Not Context- Contexts: An “Outside-in” Approach to Understanding the Vincennes Shoot-down

March 2001 (VOL. 19, NO. 1)

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On July 3, 1988, the U.S. warship Vincennes, on patrol in the Persian Gulf, fired two missiles at an Iranian airliner en route to Dubai. The airliner was destroyed. All on board were killed. Despite being exonerated, the incident effectively terminated the career of the Vincennes’s commanding officer, Captain William Rogers III. While the immediate cause of the shoot-down was the decision by the captain to fire, this paper argues- following the work of Reason, Blockley, and others- that only a systemic and holistic analysis, in which all salient historic factors are described, can provide a full and objective explanation of the shoot-down. The paper concludes that the incident originated in a multiplicity of factors- geopolitical, technical, cognitive, and others- that, in some cases, originated decades before the shoot-down.