July 3 marked 20 years since the USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655. All 290 passengers aboard, including 66 children, were killed. In the intervening years have any extenuating circumstances surfaced to excuses this colossal blunder?
Let’s revisit the Iran-Iraq war, when Iran routinely attacked Kuwaiti ships and tankers. To protect them and other neutral shipping in the Persian Gulf, in the spring of 1988 the U.S. increased its naval presence in the Persian Gulf. Among the ships deployed was the Vincennes, a guided missile cruiser. Equipped with the new Aegis weapon system of computers and radar, it was tasked with detecting enemy aircraft.
Turned out, though, its commander, Captain William C. Rogers, was more interested in picking fights than surveillance. In fact, the Vincennes had just exchanged fire with Iranian gunboats — an action well below an Aegis cruiser’s pay grade — when its crew thought it detected an attacking F-14A fighter on its radar.
In fact, it was an Airbus A300 flying in a commercial corridor. When the Vincennes launched a guided missile in its direction, it never had a chance.
Aside from the tension of operating in a war zone, the Vincennes had few excuses. A loose cannon of a captain, a crew unfamiliar with Iranian commercial airliner schedules, and the bugs in the Aegis system equaled almost 300 dead Airbus passengers.
To Iran, the shooting down of Flight 655 was an atrocity. But then-President George H.W. Bush argued that it fell under the category of a war-time incident. In addition, he salted his election-year speeches with declarations that he would never apologize for the United States.
Still, in February 1996, after Iran had brought the incident to the International Court of Justice, the US settled for $132 million in reparations.
It’s notable that, at the time of the incident, Iran, in a display of almost inhuman restraint, issued no calls for retaliation. In recent years, neocons have actually used this as an indication that we can attack Iran with little risk of significant blowback.
Just in case you were wondering, all the men of the Vincennes were awarded combat-action ribbons. The air-warfare coordinator received the navy’s Commendation Medal for “heroic achievement,” and he, as well as Captain Rogers, received the Legion of Merit.
This July 4th, when we watch our fireworks, honor Flight 655 by imagining its ignominious end at the hands of the “bombs bursting in air” illuminated by the “rocket’s red glare.”
For more of Scholars & Rogues’ coverage of the standoff between Iran and the US, see also: