(updated below – Update II)
Shortly after the news broke of the U.S. attack on a Doctors without Borders (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, there was abundant evidence suggesting (not proving, but suggesting) that the attack was no accident: (1) MSF repeatedly told the U.S. military about the precise coordinates of its hospital, which had been operating for years; (2) the Pentagon’s story about what happened kept changing, radically, literally on a daily basis; (3) the exact same MSF hospital had been invaded by Afghan security forces three months earlier, demonstrating hostility toward the facility; (4) the attack lasted more than 30 minutes and involved multiple AC-130 gunship flyovers, even as MSF officials frantically pleaded with the U.S. military to stop; and, most compellingly of all, (5) Afghan officials from the start said explicitly that the hospital was a valid and intended target due to the presence of Taliban fighters as patients.
All of this led MSF’s general director, Christopher Stokes, to say this at a news conference yesterday in Kabul:
“A mistake is quite hard to understand and believe at this stage.”
As my colleague Murtaza Hussain reported yesterday, Stokes added: “From what we are seeing now, this action is illegal in the laws of war.”
This was not the first time top officials from the universally respected MSF have said this. Three weeks ago, Stokes said in an interview with AP that “the extensive, quite precise destruction of this hospital … doesn’t indicate a mistake. The hospital was repeatedly hit.” He added that “all indications point to a grave breach of international humanitarian law, and therefore a war crime.” That’s “all indications” point to a “war crime.”
The point here isn’t that it’s been definitively proven that the U.S. attack was deliberate. What exactly happened here and why won’t be known, as MSF itself has said, until there is a full-scale, truly independent investigation — precisely what the U.S. government is steadfastly blocking. But MSF’s Stokes is absolutely correct to say that all of the evidence that is known means that “mistake” is “quite hard to believe at this stage” as an explanation and that the compilation of all known evidence “points to … a war crime.”
Nonetheless, many U.S. journalists immediately, repeatedly and authoritatively declared this to have been an “accident” or a “mistake” despite not having the slightest idea whether that was true, and worse, in the face of substantial evidence that it was false.
What possible motivation would the U.S. government have for submitting to an independent investigation when — as usual — it has an army of super-patriotic, uber-nationalistic journalists eager to act as its lawyers and insist, despite the evidence, that Americans could not possibly be guilty of anything other than a terrible “mistake”? Indeed, the overriding sentiment among many U.S. journalists is that their country and government are so inherently Good that they could not possibly do anything so bad on purpose. Any bad acts are mindlessly presumed to be terrible, uintended mistakes tragically made by Good, Well-Intentioned People (Americans). Other Bad Countries do bad things on purpose. But Americans are good and do not.
They cling to this self-flattering belief so vehemently that they not only refused to entertain the possibility that the U.S. government might have done something bad on purpose, but they scornfully mock anyone who questions the official claim of “mistake.” When you’re lucky enough as a government and military to have hordes of journalists so subservient and nationalistic that they do and say this — to exonerate you fully — before knowing any facts, why would you ever feel the need to submit to someone else’s investigation?
Christian Science Monitor
Seems silly to write this, but: Trust me, the US airstrike on the hospital in Kunduz will almost certainly prove to be an accident.— Dan Murphy (@bungdan) October 3, 2015
Doesn't mean "mistake" was not due to failures of command, of protocol, or something else or raise questions. But enough with "deliberate."— Dan Murphy (@bungdan) October 3, 2015
The New Yorker
… but idea US bombed a hospital on purpose, knowing it was a hospital, is a gross charge & speaks to ignorance abt how the military operates— Michael Cohen (@speechboy71) October 7, 2015
American Journalism is the ultimate accountability-free profession, as demonstrated by the fact that every journalist not named “Judy Miller” who uncritically regurgitated and advocated false government claims about Iraq not only paid no price but has thrived. So needless to say, none of the people who instantly acquitted the U.S. in the Kunduz hospital attack have in any way accounted for their early proclamations or attempted to reconcile them with all of this evidence.
At Vox, Max “surely-the-result-of-some-terrible-human-error” Fisher left it to his colleague Zach Beauchamp to admit that a new AP report “doesn’t prove, conclusively, that the U.S. knowingly and intentionally bombed a hospital. But it does raise some serious questions about who knew what about the Kunduz hospital” (there was, of course, no reference to Fisher’s prior verdict of innocence, nor Klein’s announcement on Twitter that this was all an “accident”). Anderson’s New Yorker colleague Amy Davidson had published an article asking all the right questions before he declared it “unlikely” to have been “intentionally criminal.” Meanwhile, as evidence of intentionality grew, Murphy simply abandoned his prior “trust me” decree that this was all an accident (we’d never do this on purpose) and seamlessly switched to what certainly could be read to be justification (yeah, OK, we did it and we were right to do it):
Clearly the US should have just let the Taliban over-run Kunduz and abandon the Afghan govt. For morality.— Dan Murphy (@bungdan) October 29, 2015
(The claim that the hospital had been taken over by Taliban fighters has been repeatedly debunked, including by MSF just yesterday; they also quite rightly pronounced themselves “disgusted” at the suggestion that even if it were true that Taliban fighters were among the patients, razing their hospital would be justified.)
It is, of course, pleasing to view your own tribe as inherently superior. It feels nice to believe that your own side is so intrinsically moral, so Exceptional, that one needs no “evidence” or “investigation” to know immediately that any bad acts are unintended. It is a massive relief to know that things like “war crimes” and intentionally bombing structures protected by the Geneva Conventions can only be done by the countries declared by your government to be adversaries, but never by your own government.
But as comforting, uplifting and self-affirming as that worldview is, it is literally the exact antithesis of the skepticism that the most basic precepts of journalism require. Declaring your own government innocent when it repeatedly bombs a well-known, well-established hospital filled with doctors, nurses and patients — before you have the slightest idea what actually happened, and in the face of all kinds of evidence in conflict with such assurances of innocence — is inexcusable for all sorts of obvious reasons. Very unfortunately, this sort of hyper-nationalism and reflexively tribalistic self-love is pervasive in American journalism — Americans do not do such things — which is why the U.S. government knows that it can engage in such acts without any accountability or even pressure to allow an independent investigation.
UPDATE: A couple more horrible examples:
To think the United States purposely bombed a hospital is evidence of a mindset that suggests such deep hostility toward America that [MSF International President Joanne] Liu ought to go work somewhere else. … I don’t for a minute think that the United States was involved in ‘war crime’ here — unless the definition of a crime is so stretched as to encompass a horrible accident.
Doctors Without Borders cheapens the value of its own indignation by raising what seems to have been a deadly mistake to the level of a wanton moral transgression, but the Pentagon also shouldn’t simply dismiss it with the default explanation that it was just the “fog of war.” It was a bloody blunder, but not, by any reasonable definition, a war crime.
I genuinely don’t understand why the White House or Pentagon bothers to spend money on official spokespeople. It’s such a redundant function given how many in the U.S. media eagerly perform that role.
UPDATE II: Political Science professor Corey Robin directed me to this article in The Nation by Greg Gradin and said: “Right after Kunduz, historian showed deliberate targeting of hospitals was policy for U.S. in Cambodia.” But as I replied to Professor Robin, and as all these intrepid journalists have taught us: “Nobody needs to read this. We all KNOW that **Americans** don’t do things like this. Only Bad Countries & People do.”
Top photo: Christopher Stokes, the general director of Doctors Without Borders, right, talks as Michiel Hofman, the head of Kunduz incident team and a Doctors Without Borders employee, listens during a press conference at their office in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015