We are not even through the middle of the first month of 2020, and it is already too much to bear for Iran. On January 3rd the US forces, on the soil of Iraq, killed their top general Soleimani. Following the killing that came more or less as a surprise to the international community, Iran proclaimed American forces to be terrorist (what a turning point, ha?) and shot some missiles to two US military bases, again on the soil of Iraq. But nothing is as clear as it seems. Who is to be trusted when talking about the results of this attack? Iran claims to have fired 15 missiles and killed at least 80 ‘American terrorists’. On the other hand, the US and Iraq reported no casualties. Iran pulled itself out of the nuclear deal. The US introduced sanctions. The international community has taken a rather soft stance towards the development of the situation. And as if it all were not messy enough, Iran accidentally shot down a commercial flight and left 176 people dead.
Although some claimed that Iran missile shot down the plane and even videos of the crash were released (but who could claim they were to be trusted), for a couple of days Iran rejected these allegations, but refused to give over the black box to Boeing. In the wake of January 11th, Iran admitted shooting down the Ukrainian commercial flight by mistake. The citizens of Iran, Canada, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Britain and Germany are all dead due to ‘human error’.
Things like this don’t just happen. But sometimes they do. In 1988, a commercial flight was shot down by accident, because it was mistaken for an F-14 Tomcat. The plane was Iranian, a commercial flight 655, carrying 290 people. The attackers were American, fired from a guided-missile cruiser of the US Navy.
In 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was shot down when flying over Ukraine, from the pro-Russian separatist controlled territory and by the Russian missile brigade. In total 298 people died. In 2018, a Russian surveillance plane was shot down by Syrian forces accidentally, leaving 15 people dead. There are more examples since the WW2. But all this raises the question of responsibility.
Human error is inevitable in various situations. However, usually when a human error occurs, it has bad consequences. Who is to be held responsible in situations like this? Is it the very person that shot the missile? Is it his superiors? Are the people who did not clear the airspace during and shortly after the attack? Milgram’s explanations of obedience could provide an insight to this matter. It is now a commonplace in social psychology, the diffusion of responsibility and the agentic state. One exempts himself from responsibility when having entered the agentic state, which is characterised by unquestioning obedience. In this state, personal responsibility is transferred to the person giving orders, i.e. the superior. That is why mostly higher military instances are trialed for war misdeeds.
This is a normal behaviour that is characteristic for all people, although some can resist it but only if having high levels of consciousness at the given moment. That is, unfortunately, not common for military forces since they are trained to be obedient. This is not to justify any of the shooting downs of the wrong targets. This is to explain where it should be looked for responsibility. IRGC Amir Ali Hajizadeh is well aware of this and he took responsibility for this incident. However, the mess is getting bigger in Iran, with the protests against government due to the crash.
Errors like this must be avoided. This collateral damage is at the hands of ordinary people. It may just be too much to carry the weight of it.