On October 2, US Ambassador Samantha Power criticized Russia’s bombing of ISIS in Syria and called for the immediate cessation of “attacks on Syrian oppo[sition and] civilians.” Following the condemnation was a joint statement by US allies that the Russian bombing of civilian targets “constitute[s] a further escalation and will only fuel more extremism and radicalization.” Similar condemnations of equal or greater destruction of civilian targets is curiously absent from the United States’ own usage of aerial bombardment. American officials expressed no such concern for the civilians killed in their aerial campaigns in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere.
The hypocrisy runs deep. It is present not just historically but contemporaneously. One day after the United States criticized Russia, American military forces bombarded a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins sans frontières (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan. The official statements are anything but condemnatory or apologetic. Writing for The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald exposes the confused nature of the official American response:
When news first broke of the U.S. airstrike on the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, the response from the U.S. military was predictable and familiar. It was all just a big, terrible mistake, its official statement suggested: an airstrike it carried out in Kunduz “may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility.” Oops: our bad. Fog of war, errant bombs, and all that.
Then the story changed. No longer was the bombing an accident. It was justified. Officials claimed that the Taliban were using the hospital as a base, that there was fighting broken out around the hospital facility at the time of the bombing.
MSF rightly dismissed this claim as total nonsense. Here is the exact quote from MSF’s statement:
MSF is disgusted by the recent statements coming from some Afghanistan government authorities justifying the attack on its hospital in Kunduz. These statements imply that Afghan and US forces working together decided to raze to the ground a fully functioning hospital with more than 180 staff and patients inside because they claim that members of the Taliban were present.
This amounts to an admission of a war crime. This utterly contradicts the initial attempts of the US government to minimize the attack as ‘collateral damage.’
There can be no justification for this abhorrent attack on our hospital that resulted in the deaths of MSF staff as they worked and patients as they lay in their beds. MSF reiterates its demand for a full transparent and independent international investigation.”
Further down in the article, Greenwald adds:
Just as this article was being published, NBC News published a report making clear that even the latest claims from the U.S. and Afghan governments are now falling apart. The Pentagon’s top four-star commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Campbell, now claims that “local Afghans forces asked for air support and U.S. forces were not under direct fire just prior to the U.S. bombardment” of the hospital. As NBC notes, this directly contradicts prior claims: “The Pentagon had previously said U.S. troops were under direct fire.”
While officials scramble for the right lie that will placate people, the usual propaganda outlets of imperialism try to remove culpability from the American government. I won’t go into detail, but you can read more in another excellent article by Glenn Greenwald.
Let’s return to the historical record. Is this bombing an aberration? Unfortunately not. The United States has long expressed concern for the civilian lives killed by its enemies all while carrying out extensive “humanitarian intervention” campaigns leading to the deaths of hundreds of innocents.
Looking at only recent history, the NATO bombing of Libya serves as a good example. UN Security Council Resolution 1973 expressed “grave concern at the deteriorating situation, the escalation of violence, and the heavy civilian casualties” in the aftermath of an uprising against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime and the government’s repressive response. The Resolution reiterated the Libyan government’s responsibility to protect civilian lives and condemned a list of human rights violations. The resolution then extended that responsibility to UN member states (read NATO). Furthermore, it authorized “Member States that have notified the Secretary-General” (again, meaning NATO) to “protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.” The Resolution essentially authorized NATO to carry out missions that would limit the civilian-killing capabilities of both sides of the Libyan conflict.
Of course, the story carried on differently. NATO conducted 9,700 strike sorties dropping over 7,700 precision bombs and violated its Security Council authorization by openly pushing for regime change. While NATO officials stressed that there were minimal civilian deaths and none that were “unnecessary”, Human Rights Watch and other reports show otherwise. Exact numbers of civilian deaths are hard to come by, but according to the HRW report, at least 72 civilian deaths were directly caused by NATO bombing of eight facilities (seven of which were non-military targets). The total civilian deaths from NATO bombing are surely far higher than 72, but what’s instructive is the typical official response: no sharp condemnations of unjust civilian bombing; no calls by US officials for President Obama and those directly involved to stand trial for war crimes.
Libya’s importance lay not just as a historical footnote in transparent imperial hypocrisy of a rogue superpower condemning Gadaffi’s killing of civilians while carrying out extensive bombing of civilian targets. It is important because at least one presidential candidate regards Libya as a success story. Yes, Hillary Clinton believes that the NATO campaign in Libya “set into motion a policy that was on the right side of history, on the right side of our values, on the right side of our strategic interests in the region.” If mass civilian casualties, illegal violation of a Security Council Resolution, illegally violating Congress’s denial of authorization of military missions and the creation of a failed state that perpetuates chaos in Libya is a sign of success in the eyes of imperialists, I shudder to think what their version of failure is.
Don’t let the media and government officials deceive you. The American bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan is not without precedent. It takes place among a long history of similar atrocities perpetrated by the United States armed forces across the world. The track record is clear. The American government only cares about civilian casualties when it furthers imperial interests; otherwise, such casualties are “unavoidable,” “necessary,” or “possible militants.” Blatant disregard for human life is part and parcel of a superpower that has no qualms assassinating a 16 year old.