When American sailors making split-second decisions about an aircraft that seemed to be attacking them fired a missile and brought it down, a subsequent searching US Defence Department investigation spoke of ''scenario fulfilment'' causing the fatal misjudgment. Scenario fulfillment occurs in highly trained and regimented organisations that have practised particular drills and simulations over and over, until responses to a particular scenario become automatic. So powerful are the reflex procedures that those in them will sometimes ignore or misinterpret information before the eyes that contradicts the scenario. Such as the fact that the aircraft approaching is an airliner, not a fighter plane, and is ascending, not descending.
Shooting down civilian aircraft, even by accident, is a very serious matter, and calls out for the sort of justice that Australia, playing a lead role for the victims, has been demanding for a week. On Tuesday the UN Security Council, including Russia, adopted an Australian resolution calling for a full and independent investigation of the loss of flight MH17, with 298 passengers on board, in eastern Ukraine, an armistice around the crash site, so that bodies can be recovered and dealt with with respect and dignity, and punishment for those responsible. On the evidence so far available, those responsible are almost certainly Russian-speaking Ukrainian separatists, engaged in a low level civil war with Ukraine over their desire, aided and abetted by Russia, to become a part of Russia rather than Ukraine.
It appears that these separatists had days earlier fired missiles at several Ukrainian military aircraft, including a fighter aircraft and a transport aircraft. And, it seems, they mistook flight MH17 for another military transport aircraft, and fired at it, reporting this back to their controllers. Russian sources have since claimed that the missile may have been fired by Ukrainian forces, but that seems unlikely, if something one should not run to absolute conclusions about. A good many things in Ukraine are very murky, and neither side of this rebellion, including the ultimate backers of the forces concerned, as are pure as the driven snow so far as carelessness with the lives of civilians is concerned.
But it already seems very unlikely that anyone, on the ground or in the command structures, decided to shoot down a civilian aircraft, or this specific civilian aircraft. It had no links to either side and was there only because it was, amazingly, in an airspace thought to be safe for civilian overflight at heights of more than 10 kilometres. Those who approved this fuel-saving shortcut could not possibly be targets of any search for criminal justice for the victims, but can be expected to be accused of civil negligence. The fact that there was a war on below, ones with missiles being fired, was hardly a great secret of which those responsible for aircraft safety were unaware.
What's rather more difficult to estimate is just how one judges combatants who make such mistakes in combat situations. And when one uses words such as ''atrocity'' or ''act of terrorism'' or ''massacre'' – as the foreign minister for Iran did after the USS Vincennes shot down flight 655 with 290 people on board – or, in addition to those, ''pure evil'' and ''a crime against humanity'', which have been used locally about flight MH17, does the wickedness of the act depend on whose side the perpetrators were on?
Is culpability some function of recklessness, assuming that they genuinely believed (even without much evidence) they were under attack? Are national leaders, or neighbouring puppet-masters, to be held vicariously liable for the horrors ''accidently'' caused, on the basis that they should have contemplated that mistakes would happen? Is the purity of one's cause an objective belief (in which case the idea that ''the West is best'' might not always strike a sympathetic international chord, or an objective belief, honestly held by the perpetrator? Who is to decide, and how does the purity of a cause affect the code of accountability?
These are not idle questions, nor ones to be asked only after terrible catastrophes in the air. They are every much a part of day-to-day military engagement, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Gaza, and have been for hundreds of years. And we have not had agreed answers yet. The problem is always greater when wars are fought not on defined battlegrounds but in cities, jungles and places where combatants can merge into the population. Collateral casualties, including so-called ''blue on blue'' attacks, may be regrettable but are almost inevitable. When the honest but mistaken perpetrators are on our own side, there is a bit of a tendency to raise questions about what victims were doing there in the first place, or whether they were as innocent as they looked. An adviser to Barack Obama, Robert Gibbs, for example, said of the drone killing of a 15-year-old boy, that the boy ''should have had a more responsible father''. His father had been dead for a fortnight as the result of another drone strike.
Benjamin Netanyahu complained on Tuesday that Israel was copping a bad press for its invasion of Gaza because of the disparity in the body count and the ''telegenically dead'' Palestinians. The optics of dead Palestinians, including children, piling up were just what the enemy, Hamas, wanted, he said. A New York writer, Natasha Lennard, agreeing but disapproving of Israel, wrote of the Gaza invasion being ''narrativised through a ghastly visual field of corpses''.
Perhaps, but then again, so is the story of flight MH17. If one speaks for itself, so does the other. Even if the official interpreters, including those in full rhetorical flight over MH17, would prefer we see each through different lenses.
The MH17 atrocity does not fit only into a narrative of the horrors of war. It is also being used for a secondary agenda of attacking Russia, its imperial or nationalistic ambitions, and to promote a goodies versus baddies concept of the political and military struggles going on in Ukraine. This is within a background of the West's having found it difficult to resist Russia's mischief-making in the area, even by sanctions, just as it has found it even more difficult to restrain those of the Western-looking Ukrainians from rather anti-democratic resistance to political dissent.
It is not a matter of taking sides, and even less of determining one's pity and sympathy for, and empathy with, the victims, according to who was pulling the triggers. One may be partisan, or neutral, or avowedly agnostic, in much the same manner one can be any of these over the civil wars wrenching Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, much of north and north-eastern Africa, or some of the little wars in waiting, not least in the South China Sea.
The casual and collateral civilian victims who become incidents and statistics along the way – usually at a rate about 20 times than of combatant casualties – are all human, and, usually, entirely innocent. Their very innocence demands justice, and treatment of their bodies with respect and dignity, but they are not usually or well avenged either by show trials of a few hapless soldiers of one side or another who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or by show trials of their military and political leaders whose cause we ultimately find to be wrong, usually because they lost, and who should have realised that taking up arms to change their situations is always, always, seriously wrong.
In this newspaper yesterday, Boris Johnson, mayor of London, rejected out of hand any suggestion of making comparisons with flights MH17 and 655. First, he said, the US manned up, admitted a dreadful mistake, and made a thorough investigation and, if not apologising, paid substantial damages to families of the victims. Russia, he implied, had yet to do this. Second, the US was in the area for a ''good'' reason, while Russia's playing of local nationalistic politics in Ukraine is impure, or bad, or evil.
Perhaps. It is not so clear to me. Nor is it clear that such complacency about seeing such matters only through our own spectacles will help prevent further disasters like it. Or that we should be entirely comfortable about loudly playing chief victim so that our more senior allies can manipulate the disaster just so as to make life more difficult, for other reasons, for Vladimir Putin.