Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Daily Face Palm - October 6, 2015

Over the weekend, the US bombed a hospital in Afghanistan, killing 22 doctors and patients. We first discussed this story on Saturday, highlighting some examples of US hypocrisy on the subject of civilian casualties. And today, we must reluctantly return to the topic as the story continues to develop along the predictable government-commits-atrocity plot line.

Essentially, the government starts out portraying the story in the most favorable terms possible until their version of events is contradicted by the evidence. Then, the story is revised as necessary to a slightly less favorable version until that too is contradicted, and the cycle continues. The goal is to minimize (or justify) the tragedy long enough that everyone loses interest and moves on to something else. Then by the time any internal investigation is completed months later, few people will notice or care that no one was held accountable. That's usually how this goes.

Of course, what's unique about the Kunduz bombing is that a group of western aid workers from Doctors Without Borders was attacked, making this story far harder to downplay with the standard approach.

Once again, Glenn Greenwald has an excellent write-up on this story and how the US version of events has changed over time. He also highlights the heroic efforts of Doctors Without Borders to challenge the US narrative and keep this story in the news. The full article is available here:


And if you're still interested in knowing more about the issue, you can also check out Greenwald's complementary piece on the media coverage of this story. This case provides an excellent illustration how established media outlets can use language to subtly downplay events like this and mislead its audience. Check that out here:



  1. I'm not as well versed as you are on the subject matter in general, but there's a common thought that our vastly outgunned enemies do take to hiding in civilian locations quite frequently though, no?

    Specifically I remember this during the most recent Palestinian vs Israel conflict a bit ago. Rebels were firing concealed rockets right next to civilian centers (one video showed them literally firing from a park right across from an international hotel). The idea being then that when Israel returns fire to the location, they may kill some civilians and play the sympathy card.

    I'm not sure how much truth there is to whole concept in general, but I know that was my first thought when I read this. Not that it justifies it and after reading the linked article this seems pretty cut and dry terrible.

  2. Well, there's a few things here. Yes, it is likely true that this happens from time to time, and also probably reason #5,907 that you shouldn't fight an aggressive war or occupation against a foreign population. Not that I'm accusing you of supporting that, but it's the first thought that comes to mind when I hear talk of collateral damage and proportionality. In a defensive engagement, you don't have to worry about the question about figuring out who's a civilian; if they're attacking you, they aren't. Kind of simplifies everything.

    Sorry, that was a bit of a tangent, as 2001 is clearly a sunk cost at this point.

    This particular case is indeed cut and dry terrible as you said. Everyone from MSF has stated repeatedly that no one had guns in there, and there's no particular reason not to trust them. As Greenwald notes, the AP tried to pretend otherwise for a bit, but they later retracted that claim. Another piece at the Intercept discusses the legal ramifications of your query, and notes even if there were some enemy targets in a hospital that was otherwise neutral, it still wouldn't be permissible under commonly accepted laws of war. I gather the reason is that because the hospital is a critical part of civilian infrastructure, it carries extra weight in the proportionality calculation, so even if Osama was in there, you couldn't legally justify killing all those civilians just to get him. That said, I think it's safe to assume the US can't really do anything illegal because we pretty much decide what's legal, since we can and frequently do block any attempts to have real accountability--torture being an obvious case and point since that was manifestly illegal, acknowledged, and nothing happened. Here's the relevant Intercept piece:


    How frequently this happens is not clear, and would naturally be difficult to verify. Belligerent governments always try to claim this to make the inevitable civilian deaths more legitimate. The US initially did so in this case, Israel does it all the time when they're bombing Palestinians, and recently, I heard Russia come out recently and say ISIS may be doing this in Syria. While it makes sense on a surface level for insurgents to deploy this strategy, I think its occurrence is definitely exaggerated. For one thing, there are the numerous documented cases where the government (or its friendly media) claims this only to have it proved untrue later. It happened in this case in Kunduz. And it also happened in one prominent case in the last sustained bombing of Gaza, where the Israeli government released a video that was supposed to prove the insurgents were firing from a hospital, and it was later shown that the video was a hoax. I'm not sure if that's the same incident you're referring to, but it's a useful example for the present discussion. Here's a good discussion of it:


  3. Here's the rest of that; apparently there's a character limit:

    Aside from the anecdotal evidence where the claim has proved to be false, I actually think there is a good a priori reason to assume it is not terribly prevalent. We should remember, that whatever we may think of the tactics of groups like Hamas and the Taliban, they do actually hope to be in control of their respective territories eventually. And if they succeed, that would eventually involve ruling people that are not part of their core believers. So if nothing else, I think groups like this would probably recognize how incredibly unpopular such a tactic would make them and would thus be less willing to deploy it en masse. I'm not suggesting either of these groups are paragons of democratic virtues, of course, but they would obviously prefer to rule a population that generally consents to their authority. If they win, they don't want to find themselves fighting their own enduring counterinsurgency. And it's worth noting that at least historically, these groups have had an apparent plurality of popular support. Hamas was popularly elected when it came to power, and back when the Taliban originally came to power in Afghanistan, they were actually preferred to the warlords that ruled before them.

    Finally, it's probably worth saying that a lot of the airstrikes these days don't occur during an active battle. So the targets aren't engaged in active anything; we're just assassinating them because we decided they were a terrorist somehow. They might be around more overt civilians, but it's not really the human shield scenario that's conjured by the phrase. Our night raid policy in Afghanistan, which is ongoing, is the same thing. We go on a raid in somebody's house, and thus encounter and endanger their entire extended family. So for all those reasons, I think the importance of the human shield thing is probably overblown.

  4. This is the video I was referring to:

    Indian journalist records Palestinian fighters firing rockets right across the street from an international hotel he was staying in.

    In a conflict it's pretty tough to instantly verify the credibility of a threat. I mean if someone shows proven aggression and you have reason to believe (you don't know it's a hoax video in real-time) that they're actively continuing to attack you, it feels very "armchair general" to condemn them for acting on the information.

    Can you imagine the political fallout if an attack from a civilian location wound up causing casualties on your side because you didn't immediately act on the threat?

    (sidenote: this isn't directly relevant for situations like the hospital where the "immediate threat" threshold doesn't seem to have been met. I'm talking more like that situation in the video.)

    1. First things first, the War on Gaza last summer was a chosen war of aggression initiated by Israel. Even if one takes embraces the pretty dubious claim that Hamas directed the kidnapping thing that started it, it's tough to see how bombing an entirely different region is an appropriate response. I can provide further support for the idea that this was an aggressive attack by Israel if needed, but I'll assume for now that we agree on that.

      You would know if it was a hoax video in real time. After all, I assume the IDF isn't working off random external reports like I have to. So they would be using their own evidence and images, and unless someone hacked the video monitors of IDF drones to pipe in different content, they could be reasonably sure it was legitimate. Now they could misinterpret the images they see (because drone images always seem look rather similar to blimp mode on Super Tecmo Bowl than to actual life). But as far as it actually being an outright fake, that doesn't make sense to me.

      And yes, the immediate threat is definitely not met in Afghanistan. But what do you mean by immediate threat? An immediate threat to a military force that is attacking (as was the initial lie by the US) is surely not the same as an immediate threat to civilians for justification purposes, right? Moreover, does it matter whose civilians? In the case of the video above, would the IDF thus be justified in taking down the hotel assuming those rockets were aimed at Israel proper?

    2. I do appreciate you sharing that video; that does seem reasonably compelling evidence in that case. And if true, the militants shown would certainly be actively endangering civilians and it's appalling. I mean tactically, you can understand why they'd do it--they're not going to revert to the redcoat approach and go to an open field--but it's still awful. And they probably recognize that dead civilians are probably a plus point for them politically, which is a very unfortunate reality. This would presumably be a case, where if you're going to fight an offensive war, the question of proportionality would probably be the issue at hand. Of course, if Israel were used something besides airstrikes and artillery that would also help reduce the exposure of non-combatants. But that is rarely the approach taken it seems since dead soldiers are not an acceptable cost of intervention for Israel or the US. (And yes, I recognize that Israel did use ground forces in the offensive, but they also leveled a crazy amount of Gaza.)