The Sacrifice of Pawns
In the heat of growing signs of war in the regionwhat would come to be known as the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, and Syriathe United States had sent the USS Liberty and other surveillance sea assets into coastal waters off Egypt. According to accounts from crew members of the doomed ship, Israeli Defense Forces aircraft made as many as eight recon passes over it. From The Politics of Anti-Semitism (Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Claire, Eds., AKA Press, 2003), comes this narrative (supplemented here by graphics) based upon statements by the men who were on the USS Liberty the day of the attack:
"A few hours later... Israeli Mirage III fighters [came], armed with rockets and machine guns. As off-duty officers sunbathed on the deck, the fighters opened fire on the defenseless ship with rockets and machine guns.Virtually none of the survivors of the incident characterized it as an accident, affirming repeatedly that it was a deliberate, concentrated, prejudicial, unprovoked attack to blind a United States asset that could otherwise have detected the military operations Israel was about to mount against its Arab enemies. Official reports say the attack lasted no more than 15 minutes. Survivors claim the attack lasted well over an hour.
"A few minutes later a second wave of planes streaked overhead, French-built Mystére jets, which not only pelted the ship with gunfire but also with napalm bomblets, coating the deck with the flaming jelly. By now, the Liberty was on fire and dozens were wounded and killed, excluding several of the ship's top officers.
"The Liberty's radio team tried to issue a distress call, but discovered the frequencies had been jammed by the Israeli planes with what one communications specialist called 'a buzzsaw sound.' Finally, an open channel was found and the Liberty got out a message it was under attack to the USS America, the Sixth Fleet's large aircraft carrier.
"Two F-4s left the carrier to come to the Liberty's aid. Apparently, the jets were armed only with nuclear weapons. When word reached the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara became irate and ordered the jets to return. 'Tell the Sixth Fleet to get those aircraft back immediately,' he barked. McNamara's injunction was reiterated in saltier terms by Admiral David L. McDonald, the chief of Naval Operations: 'You get those fucking airplanes back on deck...'
"After the Israeli fighter jets had emptied their arsenal of rockets, three Israeli attack boats approached the Liberty. Two torpedoes were launched at the crippled ship, one tore a 40-foot wide hole in the hull [see graphic at right], flooding the lower compartments, and killing more than a dozen American sailors.
"As the Liberty listed in the choppy seas, its deck aflame, crew members dropped life rafts into the water and prepared to scuttle the ship. Given the number of wounded, this was going to be a dangerous operation. But it soon proved impossible, as the Israeli attack boats strafed the rafts with machine gun fire. No body was going to get out alive that way.
"After more than two hours of unremitting assault, the Israelis finally halted their attack. One of the torpedo boats approached the Liberty. An officer asked in English over a bullhorn: 'Do you need any help?'
"The wounded commander of the Liberty, Lt. William McGonagle, instructed the quartermaster to respond emphatically: 'Fuck you.'
"The Israeli boat turned and left."
From the Jewish Virtual Library, which stands on the conclusion that the incident was a grievous accident cause by both Israeli and American errors, Mitchell Bard writes this: "None of Israel's accusers can explain why Israel would deliberately attack an American ship at a time when the United States was Israel's only friend and supporter in the world."
From the other side of the dispute come explanations ranging from the quite reasonable to the perilously inflammatory. Interested readers may derive a sense of the bitterness of some former service personnel in the scathing critique of official investigations, originally published in the January 16, 2004, edition of Stars and Stripes, by former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Thomas Moorer.
Why the USS Liberty incident occurred that awful day in 1967 will never be known. What happened that awful day in 1967 is without any doubt: an American military ship was attacked, the vessel was destroyed, 34 of its naval personnel were killed, and 174 more were wounded.
As much as the survivors, their families, and other interested parties might want it to be otherwise, the reason behind what happened is not particularly important in light of the compelling lesson to be learned from the incident, a lesson for all time in matters of war and even of peace. The lesson is this:
No rational nation acts against its own interests: intentions are irrelevant; all that matters are capabilities. Wage war and build peace upon this premise, and both the accidents and the treacheries of your allies will be neither frequent nor unexpected.
In memorium for the four United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon soldiers killed by Israeli artillery fire at the UNIFIL observation post at Khiyam on July 25, 2006: may your respective nationsmay all nationslearn from your final and ultimate sacrifice.
The Dark Wraith has spoken.