Was it the biggest story of 2015 that failed to secure a front-page headline? Nestled in the posterior pages of America’s largest newspapers — the territory usually reserved for bland economic and foreign policy updates — was the revelation that a U.S. gunship had bombarded a Doctor’s Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan last October.
Scores were dead, the building was left charred and smoldering, absolutely devastated. The death toll would eventually stand at 42; the Pentagon would admit that no enemy combatants were killed in the operation and that 13 of the dead were members of the hospital’s staff. It would later come to light that the gunship in question fired 211 explosive shells at the hospital over the course of a full 29 minutes before realizing they were, in fact, bombarding not a Taliban command base but a NGO-run hospital.
The U.S. military has conducted its own internal investigation into the incident. The investigation concluded that the shelling of the hospital was “the direct result of avoidable human error, compounded by process and equipment failures,” and the U.S. government has provided financial compensation to victims of the attack — $6,000 to the families of the deceased, and $3,000 to each person left wounded. These figures are almost ludicrously paltry, but it might’ve been some consolation to the wounded and the families of the dead if those who ordered the airstrike and those who carried it out were held responsible.
The Pentagon has promised to discipline those manning the gunboat: They’ve been removed from duty, it announced, and they’ve issued letters of reprimand, which often prove career-ending.
But ultimately, it was decided that all those involved in the airstrike would face only “administrative action.” No criminal charges would be filed; those responsible for the annihilation of the hospital would not be subjected to an independent investigation or hauled up before an international war crimes court.
Mistakes happen — in an environment as fraught with adrenaline and dread as war-torn Afghanistan, soldiers and their commanders occasionally get things wrong. But that’s not to say that such mistakes shouldn’t be investigated by an independent authority, especially given that mistakes made by men in gunships tend to have horrific consequences.
There’s no reason why those responsible for the bombardment shouldn’t be investigated by an outside party. The initiation of an investigation does not constitute a conviction; the very reason we have a judicial process is to determine, by the judgment of an unbiased and balanced jury, whether someone is innocent of a crime, or guilty of it.
Our judicial process exists for more than sentencing purposes. To suggest that the military is capable of conducting such an unbiased and balanced investigation into its own affairs is ridiculous.
I don’t think anyone is arguing that those manning the gunship purposefully targeted a humanitarian NGO
hospital. The shelling was clearly a mistake, a deadly, deadly mistake, but a mistake nonetheless.
It is easy for us as civilians to denounce a military blunder in unequivocal terms when we’ve never experienced the terror of combat, or the bewildering, paralyzing effect fear plays on our decision-making faculties in life-endangering situations.
Yet, the fact that the strike was an absolutely unintentional mistake does not excuse the negligence, the “avoidable human error” cited by the Pentagon’s investigation as a factor in the incident.
An independently conducted investigation would be able to determine exactly what constituted that vague term — “avoidable human error” — and whether those who committed error should face criminal prosecution.
What does “avoidable human error” even mean? How many were involved in the attack, and how many actually were subjected to the administrative discipline promised by the Pentagon?
The U.S. military has a long tradition of protecting its own, and it’s no surprise it’s been so averse to such an investigation.
But too many questions remain unanswered, and at such a critical moment as this one, when U.S. credibility in the Middle East among local populations is dangerously close to evaporating altogether, we need to show the rest of the world that our soldiers and our military commanders are not free to err with impunity, and that they will be held accountable for their mistakes — especially when those mistakes are the result of “avoidable human error.”
Matthew Ormseth is currently a student at Cornell University majoring in English. He seeks to give an honest portrayal of life as both a university student and member of the Millennial generation.