I … have … seen much of the miseries of war. I am, therefore, in my inmost soul, a man of peace. Yet would I not, for the sake of any peace, consent to sacrifice one jot of England’s honor. Our honor is inseparably combined with our general interest. Hitherto there has been nothing greater known on the Continent, than the faith, the untarnished honor, the generous public sympathies … of the British nation … . The advantages of such a reputation are not to be lightly brought into hazard.

—Horatio Nelson. Speech to the House of Lords, November 23, 1802.

National honor is nothing more than the combined integrity of a country’s people. Millions of people must collectively obey the same moral rules that apply to them as individuals. If their elected government lies, cheats, steals or murders, then it reflects upon the personal integrity of every man and woman who makes up the nation. Instead of being viewed as a nation of shopkeepers or entrepreneurs, they are seen as a nation of gangsters.

This is one reason why the people should always be directly consulted by referendum in significant questions of foreign affairs. Who can doubt that the Shoah, or the 1939 German invasion of Poland, would not have occurred if the German people had been asked to vote on these actions in a referendum?

National honor does not consist of sending young men and women to die for the vanity of politicians. There is no room for the double dealing practiced by the British and French governments during the Suez debacle. If a people are characterized by sincerity and rectitude, then those qualities should be reflected in their nation’s foreign policy.

A tale of two planes

Korean Air Lines Flight 007

Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down by Soviet warplanes on September 1, 1983, after twice passing through restricted Soviet airspace. All 269 people aboard were killed. The plane was flying from Alaska to South Korea when it strayed off course due to navigational errors made by the pilot. Given the tensions at the time, the Soviet response was unsurprising; a navigational error of that magnitude was improbable, and the United States had repeatedly violated Soviet airspace while conducting reconnaissance. Thus, the incident itself did not reflect badly on the Soviet Union’s honor.

What was dishonorable was the Soviet government’s response to the incident. They should have immediately expressed profound regret and asked an independent nation such as Switzerland to investigate the incident. They should have cooperated fully with the commission, providing all transcripts, radar logs, and other information at their disposal. Then, when the results came out, they should have fully and profoundly apologized (while reserving the right to disagree with the commission’s conclusions and state why). There is no shame in apologizing—mistakes happen, even tragic mistakes. Decisions taken by officers on the spot under extreme pressure can never reflect badly on a nation, and rarely upon the officers.

Instead of taking these steps, the Soviets initially denied knowledge of the incident, then admitted shooting down the plane but insisted it was on a spy mission. Subsequently, they denied knowing where the plane crashed and harassed Western recovery efforts. They conducted fake recovery efforts to mislead foreign efforts and, after finding the wreckage, refused to hand over the flight data recorders. In a televised address President Ronald Reagan gave them the dressing down they had earned:

This was the Soviet Union against the world and the moral precepts which guide human relations among people everywhere. It was an act of barbarism, born of a society which wantonly disregards individual rights, and the value of human life, and seeks constantly to expand and dominate other nations. They deny the deed, but in their conflicting and misleading protestations, the Soviets reveal that, yes, shooting down a plane—even one with hundreds of innocent men, women, children, and babies—is a part of their normal procedure if that plane is in what they claim as their airspace. They owe the world an apology and an offer to join the rest of the world in working out a system to protect against this ever happening again. Address to the Nation, September 5, 1983.

Iran Air Flight 655

Five years later, on July 3, 1988, flying from Iran to Dubai, Iran Air Flight 655 was shot down by a U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser, the USS Vincennes. All 290 people on board were killed. The USS Vincennes was inside Iranian territorial waters at the time of the incident, and the plane was inside Iranian airspace. Unlike Korean Air Lines Flight 007, the Iranian airliner did not fly off course or make any other mistake. It was transmitting a friend-or-foe identification code for a civilian aircraft, and it was in English-language radio contact with civil flight control at all times.

The USS Vincennes mistook the plane for an Iranian fighter jet on an attack run. This misinterpretation arose because the flight originated from an airport that served as both a military airbase and as a commercial airport (like Honolulu Airport). Moreover, the Vincennes was, at the time, involved in a gun battle with Iranian patrol craft. The U.S. warship tried unsuccessfully to contact the approaching aircraft four times on the military emergency frequency and three times on the civilian emergency frequency, but never on air traffic control frequencies. Thus, even if Iran and the circumstances were partially to blame, the U.S. Navy undoubtedly made a mistake borne of faulty procedures. When you make a mistake and accidentally kill hundreds of civilians, you owe the world an apology and an offer to join the rest of the world in working out a system to protect against this ever happening again.

However, the United States has never apologized. (Although they have paid compensation.) George H. W. Bush, Vice President at the time, said in response to the issue, “I will never apologize for the United States of America, I don’t care what the facts are.” This is an example of misguided patriotism—of the sort that provokes wars. A nation is bound by the same moral rules as its citizens. If a typical American reversed out of his driveway and ran over a neighbor’s child, he would not say, “I will never apologize for my actions, I don’t care what the facts are.” Instead he would cooperate with any investigation to the fullest extent possible, would express great sorrow and regret, and would apologize, regardless of the facts, because it was his car that did the damage. Mr. Bush was therefore grossly misrepresenting the nature of the American people.

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove