In the aftermath of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 being shot down in eastern Ukraine, many are desperate to find answers. In increasing numbers, the governments of the passengers that were killed in the crash are sending security and law enforcement detachments to the rebel-held region to find and secure the bodies of the 298 victims aboard the July 17 flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. For example, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has indicated that 40 military police officers will be sent to eastern Ukraine, while Australia is currently negotiating plans to send in 90 of its federal police officers to the crash site.
The shootdown — commonly believed to be accidentally committed by Russian-armed and -backed separatists — has placed Russia under heavy international scrutiny. Despite claims from both Moscow and the separatists that Russia is not involved in the insurgencies, the separatists’ possession of Russian Buk surface-to-air missiles has raised questions among observers about whether Russia is arming the separatists.
American intelligence analysis of the missile path, shrapnel patterns among the wreckage, photos and data from social media sites, and voice print analysis of the separatists’ conversations have all contributed convincing evidence that the separatists are responsible for the missile strike. Additionally, recent allegations that two Ukrainian fighter jets were brought down by missiles fired from Russia indicate that Russia may be an active participant in the eastern Ukrainian insurgency.
While the world may be moving toward laying blame for this disaster on Russia, with Europe and the United states both moving toward strengthening sanctions against the nation — including cutting Russia off from several of the world’s markets — it should be remembered that MH17 was not the first passenger jet to be shot out of the sky. Twenty-six years ago, the USS Vincennes — a U.S. Navy guided missile carrier — targeted and shot down the civilian passenger jet Iran Air Flight 655 while the jet was still in Iranian airspace. Despite the fact that the jet was transmitting civilian codes, the Vincennes crew somehow mistook the jet for a F-14A Tomcat fighter — which the Iranian Air Force regularly used at the time.
At the time, the Iraq-Iran War had expanded to include air attacks and bombings on oil tankers and merchant shipping vessels from neighboring countries that shipped Iraqi oil. Following attacks from both Iraqi and Iranian forces on American ships, the U.S. created a protection zone in the Persian Gulf for all friendly ships.
On the day of the shootdown, Flight 655 was to make a 28-minute flight from Bandar Abbas to Dubai through a well-established commercial air corridor. A Vincennes helicopter received small arms fire for Iranian gunboats, causing the ship to give chase — illegally entering both Omani and Iranian territorial waters. With tensions already high onboard, orders were given to fire on Flight 655 — which, according to the ship’s Aegis Combat System, was in ascent at the time and communicating on civilian channels. The ship’s commanders justified their decision by stating that the jet did not respond to radio challenges (which it wouldn’t, as the jet was listening to civilian channels and the Vincennes was transmitting on air traffic control frequencies). All 290 passengers — including 66 children — and crew on board the jet were lost.
The shootdown — which Tehran thought was intentional — and Iraq’s expanded use of chemical weapons in spite of international prohibition led Iran to believe that the U.S. was preparing to enter the war on the side of Iraq and to agree to a ceasefire two months after the loss of Flight 655. However, this also cemented into the Iranian psychology that the U.S. is willing to do anything to destroy Iran and is, therefore, untrustworthy.
The U.S.’s public accounting of the situation — including testimony from the Vincennes crew that Flight 655 was descending toward the ship, instead of ascending, as the ship records showed, leading many to believe it was preparing for an attack run — and suppression of evidence suggesting that the Vincennes’ commanding officer, Captain William Rogers, was needlessly aggressive and regularly violated rules of engagement, had led many to believe that the government engaged in a cover-up. To this day, the U.S. has not apologized for the shootdown of Flight 655 and the Vincennes’ crew and commanders have received service medals for their tours. Their tour records make no notice of the Flight 655 incident.
In 1996, in order to end a lawsuit against the U.S. in the International Court of Justice, the U.S. agreed to pay Iran $131.8 million — $300,000 for each wage-earner, $150,000 for each non-wage-earner, and $70 million to replace the jet. The U.S. would not be required to admit any guilt, and future litigation on this issue would be blocked.
While looking at Russia’s potential culpability in the grounding of MH17, one must be willing to accept the possibility that this tragedy may be truly the result of unforeseen circumstances. The fate of Flight 655 showed that mistakes happen to everyone in war, and sometimes, nations go to extraordinary lengths to hide them.
“The secessionist fever, which Putin whipped up, sowed the climate — crossed the zones of war and normal life — that made something like the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 tragedy possible,” wrote Fred Kaplan for Slate. “It may be a good moment now to change the climate. But that requires realism on all sides, not indulgent theatrics or the forgetting of history.”