The Horrific Downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 Has Echoes in History

Lessons from history hint at what might happen next

Malaysia airline
A hotel's welcome notice for Auke Dalstra of flight MH17 is seen at the arrival hall of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport Terminal on July 18, 2014 in Sepang, Malaysia. Adli Ghazali/Corbis

The world is outraged over the downing of a Malaysian aircraft over Ukraine. Yesterday, a surface-to-air missile shot from separatist-held Ukraine (though by who we don't know) killed 298 people, including many leading AIDS researchers and activists. The horrific loss of life is one that we can hope will never be repeated. But this being the world we live in, this isn’t the first time that a civilian vessel has been shot down during times of war. Looking back to this dark history could give an idea of what may be coming next. 

Similar situations have occured multiple times before. Vox, the Gaurdian, CNN and NPR have all compiled lists of several incidents where civilian planes were taken down by military forces. Each case inflamed outrage across the globe and led to (at minimum) the swift and harsh condemnation of the perpetrators, and rising tensions between nations.

In 1988 the United States shot down Iran Air Flight 655, thinking it was an F-14. Two hundred and ninety passengers died, and the United States has never formally apologized for the incident. The incident is a festering wound in the already weak relations between the two countries.

The United States has been on the other side of the equation as well. Soviet forces shot down a Korean plane in 1983 when it flew close to their airspace. U.S Congressman Larry McDonald was on board. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union worsened, and a few months later the United States moved Pershing II ballistic missiles into West Germany.

Outrage over civilian deaths leading to increased hostilities isn’t just limited to aircraft. The sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania by a German submarine in 1915 galvanized support for the Allied cause in the United States and was a rallying cry when the United States joined World War I two years later.

International investigators have now reached the crash site, and what they find out will undoubtably sway public opinion over the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. In the meantime, ten nations have all lost citizens, and the rest of the world mourns with them. 

So what comes next? As military reporter David Axe writes at for his blog War is Boring, "It's impossible to say." But "[w]oever shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17," he says, "has made a huge mistake." As history suggests, things change when civilians get involved. The aftereffects may extend beyond just those who pulled the trigger.

[I]f further evidence implicates pro-Russian separatists, the Kremlin will come under intense pressure to revoke its support. This could also galvanize support in Europe for further sanctions and for an expanded U.S. ballistic missile defenses on European soil.

If current rhetoric is to be believed, Axe may be right. President Obama had strong words for Russia in remarks made at the White House this morning, as the New York Times reports

“We know that they are heavily armed and they are trained,” Mr. Obama said. “That is not an accident. That is happening because of Russian support.” He said it was “not possible for these separatists to be functioning the way they are” without Russian support.

The president said that the downing of the plane was a direct result of the violence in the region, and that violence had been “facilitated in large part because of Russian support.”

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