From A World to Win News Service

When Is It OK to Bomb a Hospital?

May 9, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper |


May 2, 2016. A World to Win News Service. The al-Quds hospital was one of the very few remaining in Aleppo, Syria and the only one with facilities and personnel to treat children. It was hit by one or more air strikes on the night of April 27. Video from a surveillance camera in a hospital corridor shows Dr Muhammad Waseem Moaz, said to be the leading and perhaps last paediatrician in the city, closing a door, adjusting his hospital scrubs and stepping toward the emergency room just as an explosion blows in the front door and the walls and ceiling collapse. He and at least 26 other staff and patients were killed in the attack on this hospital supported by the international medical volunteer organization Medécins Sans Frontiѐres (MSF—Doctors Without Borders).

Two other hospitals in the Aleppo area were hit the same day, also in air strikes carried out by the Bashar al-Assad government, according to the New York Times. An Al Jazeera military analyst stated it is standard procedure, in these kinds of wars against insurgents, to hit vital civilian facilities, in order to terrorize and drive out the civilian population and isolate opposition fighters. But such acts are supposedly illegal under international law, specifically the Geneva Conventions that define the “rules of war.”

In short, the attack on the al-Quds hospital was criminal, a war crime to be unequivocally condemned and the people behind it brought to justice. Few would believe it was an accident, because it fit an established pattern and served identifiable goals.

Yet what about the U.S. attack on a Médecins Sans Frontiѐres hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, last October? Cannon fire and strafing killed 42 people, including three children and 14 medical staff, and injured dozens more. Patients burned alive in their beds. Surviving medics had to operate on the wounded, including each other, on a desktop standing amid the rubble.

The U.S. refused to allow an independent international body established by the Geneva Conventions to investigate. Instead, the Pentagon investigated itself, concluding, in a report released April 29, 2016 that the “tragic strike” was “unintentional,” caused by a series of human errors and “equipment failures.”

These are the undisputed facts about the Kunduz hospital attack:

  • The medical NGO had given the U.S. armed forces the precise coordinates of the hospital’s location long before the attack.
  • A minute before the AC-130 gunship took off from the Bagram base, headquarters for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, crew members gave their superiors the coordinates of the target they intended to strike—the hospital.
  • The aircraft flew low enough over the hospital to see it. It was marked by MSF banners and a prominent hospital logo on the roof.
  • About eleven minutes after the gunship began firing shells and strafing the hospital, MSF began calling Afghan and U.S. military and civilian officials to halt the attack. The head of the U.S. Central Command said in an April 29 news conference that the order to stop the assault was given 19 minutes later, or about a half hour after it began. But according to MSF, the aircraft’s cannons pounded the building for more than an hour. Machine gun fire hit people trying to flee the burning building.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, as MSF spokespeople pressed hard on the U.S. government for an explanation, the Pentagon had little to say. They let stand an Afghan government claim that Taliban fighters had taken over the hospital and were using it as a base against attacking government forces. There was an implication—and still is, in the latest Pentagon report—that the gunship was defending American soldiers, or at least that the U.S. military thought that was the case. There were, it turns out, no U.S. ground troops in the area, and no arms in the hospital, although the medical staff quite correctly refuses to distinguish among those who come for help. But even if the military’s alleged fears were true, and even if they attacked the hospital by mistake, MSF has clearly stated that the intense and prolonged attack was on a densely populated area and should never have taken place no matter what.

Citing the haste with which the aircraft took off, the failure of communications and targeting systems and the crew’s disorientation, the U.S. announced it would include reprimands in the files of unnamed soldiers and officers, but that there would be no courts-martial because no crime was committed—not murder (premeditated killing), not manslaughter (killing without seeking to do so) and not even criminal negligence. A driver whose headlights failed and became disoriented and then, instead of stopping, ran into a school bus would not get off so lightly. In short, as MSF points out, the U.S. is saying that such things are the inevitable cost of war, just collateral damage.

This conclusion is more than an exoneration for the soldiers and officers involved, which would be bad enough. It is a self-exoneration of the whole U.S. military chain of command and the government headed by that military’s commander in chief, Barack Obama.

It is a “rule of war” that commanders are responsible for the actions of their troops. What’s more, Obama, through his silence in public and his obvious, if never publicly spoken, approval of the Pentagon cover-up, could be held criminally responsible before and after the fact, if the same rules were applied to the U.S. as to countries and armies the U.S. and its allies and friends have defeated, from Germany and Japan in World War 2 to Serbia and African countries today.

But the “cost of war” point has to be addressed. Is this war itself right or wrong? This the basic question. Underlying the Pentagon’s argument is the claim that because it is right for the U.S. to wage this war, its cost has to be accepted. MSF and other volunteers don’t address the question, and yet it is the heart of the matter.

What is the U.S. fighting for in Afghanistan? The U.S. supported Islamists when that seemed to suit American interests (grabbing Afghanistan from its Soviet rivals). Then the U.S. gave the Pakistani secret services the green light to bring the Taliban to power, although that turned out to be problematic for the U.S. Now Washington is sending troops and gunships to save the Kabul government—the Islamist government it installed—from other Islamists.

When the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the pretext was to protect “American lives” from Islamic fundamentalist attacks and “liberate” the Afghan people. What we have seen since then is that Western invasions, occupations and other crimes provide the conditions for Islamism to flourish. Further, the idea that “American lives” are worth more than those of anyone else, including children murdered by U.S. forces and/or U.S.-supplied weapons and munitions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Palestine and elsewhere, is a keystone in the imperialist ideology that justifies such crimes and turns ordinary people into accomplices.

Why is Obama presiding over the bombing of hospitals? To defend his “legacy,” as the man behind the “surge” that saw Afghanistan overrun by U.S. troops—and that breathed new life into the Taliban, the president who still keeps 10,000 U.S. soldiers and 3,000 other NATO troops there today? If Obama ever intended to end that war, or U.S. aggression in general, as some people fooled themselves into believing, why the surge, and why the continuing insistence that U.S. troops cannot leave until American interests are secured?

The purpose of a war determines the way it is fought. A war of liberation has to rally the people; it has nothing to rely on but the active participation of increasing numbers of the masses of people. Not only would it not target civilians, it would fight in a way meant to minimize harm to the people whose interests it serves, even at risk to its own forces. A reactionary war such as that waged by the U.S.-led occupiers in Afghanistan—and the Islamist opposition—necessarily takes all Afghans as potential targets because the interests behind it are completely opposed to the interests of the people.

The Kunduz hospital attack, and the continuing occupation it serves, are driven by the same geopolitical interests that led the U.S. to invade Afghanistan in the first place: to dominate a key region and keep out its rivals. These crimes are part of trying to hold on to global domination in a worldwide system of exploitation and oppression presided over by the political representatives of finance capital headquartered in a handful of countries.

Heroic volunteers are going to have to try to save children and other civilians burned alive again and again, until that imperialist system is brought down.



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