Sunday, April 8, 2001

PublishDat=0:00BodyText1 =Twenty-four Americans are being held by the Chinese after their reconnaissance plane was forced down over international waters. Despite the extensive media coverage afforded this event, it is not the first such attack on an American reconnaissance plane in that area.

Almost 32 years ago, on April 15, 1969, an EC -121 Super Constellation reconnaissance aircraft was flying an elliptical track off the coast of China and North Korea. Halfway through its 12-hour mission, two North Korean fighters ambushed the U.S. plane and, without warning, fired two missiles. The EC-121 broke apart under the force of the blasts, killing all 31 men aboard.

This incident, one year after the infamous Pueblo capture and three months into President Richard M. Nixon´s new administration, flared brightly in America´s consciousness, but then just as quickly disappeared forgotten by all but a handful of Cold War historians. President Nixon, who had made it part of his campaign that a Pueblo incident could not happen under his leadership, never retaliated against North Korea, and in fact did everything possible to downplay the incident.

No administration official fed the story with any comment to the press. There were no yellow ribbons, no honk-if-you-care-about-our-boys campaigns. The downed American flyers never had their names on any wall or memorial.

Henry Kissinger, apparently having second thoughts about the administration response, remarked in his memoirs that President Nixon´s failure to forcefully respond signaled the first major policy failure of that administration.

Still, restraint may have been the prudent choice that day. At that time, America was involved in a hot war, against an intractable foe in the North Vietnamese, and the new administration understandably did not want an extension of that war within its first hundred days in office.

But the question remains, prudent at what price? Can our nation ask its young airmen and women to embark on critical missions, such as peacetime aerial reconnaissance, with no assurance that if attacked the country will come to their aid? Today, virtually no one can recall the EC-121 incident a shootdown that represented the largest single loss of American life in the Cold War. Yet without our reconnaissance forces, the world would be a decidedly less safe place.

It is ironic that these men were the fighter pilots of the Cold War, exposing themselves to the hostile fire of the Russian, Chinese and North Koreans so the larger American population would not have to.

President Bush now has an opportunity, as well as the obligation, to make clear in a public and forceful way that these men and women protecting America´s security are valued and recognized. This most recent incident came about when a harassing Chinese fighter plane playing aerial chicken a regular practice in this tense field of peacetime battle collided with an EP-3E Aries reconnaissance aircraft. The American pilot was forced to land on sovereign Chinese soil, where the plane sits impounded and the crew are held as guests of the Chinese government.

The aircraft involved is from the same squadron as the aircraft in the 1969 incident and this incident took place, within the first three months of George W. Bush´s presidency. The ultimate irony, of course, will be if the Bush administration, like the Nixon administration, does nothing and the American people, once again, choose to forget.

Remembering this crew and others like them does not require starting a major war. On the contrary, the main purpose of our reconnaissance force is to avoid war, eliminating the temptation to surprise attack that unpreparedness always engenders. The men and women of Squadron VQ-1 work silently on a battlefield where information is just as critical to success as weaponry. They exist and serve to evaluate enemy capabilities should the unthinkable occur.

Ours is a time when the nuclear scare of the Cuban Missile Crisis has receded into the distant past and America´s position as the dominant superpower seems secure. It is critical that now, more than ever, the forces stationed at the farthest perimeters of America´s defense know they will not be forgotten for reasons of political expediency. Sadly, the only time we learn about these airmen and women is when something goes terribly wrong.

History has yet to pronounce a verdict on this latest event, but from the perspective of America´s service personnel, certain facts are clear. For all intents and purposes, those flying these missions are in combat. Their workplace may not resemble war´s usual landscape, familiar to most of us only from the perspective of Hollywood movies and dated newsreel footage. Their mission is not to find the enemy and destroy him. They shoot at no one, though the enemy has been known to shoot at them. Just as important to national security as tank and infantry operations, the aerial reconnaissance war is a battle of nerves, endurance and intelligence.

Twenty-four Americans willingly put themselves in harm´s way to protect the rest of us. They were doing their job without expectation of reward or publicity, just like the 31 men who were shot down three decades ago. This new administration must stand up for these sentinels who guard our sleep. And there are many ways, short of going to war, to communicate to the Chinese our commitment to their safe release.

Mr. President, ensure that our airmen and women are returned safely and promptly.

Erol Munuz is currently writing a book on the 1969 shootdown of an EC-121. He was a writer in residence at the University of Virginia´s Miller Center for Public Affairs and is a graduate of Harvard´s Kennedy School of Government.

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