An International Conscience

“The Pentagon said on Saturday that it would make ‘condolence payments’ to the survivors of the American airstrike earlier this month on a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz, Afghanistan, as well as to the next of kin of those who died in the attack.”

Such a small piece of news, reported a few days ago by the New York Times. I’m not sure if anything could make me feel more ashamed of being an American.

Turns out the basic payout for a dead civilian in one of our war zones is . . . brace yourself . . . $2,500. That’s the sum we’ve been quietly doling out for quite a few years now. Conscience money. It’s remarkably cheap, considering that the bombs that took them out may have cost, oh, half a million dollars each.

If we valued human life, we would never go to war. Everybody knows this. It’s the biggest open secret out there, buried under endless public relations blather and — since the bombing of the hospital in Kunduz on Oct. 3, and the killing of 22 staff members and patients — a sort of international legalese.

Is it “really” a war crime? Simply asking the question implies that the law has a certain objective reality.

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“The mere fact that civilians are killed, that a hospital is damaged, doesn’t automatically mean that there has been a war crime,” according to John Bellinger, a former legal adviser to the State Department, as quoted last week by National Public Radio. “It only becomes a war crime if it is shown that the target was intentionally attacked.”

American Special Forces in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, January 1, 2014. (Photo: US Army/Sergeant Bertha A. Flores) American Special Forces in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, January 1, 2014. (Photo: US Army/Sergeant Bertha A. Flores)

Another legal expert in the same story, a professor of international law, pointed out: “The burden would be on the prosecution to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that this was an attack willfully undertaken in the knowledge that it was an object entitled to protection. That is a very, very high hurdle.”

What’s given, in other words, is that air strikes are inevitable and without context: simply part of life. They happen all the time. What can you do? Remarkably, the mainstream discussion goes no deeper than this, leaving the world’s combat zones essentially unprotected by anything resembling an international conscience.

Yet . . . why the condolence money? Why the insistence that there be no independent, transparent investigation of the air strike, or any other high-profile instance of collateral carnage? Apparently there’s something the U.S., or any other country, can’t defend itself against with high-tech weaponry. It can’t defend itself against guilt. I find this fascinating. We can drop bombs and wreak enormous havoc — we can develop and test generation after generation of nuclear weapons and endanger the entire planet — but we can’t be wrong.

All of which tells me that a conscience does lurk within our collective humanity and awaits emergence on the international stage, and the world’s warmongers live in fear of it. Consider:

“Thus Doctors Without Borders calls for an independent investigation by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, a body that was actually created in 1991 to investigate violations of international humanitarian law but has never been activated,”Medea Benjamin wrote recently at Common Dreams. “Dr. Joanne Liu, president of Doctors Without Borders, says ‘the tool exists, and it is time it is activated.’ The Commission has said it is ready to undertake an investigation, but it can only open an inquiry with the consent of the international community.”

That consent is still in bondage. Meanwhile, regarding whether the strike on the Kunduz hospital was a war crime, I feel compelled to push the argument of the experts beyond a simplistic need for proof of intent. Did we attack the hospital on purpose, or was it just a tragic mistake? Such obsessive short-sightedness overlooks a slightly larger question. Why are we in Afghanistan in the first place? Shouldn’t that be what’s on trial?

In a brilliant analysis of the two primary U.S. quagmires of the 21st century — Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom — Andrew Bacevich writes at TomDispatch:

“In Washington, freedom has become a euphemism for dominion. Spreading freedom means positioning the United States to call the shots. Seen in this context, Washington’s expected victories in both Afghanistan and Iraq were meant to affirm and broaden its preeminence by incorporating large parts of the Islamic world into the American imperium. They would benefit, of course, but to an even greater extent, so would we.”

The template was Operation Desert Storm, the 1991 crushing of Iraq, which was so militarily successful, Bacevich pointed out, that President George H.W. Bush declared, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”

“In short, the Pentagon now had war figured out,” Bacevich went on. “Victory had become a foregone conclusion. As it happened, this self-congratulatory evaluation left U.S. troops ill-prepared for the difficulties awaiting them after 9/11 when interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq departed from the expected script, which posited short wars by a force beyond compare ending in decisive victories. What the troops got were two very long wars with no decision whatsoever. It was Vietnam on a smaller scale all over again — times two.”

And 14 years into the longest of these wars, the U.S. manages to take out a hospital and kill 22 people; it then assuages its guilt with an apology and pocket change. Nothing personal, guys. Mistakes were made.

How deep would an independent investigation dare to go into this reckless, globally toxic war? How big a war crime would it uncover?

Originally published: Robert C. Koehler (Common Dreams)

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is now available. Contact him at or visit his website at


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