aid of a merchant vessel under attack was a complete fabrication and would later be retracted. It would then be claimed that the flight had been communicating the wrong signal, which was not true, and it turns out the signal was simply misinterpreted by the crew of the Vincennes.
After news of the story broke, and a degree of international scrutiny was fixed on US actions, citizens of Vincennes, Indiana, shifted their attention to a fundraising drive for a monument to the USS Vincennes in their hometown. The drive for a monument received a surge of donations in the days following the tragedy. As it turns out, far from being labeled incompetent degenerates, the crew of the Vincennes were hailed as American heroes. Robert Fisk writes in his book The Great War for Civilization, “When the ship returned to its home base of San Diego, it was given a hero’s welcome. The men of the Vincennes were all awarded combat action ribbons. The air warfare coordinator, Commander Scott Lustig, won the navy’s Commendation Medal for ‘heroic achievement,’ for the ‘ability to maintain his poise and confidence under fire’ that enabled him to ‘quickly and concisely complete the firing procedure.’” Captain Rogers retired honorably in 1991 after receiving the Legion of Merit award for “exceptionally meritorious conduct as a commanding officer.”
Just another chapter in America’s history of Exceptionalism.