The New York Times reported on January 07, 2008, that “five armed Iranian fast boats took aggressive actions on Sunday around three United States Navy warships.” The American ships-including a destroyer, a frigate, and a cruiser-were sailing into the Persian Gulf. Despite the trepidations expressed by the Times, the U.S. vessels were in no real danger. Three warships of this size and firepower could blow away all the fast boats in the Northern Hemisphere.
A Pentagon sycophant said the Iranian actions were “reckless and dangerous.” He didn’t say if the U.S. was looking for an excuse to attack Iran.
The Iranians said the whole matter was a mistake and that it ended when the people on the various boats recognized each other.
Why do I not believe the Pentagon?
As any high-school history teacher could tell you, the United States has long used fabricated incidents involving naval or commercial ships to initiate all-out wars. In February 1898, for example, as the U.S. battleship Maine sat in the harbor at Havana, Cuba, the ship exploded, killing 260 sailors. Investigators later concluded that a defective boiler had caused the explosion, but by then President McKinley and the Congress had already declared war on Spain. The United States wanted Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, three of Spain’s remaining colonies, and it got them. Spain had habitually treated the former slaves and indigenous peoples of its colonies with great brutality, and the U.S. quickly treated them the same way, crushing a Philippine independence movement at the cost of 200,000 Filipino lives.
World War I, one of the most costly and senseless wars in Western history, broke out in 1914. At first, the United States remained officially neutral, although its trading habits and financial ties with England created anti-German sentiment among America’s ruling elite. For the U.S. working class, none of the countries at war offered any genuine incentives to climb out of the trenches and die from machinegun fire and poison gas, although thousands of Americans would soon do exactly that.
Because its fleet controlled the Atlantic Ocean, the British could easily import food, clothing, and weapons from the United States. Faced with British navel power, Germany could import relatively little. For this reason, it subsequently resorted to the use of U-boats, which could be constructed more quickly and inexpensively than conventional warships. Germany announced that its U-Boats would attack any British ship transporting arms, which would have normally excluded passenger ships.
But in 1915, a German U-boat sank the Lusitania, a British passenger liner, killing 1198 people, including 128 Americans. The Germans claimed that the Lusitania had carried both passengers and armaments, a charge later proven to be true. Nonetheless, the heroes in Washington, D.C., used this and other incidents to lead America into war against Germany and its allies. World War I harvested 112,000 American lives and those of millions of Europeans.
All this may seem like a tedious American history lesson, but I make no excuse for it or for reminding anyone who is still reading of an event that occurred in August 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin, just off the coast of North Vietnam. The Maddox, a U.S. spy ship sailing in stormy seas, reported that it had received a torpedo attack. Shortly afterwards, the captain of the Maddox sent a radio message in which he said that there might not have been an attack after all and that no response should be initiated until he could determine the real facts of the matter. The real facts of the matter later showed that nothing but bad weather had attacked the Maddox, but by then the truth was too late and didn’t matter anyway.
President Lyndon Johnson was not a man to let facts get in the way of his foreign-policy objectives. He quickly rammed his Gulf of Tonkin Resolution through Congress, thereby giving himself the authority to initiate “all necessary measures to repel armed attack.” These measures, as it turned out, included the use of napalm, carpet bombing, Agent Orange, the bombing of Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi, and other horrors I still cannot forget.
Why do our rulers repeatedly use fabricated events at sea to justify their wars, crimes, and brutalities? The most obvious answer is that unbiased observers rarely float here and there on vast bodies of water on the outside chance that they might see something that would embarrass the Commander in Chief. But it may also be true that once the lie has been reported as truth in the New York Times, the reader may never see the retraction printed on page B52.
PATRICK IRELAN is a retired high-school teacher. He is the author of A Firefly in the Night (Ice Cube Press) and Central Standard: A Time, a Place, a Family (University of Iowa Press). You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.