Don't Politicize Helicopter Tragedy in Iraq

Defense Secretary Perry took responsibility to deflect criticism from his commander-in-chief. So why is he trying to pass the blame now?

`I TAKE full responsibility for this tragedy,'' Secretary of Defense William Perry said at a news conference announcing that two American F-15C aircraft inadvertently shot down two American Blackhawk helicopters over northern Iraq in the early morning on April 14, 1994. Such a statement by a high-ranking public official is usually the preface to a resignation announcement.

Since Mr. Perry apparently has no intention of resigning, his statement is at least misleading and at worst disingenuous. For what and whom is he taking responsibility? If he's fully responsible, why did he announce the next day that he would discipline anyone found culpable?

Equally disingenuous and irresponsible was the statement by Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, House minority whip and putative House minority leader. According to Mr. Gingrich, this tragic incident shows there is a significant mismatch between our defense budget and our foreign policy. The logic of Gingrich's statement is that if the United States were spending $30 billion more on defense, the F-15C pilots would not have confused the Blackhawks for the Soviet-built Iraqi Hind helicopters.

The attempts by Perry and Gingrich to politicize this tragedy should be condemned. Perry took full responsibility in order to deflect criticism from the commander-in-chief, who seems to be unable to deal directly and forthrightly with national security issues. After the deaths of 18 American Rangers in Somalia in October 1993, President Clinton blamed the United Nations and announced an American withdrawal so that he could get back to his domestic agenda. Only later did we learn that he had explicitly approved the attempt to seize Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, the Somali clan leader, that resulted in the ill-fated operation. When previous tragedies occurred, like the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon, or the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Presidents Reagan and Kennedy took full responsibility and no further action was taken against anyone else involved.

Gingrich, who used to be a history professor, knows full well that in 1988, when defense spending was at its cold-war peak, the guided missile cruiser Vincennes mistook a civilian airliner for an F-14 and blasted the airliner out of the sky, killing about 300 people. (There is much more similarity between a Blackhawk and a Hind than an F-14 and an airliner.) If the next House minority leader really thinks there is a mismatch between our budget and policy, let him spell it out. During the cold war, about 25 percent of our active duty force was constantly forward deployed. Today less that 20 percent of the force is forward deployed. Clinton is spending more on defense, even in inflation-adjusted dollars, than Richard Nixon did, and the US spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined. Where is the mismatch?

Perry, Gingrich, and everyone else involved in this episode need to acknowledge two facts if this tragedy is to be put into the proper perspective. First, military service is an inherently dangerous occupation. On average, every day during the cold war about three military people died of noncombat causes, usually in training exercises. Second, even highly trained and motivated human beings will make mistakes. Installing a part on an aircraft backward can bring a plane or helicopter down as quickly as an air-to-air missile. Since the imposition of the no-fly zone in Iraq more than three years ago, there have been 27,000 sorties by fixed-wing aircraft and 1,400 by helicopters without a single loss of life. Who will take ``responsibility'' for that?

Yes, we need to have an investigation to find out what happened so that we can minimize the chances of another tragedy. But what we don't need is a witch hunt that seeks to protect the system and scapegoat individuals, as the Navy attempted to do after the explosion on the USS Iowa.

Nor do we need to implant an ``error avoidance'' mentality in our front-line fighters to the point that they are afraid to pull the trigger. Let us not forget that in 1986 the captain of the USS Stark was forced to retire for not shooting down an Iraqi aircraft, which mistakenly fired upon his ship.

We can best honor the memory of those who lost their lives, and those who will have to live with this tragedy for the rest of their lives, by keeping the discussion away from politics. We should focus on the fact that military service is inherently risky and be proud that so many fine young men and women are willing to place themselves in harm's way. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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