On the Fortuitous Poverty of Memory

On May 17, 1987, a double act of Exocet missiles skimmed through the air and slammed into the American Perry-class frigate the USS Stark.

The first Exocet antiship missile punched into the warship “at 600 miles per hour and exploded in the forward crew’s quarters.”  The warhead failed to detonate but managed to smash through seven bulkheads and spit 120 pounds of blazing rocket fuel into the ship’s bunks.

Half a minute later, the second missile exploded, creating a 3,500-degree fireball that turned most of the 37 American victims of the attack into ash.  The ship burned for two days, according to the celebrated British war reporter Robert Fisk, who replowed the soil of the incident in his fine memoir, The Great War for Civilization.  “Even after she was taken in tow,” wrote Fisk, “the fires kept reigniting.”

“Memory is a complicated thing,” says Barbara Kingsolver in her novel Animal Dreams.  “It’s a relative of truth but not its twin.”

The deadly missile attack on the USS Stark was unleashed by a Mirage F-1 jet — flown by an Iraqi pilot who mistook the U.S. warship for an Iranian vessel.  At that moment, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran were in the seventh year of a war that had begun in 1980 with a surprise Iraqi invasion.

The act of aggression that claimed the lives of the Stark’s precious men and women in uniform elicited a fierce barrage of angry denunciation from the United States.  The assault was despicable, villainous, and depraved.  These were the words of a bellicose U.S. establishment and they were aimed — at Iran.

Glory to the gospel of perpetual dividends.  This was the 1980s, after all; a time when the Reagan administration was still busy fondling Saddam Hussein.

There would be no counter-strike at Iraq, of course.  Not then.  And the angriest criticism would come from Secretary of State Caspar Weinberger, who described the attack as “indiscriminate.”  “Apparently,” said Weinberger, the Iraqi pilot “didn’t care enough to find out what ship he was shooting at.”

“We’ve never considered them hostile at all,” was the way President Ronald Reagan described Saddam’s military.  “They’ve never been in any way hostile. . . . And the villain in the piece is Iran.”

The Iraqi attack on the USS Stark and the loss of American lives proved an opportunity, which America’s high and mighty, Democrats as well as Republicans, immediately seized upon.  Responding to the great loss of lives “in a spasm of rage at the one country that had nothing to do with the American deaths,” Republican Senator and ex-Secretary of the Navy John Warner denounced Iran as “a belligerent that knows no rules, no morals.”  In language that hinted of military action, Democratic Senator John Glenn slammed Iran as “the sponsor of terrorism and the hijacker of airliners.”

It was the first and only successful cruise missile attack on a U.S. Navy warship.  Iraqi officials determined that the American frigate was inside their “forbidden zone” and never produced the plane’s pilot.  The captain of the USS Stark was relieved of his command and his executive officer was disciplined for “dereliction of duty.”

A little over a year after the attack, on July 3, 1988, two surface-to-air missiles are fired by the USS Vincennes, an Aegis-class cruiser, reportedly inside Iranian territorial waters at the time, at Iran Air Flight 655.  The first missile cut the civilian airliner in half.  All 290 passengers and crew aboard the Iranian airbus were killed.

In her coffin, reported Fisk, who, at the time, was in the Iranian port city of Bandar Abbas where the human remains of Flight 655 were collected, Leila Behbahani was still in the same garments and bracelets that she had worn when she was fished out of the water minutes after the Vincennes brought down the passenger plane — a green dress and white pinafore, two bright gold bangles on each wrist, white socks, and tiny black shoes.  Leila was three-years old.  There were 66 children on board the aircraft.

The Pentagon claimed that the Vincennes shot down the Iranian plane because it appeared the pilot was attempting to fly it into the warship — even though the USS Sides, a frigate in the area, recorded the airliner climbing, not diving.

Glory to the Homeland.

When the Vincennes returned to San Diego, its homeport, the ship was given a hero’s welcome, while the members of the crew were “all awarded combat action ribbons.”  The air warfare coordinator of the ship won the Navy’s Commendation Medal “for heroic achievement” for the “ability to maintain his poise and confidence under fire.”  Citizens in Vincennes, Indiana, raised money to build a monument — not to the dead Iranians but to the ship that shot them down.


Note: All the accounts of the missile attack on the USS Stark and the downing of Iranian Flight 655 are from Robert Fisk’s harrowing book The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East.  A memorable quote resulting from the act of terror came from George H.W. Bush, who was then Ronald Reagan’s vice president: “I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are,” said Bush in response to the atrocity.  British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher weighed in to support the U.S. The destruction of the passenger plane, she said, was “understandable.”

Renato Redentor Constantino is a writer and painter based in Quezon City.  Constantino is the author of The Poverty of Memory: Essays on History and Empire.  He can be reached via redconstantino.blogspot.com.  A slightly different version of this essay appeared in Tomdispatch.com on 3 May 2007.

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