It is always painful to revisit tragedy, especially when it affects as many people as the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988. Newsweek has retraced the route by which a U.S. Navy warship, the Vincennes, fired on a civilian airliner, killing 290 people. It strips the covers from a chapter of history that badly needs re-investigation.
This journalistic inquiry confirmed that the incident was an accident, as U.S. officials had insisted. It might never have occurred but for a string of avoidable coincidences:
* The Vincennes had left its station. Its captain, on his own, investigated Iranian speedboats said to be menacing civilian tankers. He had been told to let his helicopter investigate. The ship, instead, closed in, defying orders to leave from the Omani coast guard and the captain's own superiors.
* The Vincennes strayed into Iran's territorial waters, despite warnings from its own navigators. A Navy cameraman, on the bridge at the time, recorded officers' disregard of the warnings.
* Navy aircraft were available to investigate any suspicious contacts, but they were never called. Those planes, only minutes away, could have verified Iran Air 655's civilian status.
What the Vincennes' skipper apparently did not know was that the original radio call of Revolutionary Guard activity was bogus. The Liberian tanker allegedly in danger, the Stoval, now appears to have been a decoy to draw out Iranian attackers. That is disturbing. So are allegations that Navy ships directed Iraqi air strikes on Iran and covered up the capture of a second Iranian ship after Congress criticized the Iran Air incident.
Did President Reagan secretly order U.S. forces to war on the side of Iraq, without telling Congress? How much more is yet to be revealed about the action, such as the loss of at least one U.S. helicopter to "friendly fire"? The lives of 290 innocent people, and of U.S. soldiers sent into harm's way before and during the Desert Storm action, demand a fair accounting.