The day my patriotism began to unravel…

Twenty-five years ago today, I brought a copy of the paper to a Fourth of July parade in Evanston, Illinois. I was 12, this was summer camp, and the news was not good. On July 3, 1988, the United States Navy shot down a civilian airliner. As Wikipedia now remembers the event:

Iran Air Flight 655 was an Iran Air flight from TehranIran, to DubaiUnited Arab Emirates, via Bandar Abbas, Iran. On 3 July 1988, at the end of the Iran–Iraq War, the aircraft serving the flight, an Airbus A300B2-203, was shot down by United States missiles fired by the United States Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes as it flew over the Strait of Hormuz. The aircraft, which had been flying in Iranian airspace over Iran’s territorial waters in the Persian Gulf on its usual flight path, was destroyed. All 290 onboard, including 66 children and 16 crew, perished.

As best I recall, there was not the slightest acknowledgment during the festivities of the attack on the commercial jet. President Reagan expressed “regret” on that July 3. No US president has ever apologized.

Before that time, I had innocently wondered why it was that the news habitually announced the death toll from lethal events overseas, followed by “including X Americans.” I remember my parents’ explanation being unsatisfying. On July 3, 1988, no Americans were killed.

Nor was a single soldier killed. Just civilians crossing to or from a neighboring country. While US ships operated in the waters between Iran and the United Arab Emirates, it was our government who notified theirs that “any approach to an American warship would be dangerous unless the intent was clearly peaceful.” I can only imagine the Airbus pilot’s—his name was Mohsen Rezaian—steely terror as he maintained course during the planned 28-minute flight that morning.

I remember little of the parade or even my feelings during it. What I would remember for years is four tween boys sitting on the grassy roof of the student center waiting for the fireworks to begin that night. As one kid closed his eyes, the other three of us “brainwashed” him, chanting the government slogans from George Orwell’s 1984: “War is peace. … Freedom is slavery. … Ignorance is strength.” We were at an age when play and reality were not fully distinct, when not a one of us had a basis to imagine what brainwashing would actually look like. Our play was more novice hypnotism than The Manchurian Candidate, but the twelve-year-old me (who had never heard of the Manchurian Candidate, but knew all about the prospect of dying in a nuclear war) wondered if it was working.

Our brainwashed friend improvised the part perfectly. Rousing himself, as if from a long sleep, he conveyed confusion and grogginess. His first words were tentative and out of sorts. He ventured slowly, “Daddy … daddy … Are nuclear weapons bad, daddy?” The fireworks must have began soon thereafter.

As it happened (as the news from the Gulf told our unlistening ears), our peace was war. The mourning we ought to have had was a celebration. Children—us—were properly disturbed by all of this; adults were impervious.

To be good American adults, we would be obliged to learn to feign a continuous innocence. To imagine that our missiles did not lead to their graves, that our government’s intentions were noble, that (US) American lives were more deserving of mourning.

In the end I could not make this transition.

A good US American could never compare July 3, 1988, to the bad downing of civilian jetliners that have so terrorized Americans and their allies in recent decades. Such terrorist acts are meant to be unforgivable, while there is endless time to analyze the thoughts and empathize with the fears of men like Captain William C. Rogers, the officer who gave the order to fire.

Perhaps he did not mean to shoot down a civilian jet. Perhaps he valued Iranian lives as much as his own family’s lives. In the end there was little need to inquire into his motives. He shot down one airplane. US government policy prolonged the Iran–Iraq War for years, providing arms and intelligence to both sides, led by Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Iranians and Iraqis buried hundreds of thousands of young soldiers each, and over a hundred thousand civilians. The US goal was simple: “We wanted to avoid victory by both sides,” a senior State Department official told Seymour Hersh in 1992. Shooting down an airliner looks like terrorism. Planning for the pointless deaths of thousands upon thousands is terrorism.

There was a long gap between my disillusionment at twelve years old, and the college years I spent reading quotes like that from US officials and American papers. The disconnect between the image of American benevolence and five decades of history grew clearer with each thread I followed and pulled at. It would take nearly a decade of tracing, pulling, and following before I would stop being surprised, shocked, and sickened, rather than just saddened. Nearly a decade before I would start to assemble an understanding of the United States as an empire like any other. And by that time, through that process, it could no longer feel like mine.

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