Sunday, January 20, 2008

Monkey Business

Latest Newspaper Column:

Did America nearly go to war with Iran because of a "Filipino Monkey"?

OK, maybe that does require some explanation.

As you may remember, there was a recent encounter in the Strait of Hormuz between five Iranian speedboats and a three-ship flotilla of U.S. Navy vessels. According to the Navy, the speedboats came within seconds of being blown out of the water.

The Navy's concern was not totally unfounded. In a 2002 war-gaming exercise, a simulated U.S. fleet in that crowded passage off the coast of Iran was devastated by a simulated swarm of Iranian attack boats, backed up by simulated cruise missiles fired from airplanes and from shore batteries.

When the scorekeepers tallied up the damage, Marine Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper, commanding the "Red" (enemy) team, had sent 16 "Blue Team" warships, including an aircraft carrier, to the bottom of the strait.

All of this happened on a tabletop war-game board and on computer screens, but the Navy did take notice. Certainly a videotape released by the Navy shows the speedboats acting erratically: zigzagging back and forth, crossing the wake of the trailing destroyer, and behaving like drunken yay-hoos on Labor Day weekend.

The weirdest moment, however, comes at the end of the tape. Suddenly, the video goes black and we hear a deep, strangely accented voice booming, "I am coming to you-u-u-u." Then, after the warship challenges the speedboats again, the same voice says, "You will explo-o-ode after two minutes."

Well, that was all some people needed. ABC News breathlessly reported the "face-off" with the Iranians and replayed the tape over and over, including the "threat" at the end. Fox News anchor Brian Kilmeade berated the Navy for not "blowing those Iranian speedboats out of the water." After all, he said, the Iranians had been "needling us for 20 years."

Hold on a minute, military sources said. We're not sure that those ominous transmissions were from the speedboats.

"We don't know for sure where they came from," Cmdr. Lydia Robertson, spokeswoman for 5th Fleet in Bahrain, told The Navy Times. "It could have been a shore station."

The Navy Times also noted that the voice is different from other transmissions known to have been coming from the speedboats and that, unlike those transmissions, Mr. "you will explo-o-ode" doesn't seem to have any wind noise or static in his mike. Others, including native speakers of Farsi, the predominant language of Iran, noted that the accent didn't sound remotely like an Iranian one. If you listen to it, what it really sounds like is one of those late-night horror movie hosts trying to sound scary and impressive.

Then it was revealed that ships in the Persian Gulf, including the Strait of Hormuz, are often subject to bizarre and usually profane radio messages from a mysterious prankster whom sailors have dubbed the "Filipino Monkey."

The Monkey, it seems, listens in on ship-to-ship or ship-to-air traffic, then leaps in like a bored kid with his dad's CB radio to heckle. Female voices on the air seem to draw his particular ire. One of his favorite tricks, The Los Angeles Times reported as far back as 1987, was to pretend to be from a ship being challenged, then to broadcast taunts aimed at provoking an attack.

"He used to go on all night long," Rick Hopper, a former cruiser skipper, reminisced to the Navy Times. "The guy is crazy."

If indeed, he is one guy. There have been so many spurious transmissions over the years that some have theorized there may be a whole barrel of Monkeys out there (sort of like the Dread Pirate Roberts from the movie "The Princess Bride").

Then, and only then, did the media start backing off on the hysteria. Fox news-bimbo Gretchen Carlson piped up to say that she remembers sitting in her office and hearing the voice and going, "You've gotta be kidding me!" Of course, she didn't mention this or express any doubts before other news outlets mentioned the Monkey.

It's a good thing our sailors are more careful in their assessment of the situation than our press or our politicians. Otherwise we might get into a shooting war because of some prankster. And we can ill afford another war right now, since the Iraqi defense minister has stated he'll need us bolstering his internal security until at least 2012, and they won't be able to defend their borders without help till 2018. (Looks like that "surge" really did the trick, huh?)

Maybe a little less saber-rattling from both sides and -- dare we hope? -- a little more willingness to express doubt on the part of our overly credulous news media is in order.

1 comment:

Steve Allan said...

If it weren't for the widely published Intelligent Assessment last year, I truly believe Bush would have bombed places within Iran by the end of his term. Of course that may still happen considering how he still talks about them. And you know Cheney is just itching for something to happen.

At least this weekend started off the last year of the W administration.