Friday, January 15, 2016

Remember the Pueblo incident of 1968

We got our sailors back, so all is well. But there's a lot more to this story than the safe release of 10 American sailors who had been captured by Iranians in the Persian Gulf.

News of the capture of two U.S. Navy Riverine boats by Iran immediately brought to mind the incident 48 years ago, in January 1968, when North Korea's Navy boarded and took over the USS Pueblo. That incident also had a happy ending — sort of — after North Korea humiliated and tortured the captured crew members and exploited them with propaganda pictures and videos. One Pueblo crew member was killed as the ship was attacked by Korean ships and aircraft before it surrendered.

The crew was held captive until the following December, when a U.S. apology resulted in the crew's release. A court martial for the ship's commander was recommended, based in part on the Pueblo's failure to fight the attackers for control of the lightly armed ship, but charges were rejected by the secretary of the Navy.

What happened in the Persian Gulf was not as egregious as the 1968 incident, but there are parallels. The Riverine crews apparently made no efforts to fight the Iranian attackers, either because of a command decision or equipment failure. The boats admittedly were in Iranian waters, reportedly because of navigational error; the U.S. still claims the Pueblo was in international waters.

Navigational error suggests the crews were taking sun shots with a sextant to determine their position. That was logical in the 1800s; not today. Modern GPS navigational equipment pinpoints the exact longitude and latitude of a vessel, down to a few feet. The Navy has some explaining to do about how a navigational error could have sent the boats into Iranian waters unknowingly.

Secretary of State John Kerry says closer diplomatic dialogue with Iran made it possible for the crews to be released within 24 hours — but only after Iran took advantage of every propaganda opportunity with videos of the submissive U.S. sailors and close-ups of the sailors' identification cards.

Kerry may be right about this positive outcome, but the Navy hasn't told the whole story yet.

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