The Difference between Malaysian Airlines 17 and Iranian Air 655

Because this is mostly a blog about writing and authors and all things literary, I normally shy away from controversial topics, such as current events. The purpose here is to encourage writers and tout their wares, not make political statements.

However, because my book (and soon to be books, plural) mostly center around current events in the world of espionage and politics with a particular slant toward American patriotism and our ongoing tension with Russia, I think it’s appropriate to address a topic that is in the news related to all those things.

We all know about the tragic downing last week of Malaysian Airline 17 that killed almost 300 innocent passengers, including at least one American. Many of the victims were women and children. None of them deserved to be shot down by either the Russians or the Ukrainian resistance forces. (The jury is still out on who fired the rocket, although the evidence is leaning toward either the Russians outright or a Russian force disguised as Ukrainians, but it’s too soon to know for sure.)

Some in the apologize-for-their-own-country American media have already begun to compare this event with the accidental downing of Iranian Air flight 655 by the USS Vincennes back on July 3, 1988. While both incidents cost hundreds of innocent lives, it’s important to draw a distinction between the two. They are not the same.

One major difference is the intent. By all accounts (except for those of annoying conspiracy theorists), the US Navy never intended to shoot down a civilian jetliner. Instead, they mistook it for an Iranian F-14 fighter jet, a mistake that was apparently fairly easy to make back in the 1980’s, when radar technology wasn’t as good as it is now. Even the advanced radar system aboard the Aegis class cruiser, though cutting edge for its time and still better than some others today, was inadequate to identify the airplane accurately.

There was also the matter of the airliner’s pilots not responding when the ship tried to hail them on the radio in an attempt to positively identify what the radar had labeled as a potential threat. This is standard military procedure, both during peace and wartime. Know whom you’re shooting before you pull the trigger.

The operators on board the Vincennes also incorrectly identified IA655’s transponder code as Mode II, which is a military frequency, instead of the civilian Mode III, and fired on a plane that was no threat to them, an egregious mistake that cost hundreds of human lives.

The 1988 downing of IA655 was clearly an accident by a US Navy that was not actively engaged in hostilities with Iran or any other power in the region at the time. The ship was simply there as part of a carrier group patrolling peacefully in the Strait of Hormuz.

Did the US Navy screw up? No doubt. And it has admitted so, to the tune of almost $62 million paid out to the families of the victims.

Russian SA-11 Surface-to-Air Missile

In the case of MA17, however, there is no evidence so far that the troops on the ground, whoever they were, attempted to ascertain the identity of their target before firing. Once investigators analyze the voice data recorders (a.k.a. black boxes), they may uncover some sort of pre-shot communication between the airplane and the ground, but as of today nobody has said anything publicly about it.

As of this writing, nobody has alluded to the downing of MA17 as anything but a deliberate and unprovoked shooting down of a civilian airliner. Neither Russia nor Ukraine is claiming responsibility for the incident, as they gauge the severity of the international community’s response to see what they can get away with next. So far it’s been less than impressive.

Iranian Airlines 655 was accidentally shot down by an officially recognized navy that realized its mistake and admitted it.

Malaysian Airlines 17 was deliberately shot down by either the Russians or Ukrainians, neither of whom has the courage to stand up and take the blame.

There is a stark difference between the two.


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