Page 1 of 2 The charge of the Atlanticist Brigade
By Peter Lee
The bloody farce in the Ukraine took another ugly turn with the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
And to be ugly about it, if the rebels shot the plane down, it shouldn't matter very much except as a horrible and unexpected catastrophe in a war zone and an overwhelming tragedy to the survivors of the victims on board. Call it an accident, collateral damage, manslaughter, there is no credible version of events in which it was intentional mass murder or terrorism, either by the rebels or Russian technicians that, according to the Ukrainian government, possessed the ability to operate the elderly but complex anti-aircraft systems fingered in the attack.
Recall the US shootdown of Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988 by the USS Vincennes. It was also an ugly business. The Iran Air jet
was on a standard civilian flight path with its transponders on; the Vincennes through some bit of naval derring-do had actually intruded into Iranian territorial waters when it shot the plane down (something that was only admitted by the US three years later); 290 people died. The US never apologized, but eventually paid out some money to smooth things over, not in a particularly classy way, according to a 2002 account:
The US had compensated non-Iranian victims about US$2.9 million (not acknowledging any responsibility) but nothing to Iranian family members. In 1996, a $131.8 million settlement was reached that included the ignored families ($61.8 million). Seventy million was to be put into bank accounts and used to "pay off private US claims against Iran and Iran's expenses for the Iran-US Claims Tribunal, which is handling the claims." The US stated it was for claims "involving banking matters, not the airliner," while Iran said that 30 million was for the plane.
The shootdown was accompanied by the usual quotient of dishonest denial and blame shifting.
The following day, the Pentagon held a news conference on the incident. After originally having flatly denied Iran's version of the event, saying that it had shot down an F-14 fighter and not a civilian aircraft, the State Department (after a review of the evidence) admitted the downing of Iran Air 655. It was claimed that the plane had "strayed too close to two US Navy warships that were engaged in a battle with Iranian gunboats" and, according to the spokesman, that the "proper defensive action" was taken (in part) because the "suspect aircraft was outside the prescribed commercial air corridor". (Washington Post)
That it "strayed" from its normal, scheduled flight path is factually incorrect. And so was the claim that it was heading right for the ship and "descending" (emphasis, mine) toward it - it was ascending. Another "error" was the contention that it took place in international waters (it did not, a fact only later admitted by the government). Incorrect maps were used when Congress was briefed on the incident.
In an interesting sidebar, the "planeful of naked corpses" conspiracy canard (for which Western journos have repeatedly mocked a Ukrainian rebel militia leader who was, presumably, dumbfounded by the grotesque carnage of the crash) was first deployed by right wing US radio commentators to accuse Iran of staging a provocation by flying a plane of naked corpses at the Vincennes.
The Iran Air shootdown was classified as a goof - although the Iranians declared it rose to the level of criminal misconduct (and have been accused of engineering the Lockerbie bombing as retaliation) - and the captain of the Vincennes was condemned by his fellow officers as a reckless dingbat, per Wikipedia:
Commander David Carlson, commanding officer of the USS Sides, the warship stationed near to the Vincennes at the time of the incident, is reported to have said that the destruction of the aircraft "marked the horrifying climax to Captain Rogers' aggressiveness, first seen four weeks ago." His comment referred to incidents on 2 June, when Rogers had sailed the Vincennes too close to an Iranian frigate undertaking a lawful search of a bulk carrier, launched a helicopter within 2-3 miles (3.2-4.8 kilometers) of an Iranian small craft despite rules of engagement requiring a four-mile (6.4 km) separation, and opened fire on small Iranian military boats.
Of those incidents, Carlson commented, "Why do you want an Aegis cruiser out there shooting up boats? It wasn't a smart thing to do." He also said that Iranian forces he had encountered in the area a month prior to the incident were "... pointedly non-threatening" and professional. At the time of Rogers' announcement to higher command that he was going to shoot down the plane, Carlson is reported to have been thunderstruck: "I said to folks around me, 'Why, what the hell is he doing?' I went through the drill again. F-14. He's climbing. By now this damn thing is at 7,000 feet." Carlson thought the Vincennes might have more information, and was unaware that Rogers had been wrongly informed that the plane was diving.
Craig, Morales & Oliver, in a slide presentation published in M.I.T.'s Spring 2004 Aeronautics & Astronautics as the "USS Vincennes Incident", commented that Captain Rogers had "an undeniable and unequivocal tendency towards what I call 'picking a fight.'" On his own initiative, Rogers moved the Vincennes 50 miles (80 km) northeast to join the USS Montgomery. An angry Captain Richard McKenna, Chief of Surface Warfare for the Commander of the Joint Task Force, ordered Rogers back to Abu Musa, but the Vincennes helicopter pilot, Lt Mark Collier, followed the Iranian speedboats as they retreated north, eventually taking some fire:
... the Vincennes jumps back into the fray. Heading towards the majority of the speedboats, he is unable to get a clear target. Also, the speedboats are now just slowly milling about in their own territorial waters. Despite clear information to the contrary, Rogers informs command that the gunboats are gathering speed and showing hostile intent and gains approval to fire upon them at 0939. Finally, in another fateful decision, he crosses the 12-nautical-mile (22 km) limit off the coast and enters illegally into Iranian waters.
Captain Rogers was not officially censured for the shootdown; instead, two years later he was awarded the Legion of Merit for his services while captain of the Vincennes and soon after retired.
There you have it.
So, by the ordinary standards of murderous military ineptitude, the fallout from the MH17 tragedy would be disorganization and denial, an exhaustive and time-consuming investigation, a belated acknowledgment of responsibility, no legal consequences, and the application of some financial emollient eight or so years down the road.
This is obviously Putin's goal, whether or not rebel forces were complicit (which I should say is not yet a slam dunk, despite the declarations of the US government), an objective which the US and many of its allies are determined to deny him.
There have been several attempts to frame the accidental shootdown as an episode of Putin barbarism that places him and his government beyond the civilized pale and in the fatal zone of illegitimate pariah state upon whom demands can be made, and whose calls for due process can be swept aside, and fair game for whatever principled skullduggery the democratic powers can concoct.
The first and, to be blunt, most ludicrous episode was "corpse gate", an attempt to depict the militias, and by extension their purported puppet-master, Putin, as inhumanly callous in their treatment of the remains of the nearly 300 people that had fallen from the sky.
The militias were clearly overwhelmed by the vast disaster scene and the question of how to secure it properly. No doubt there was looting - an endemic problem at all crash sites, even in the civilized United States - and possibly the idea of diddling with evidence and getting the black boxes into friendly Russian hands. As to the disgusting drunkenness allegedly exhibited by some militia members, crash scenes are horrible, they can be extremely traumatic, and it is not out of the question that some militia members turned to alcoholic oblivion to deal with the scenes they had witnessed.
But the media tried to latch on to the idea that the militias were committing a crime against humanity by dragging the rotting bodies hither and yon through the 88-degree heat and eventually loading them into refrigerated rail cars. In this effort the militias worked together with emergency services of the Ukraine government, which somehow made it on site, a fact that was ignored in the accusations of militia barbarism. Once the body bags were put on the train, there was also some attempt to flay the militias for not immediately pulling the train out of the station, even though the root problem seems to have been the Ukrainian government's inability to come up with dispatch instructions.
Then there was "destruction of evidence gate". Again, beyond the militias' fiddling with luggage and removal of bodies, there is no credible reportage that they were attempting to tamper with the key evidence: the immense debris field of plane wreckage.
On US ABC News, an aviation expert, John Nance, pointed out that the key forensic evidence to be gleaned from the crash site would be shrapnel impact on the airframe, which would indicate what struck the plane (SAM, air to air missile or whatever) and where, and is available in abundance across the crash site. The black box recorders would be unlikely to yield useful information on the instantaneously catastrophic event itself, nor would the bodies.
The key evidence for the overall investigation will be the surveillance records of US and Russian satellites and radars, which should be able to identify where the missiles came from, as well as addressing accusations that Kiev fighters were shadowing the jet, etc.