Context is All. A Holistic Reformulation of the Tonkin Gulf Incident

March 2003 (VOL. 21, NO. 1)

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Incidents and accidents are frequently ascribed to “operator” or “human error.” Until recently accident investigators have focused more on the immediate or proximate causes of incidents and accidents than on such underlying or contextual factors as production imperatives, conditioning, expectation, peer pressure, ergonomics or the quality and currency of rules, procedures and training. Some theorists, however, have attempted to sensitize accident investigators to the potential impact on human perception and behavior of contextual factors. As a consequence of the work of Job (1996), Reason (1995; 1997), Snook (2000) and others accident investigators now have the opportunity to apply a systems approach to accident investigation. The primary purpose of this paper is to illustrate and then test the systems or “context” approach with reference to a major incident with significant outcomes. To this end the work of Job, Reason, Snook and others is used to frame, analyze and draw conclusions from a major incident—the clash between US and North Vietnamese naval forces in the Gulf of Tonkin during the early stages of the Vietnam War. The paper’s secondary purpose is to deconstruct, illuminate and explain the incident with a view to adding to (if not correcting a part of) the historical record of the Vietnam War. 2004 marks the 40th anniversary of the Tonkin Gulf incident, described by Wise (1968) as “The Pearl Harbor if the Vietnam War.” Following the alleged second attack on US naval forces by North Vietnamese warships President Johnson ordered a major escalation of the war against the Viet Cong. Today most analysts agree that the second attack never took place. Given the significance and outcomes of the “phantom attack” (for example the loss of 58,000 American and over three million Vietnamese lives) it is important that we understand how and why the attack came to be imagined—for at least two reasons. First because some blamed the escalation of the Vietnam War on the “incom-petence” of the sailors of the USS Maddox and USS C. Turner Joy. This misunderstanding has persisted for four decades. Secondly, because consequential military errors still occur—as with the accident shoot-down of an Iranian Airbus by an American warship in 1988 that some believe led to the Lockerbie bombing.\r\nHaving applied the “context” approach to the Tonkin Gulf incident it is suggested that such factors as the sailors’ knowledge of the political and diplomatic background to their situation, their duty to protect their ship and very recent encounter with the North Vietnamese led them to “construct” (perceive) a second incident. It is concluded that, as in the 1988 Vincennes incident, knowledges, experiences and expectations bore down upon the sailors to create a threat that existed only in their collective consciousness. In short, the macro impacted the micro experience to the point where judgment was degraded.\r\n