Reckless, Deadly Strike on Doctors Without Borders Hospital Not a War Crime, Pentagon Says

Sixteen people have been disciplined, but will not face charges.


Gen. Votel
Department of Defense

When an American gunship launched a strike on a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan last year, 42 people (some of whom were medical personnel) died. Today, military officials are confirming information that leaked in March: Even though U.S. forces "failed to comply" with the proper rules of engagement and the attack on the hospital should never have happened, nobody is going to face any sort of war crime charges.

Instead, 16 American military personnel face, according to Reuters, "administrative actions" that included "suspension and removal from command, letters of reprimand, formal counseling and extensive retraining."

The official explanation from Gen. Joseph Votel is that the bombing was a tragedy of errors, "process and equipment failures," and poor communication that resulted in those responsible for the attack believing they were hitting a Taliban-controlled facility, not a hospital.

Needless to say, human rights groups and Doctors Without Borders are not especially thrilled with the idea that poor communication could be used to avoid criminal accountability for the killings. From The New York Times:

"The most notable point in today's briefing was that the report found that U.S. personnel violated the laws of armed conflict," said John Sifton, the Asia policy director of Human Rights Watch. "And yet we are also told that the U.S. military has failed to charge even one person criminally. This is, simply put, inexplicable."

"General Joseph Votel's assertion that a war crime must be deliberate, or intentional, is flatly wrong," Mr. Sifton added, saying that there were legal precedents for war crimes prosecutions based on acts that were committed with recklessness, and that many criminal acts under the United States military code could be committed with recklessness or negligence.

But, then, America has been killing innocent civilians in foreign countries with drones for some time now, and there's no sign of accountability there, either. 

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  1. Kind of hypocritical. Isn’t the government’s position inconsistent with the position it advocates for multinational companies that operate in countries that have lackluster human rights records? The Obama administration argued in the past that companies can be held liable under the Alien Tort Claims Act for crimes by governments of those countries even absent any specific intent by the company to cause harm. Essentially blaming them for acts of foreign governments.

    1. If it wasn’t for double standards they would have none at all.

  2. Obama should be in the dock in The Hague – he explicitly authorized individual (and group) assassinations, including non-combatants.

    Is he the first Nobel Peace Prize winner to have committed war crimes? Arafat?

    1. Whenever I want to relax to the sounds of crickets, I bring this up in a group of liberals.

      1. Nah, it’s still Bush’s fault. That’s why we need another Republican in office. They’re going to need a scape goat for the last 8 reckless years and nobody wants to blame poor Hillary. I imagine if the Berninator was elected he’d find himself under a bus so fast your head would spin.

        1. Well, they still have “TEATHUGLIKKAN obstructionism in TEH CONGRUS because RACEISM!!!!,” gerrymandering, and TRUUUUMP

      2. I mentioned this the other day to a friend of mine from law school who now works in the White House. (He’s an intelligent and decent guy on everything but politics). He was talking about Donald Trump’s claim that he intends to fire-bomb the families of ISIS members, and I pointed out that, yes, such an act would be morally reprehensible, but right now, Trump is not in power and the current occupant of the White House has killed the families of suspected terrorists. He responds, “Well…maybe…that might be true.” I replied, “No, it’s not a ‘maybe’ he has done it. And to minor American citizens. Eric Holder’s response was that the kid should have had better parents.”

        He shut up and resumed watching baseball.

    2. There was that Austrian Dude in the 30’s.

    3. Which law of war does that contravene? Specifically?

      (I mean, yes, one is not meant to deliberately attack non-combatants – that would be a war crime.

      I’m not aware of the Administration targeting anyone (as opposed to mistaken targeting or them being near the target*) who was actually a non-combatant.

      “Al Quaeda Leadership” (who they keep targeting) are valid targets, since they are “taking an active part in the hostilities”, by being part of a military organization and not having surrendered (3rd Geneva Convention, Art. 3, Section 1)

      * And no, that’s not a war crime either – if it was, that would be encouraging the use of human shields, which is in fact explicitly forbidden.

      It’s forbidden to deliberately attack civilians.

      Not to hurt them with a bomb that is targeting an actual combatant in their midst; the Laws of War view it as the combatants’ job to not put military installations in with civilians with the aim of protecting them for that very reason [4th Geneva Convention, Art. 28].)

      1. (Now, one can think such attacks are bad policy, sure.

        But that’s not what “war crime” means.

        The Laws of War are actually pretty well codified.

        It’s not hard to look at the Conventions and see what’s there.

        And there’s nothing about “blowing up enemy leadership even when they’re not at the battlefield”.)

        1. Apparently you are not aware that a 16-yr-old AMERICAN citizen was explicitly targeted who was not a combatant.

          In fact, one need not send him to the Hague, he is guilty of murder under US law as well.

          Facts are stubborn things.

  3. Phew, I was so scared that the Pentagon was gonna accuse itself of a war crime….

  4. Full text of the Pentagon report: ?\_(?)_/?

    1. You left out B===o

  5. nobody is going to face any sort of war crime charges

    Who, exactly, would come on to US soil and drag them to The Hague?

    *Not saying they shouldn’t be prosecuted.

    1. Millennials. They’re our only hope.

  6. Instead, 16 American military personnel face, according to Reuters, “administrative actions” that included “suspension and removal from command, letters of reprimand, formal counseling and extensive retraining.”

    That’s not all. They’re gonna have some doodads removed from their lapels. Specifically the little dingleberries that hang from the chevron above the insignia that looks like a gold pot leaf will be reduced by one gold flake.

    1. The ultimate punishment.

    2. I don’t want to defend the guys who were following orders, but in todays world when you’re firing a missile from miles away who the hell knows what you’re hitting? (Answer: The commanders should and, if they don’t, perhaps don’t order the drones to fire?)

      1. Yes. It is not as simple as people think. Again, none of the journalists who are writing about this have read the report. Until you look at the report, you are just guessing.

      2. Why should people be expected to know who they’re going to kill and why? That’s their bosses job, they just push the buttons.

        1. So, basically, you think anything but hand to hand combat should be banned?

          Because that’s where that leads – not even rifle fire can be sure of the target at normal engagement ranges.

          Stomping your feet and demanding that war just stop until nobody can make mistakes is … well, it’s not going to work, at very least. And it gets you mocked, too.

    3. And a stern talking-to!

  7. If they really didn’t know it was a hospital, then they are not guilty of a war crime. Fucks ups happen and the law of war doesn’t criminalize fuck ups. I can’t find the report on line yet. So, I will reserve judgement until I do. The story as I have heard it is that the place wasn’t marked at least where you can see clearly from the air and the Afghans knew it was a hospital but didn’t like that they treated Taliban. So the Afghans told the Americans it was a Taliban field headquarters so they would target it. If anyone is guilty of a war crime, it is the Afghans. But, without reading the report, it is impossible to say.

    1. Negligence is no excuse in civilian life, so it should go double for the military, because the stakes are higher. How hard would it be to check to make sure the place was not a hospital? Stop being an apologist for war crimes, John. You are making baby Jeebus cry.

      1. Negligence is no excuse in civilian life, so it should go double for the military, because the stakes are higher.

        That works both ways, you know. If our troops in live-fire situations are having to wait for three levels of bureaucrats to hold meetings and reach a consensus before pulling the trigger, well, thats probably a bad thing because the stakes are so high.

        Warfighting is about taking risks. If you don’t think the risks are worth taking, you shouldn’t be fighting the war. Let’s not forget that the people who actually have to fight the war aren’t the ones making the decision about whether the risks are worth taking.

        There’s a huge gap between “war crime” and “didn’t follow the ROE”. Our ROE, for example, says “don’t shoot until shot at” for the groundpounders. In no universe is it a war crime to get the first shot off.

      2. A “war crime” is not “a crime that happened to be committed during a war”.

        Wikipedia’s summary is apt – A war crime is an act that constitutes a serious violation of the law of war that gives rise to individual criminal responsibility.

        The various codifications of the laws of war (Geneva and Hague, for instance) are quite clear about this sort of thing.

        That’s why your analysis – and the author’s – is completely wrong, and why the Pentagon is right.

        No war crimes were committed by these soldiers.

        To commit a war crime you have to do something that violates the laws of war – and all those violations require mens rea; to be deliberately doing something known to be in violation of those laws.

        (Negligence might lead to a war crime … in the most extreme circumstances of “negligence” amounting more to “wilful disregard”. Such as leaving prisoners in a ravine when it rains, while remembering to move your troops out.


        But “trusting your allies to have identified the target correctly” cannot be a war crime, not in any normal circumstances.

        Words. Have. Meanings.)

    2. I’d agree with you, John, except that nothing the government says, especially regarding the military, deserves the benefit of the doubt as to its truthfulness.

    3. Giving the military the benefit of the doubt, let us say it was just a snafu: they meant to attack a different building but crossed wires or malicious Afghans or whatever made them attack the MSF building.

      That introduces a separate issue: should we be conducting these gunship operations at all in highly-populated areas? A mistake can apparently lead to the destruction of a hospital.

      Also, a bigger picture issue: why the fuck are we there again?

    4. There really ought to be, like, a chart on when mens rea matters.

    5. So the Afghans told the Americans it was a Taliban field headquarters so they would target it. If anyone is guilty of a war crime, it is the Afghans.

      Here’s what you do to avoid accountability. You divide a life or death decision into two tasks: Task A and Task B. And you divide them so that: 1) Task A is petty and routine on its own, but vitally important in the context of the process; and 2) Task B is vitally important on its own, but routine in the context of the process. That way, if a mistake happens, the person executing Task A can avoid responsibility by the pettiness of Task A, and the person executing Task B can avoid responsibility by the routine-ness of Task B.

      It would seem our military has figured this out.

    6. Except we’re not at war in Syria, the whole thing is a legally questionable enterprise, run by an Imperial President who fancies himself (with the full-throated support of many of his followers and large swathes of the media) a king.

      1. This happened in Afghanistan.

        1. Shit, you’re right, I was reading another link on CNN that gave me the impression this occurred in Syria.

          Huh, now the CNN front page doesn’t even mention this strike.

          1. Down the memory hole

        2. John, actually we’re not at war with anyone per the US congress. Innocent human beings who were attempting to help other innocent human beings died horrible, painful deaths at the hands of the US military. You can parse this shit anyway you want, but that’s the bottom line. The US government’s only legitimate purpose is to protect my liberty. Killing innocent people in Afghanistan, Syria, or anywhere else on the planet doesn’t meet that criteria in my opinion, so fuck you. And just so there’s no misunderstanding, FUCK YOU YOU PIECE OF SHIT.

          1. While we aren’t at war, we did have authorizations of military force in Iraq and Afghanistan

  8. And in fairness, the Pentagon and the White House were going to court martial these guys until they realized the hospital didn’t have gender neutral bathrooms and that changed everything.

    1. Muslims can’t be transphobic or homophobic or misogynistic, John. You’re thinking of white people.

  9. Too bad there isn’t some judicial forum out there that was established to decide issues of war crimes that can settle this…

  10. I love the military’s system for handing out punishment… Destroy the careers of everyone involved, who probably didn’t have any choice in the matter. Their commander is ultimately responsible for their actions, so destroy him too. And his commander, for the same reason, so on and so forth until you reach the level of the court-martial authority, who is utterly blameless for the failings of his command.

    As a minor bit of pedantry: since this was the work of an AC-130, the hospital was ‘shelled’, not ‘bombed’.

  11. “The official explanation from Gen. Joseph Votel is that the bombing was a tragedy of errors, “process and equipment failures,” and poor communication.”

    Excellent. I’m going to use that next time I get busted selling crack on the street corner. “But officer, I am not guilty of a drug crime. It was a tragedy of errors, “process and equipment failures,” and poor communication.”

    1. A better analogy would be SWATing.

      Someone tells the police there is a heavily armed criminal in a house and the police go there and shoot it up.

      In this case, it was the Afghans giving them bad information. Should the info be checked better? Probably, but ultimately it was the bad intel that caused the problem in the first place.

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