Tehran, Iran during Qassem Soleimani's funeral. Photo by Majid Asgaripour, courtesy Mehr News Agency.
A 1973 episode of the television series “M.A.S.H.” introduced a hard-to-forget character dubbed 5 O’Clock Charlie.
“Charlie” was a North Korean pilot who showed up unerringly at 5 p.m. every day to try to blow up an American ammunition dump with a hand grenade, and who just as unerringly missed. Nobody knew what Charlie told his commanders about his sorties, but for Charlie it was a pretty good gig. The unarmed field hospital next to the ammo dump was not trying to shoot him down. In fact, most of the camp doctors were trying to help him, because they feared the dump would draw more sinister fire.
Of course, the hapless Maj. Frank Burns (Larry Linville) saw Charlie as a threat. In the episode named for the enemy combatant in question, Burns persuades the higher-ups to provide the camp with an anti-aircraft gun. The major takes charge of training a team of South Korean soldiers to try to blast Charlie out of the sky. Capt. Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce (Alan Alda) and Capt. “Trapper” John McIntyre (Wayne Rogers) think this is a very bad idea. They eventually fool the South Koreans into shooting at the ammo dump, blowing it up and stopping Charlie’s daily raids. Problem solved.
I thought about this TV comedy from almost 50 years ago earlier this week, when Iran launched a volley of missiles at two bases housing American troops in Iraq. The attacks were the promised retaliation for the American takedown of Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of the military wing of country’s Revolutionary Guard and a close associate of its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
By the dawn’s early light, it was clear that there were no U.S. casualties and only moderate damage to structures and equipment from the Iranian assault. State-backed media in Iran claimed more than 80 American dead and 200 injured. This almost made the situation a win-win: If the Iranian thirst for revenge could be slaked with imaginary American blood, why risk spilling any more of the real stuff?
President Donald Trump seemed to see things this way. Trump, who had earlier promised a forceful response to any Iranian retaliation, took advantage of the opportunity to de-escalate the military confrontation by announcing only unspecified additional economic sanctions against Tehran. American military commanders were divided over whether Iran’s failure to cause casualties was the result of strategic choice or incompetence. Yet, as Hillary Clinton once said in a different context, “What difference, at this point, does it make?”
Unfortunately, while a sitcom story line can be neatly wrapped up in 30 minutes (even less, once you allow for commercials), real life is not as neat or punctual. This is especially true of armed conflict. The Mideast story took a tragic turn just a few hours after the Iranians launched their retaliatory missiles, when a Ukrainian commercial airliner crashed in flames six minutes after takeoff from Tehran’s airport. All 176 aboard, including many Iranian-Canadians who had planned to make a connection in Kyiv, were killed.
The Iranians attributed the crash to a “technical problem,” but U.S. officials told journalists yesterday that they believe two Iranian surface-to-air missiles targeted the Boeing 737 in a likely case of mistaken identity. The Iranian armed forces would have been on high alert for a U.S. response to their attack on Iraq, and the Ukrainian Airlines flight had been delayed for nearly an hour past its scheduled departure. So as it climbed to nearly 8,000 feet, amid a seemingly routine takeoff, the Iranian forces may not have been expecting it to be there. We won’t know for certain anytime soon, if ever, especially because the Iranians are not likely to be forthcoming or transparent in the investigation.
Making a show of force without actual intent to cause harm is a genuine military strategy. Our own military does it fairly often, usually by sending naval or air power to a region to show our capability of acting if called upon. Even “5 O’Clock Charlies” are real. American forces encountered versions of them in both the Pacific and European theaters in World War II. One variant was a Japanese pilot dubbed “Washing Machine Charlie” for flying his deliberately noisy bomber over U.S. troops on Guadalcanal in the middle of the night to disturb their sleep.
I wish I could end this post with a concise “problem solved.” Unfortunately, the U.S.-Iran drama has been running for more than 40 years at this point. There is no sign yet that we are approaching a finale.