It is hard to stomach any attempted sincerity at an apology that results from coercion— but here we are.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama personally gave what’s been calleda ‘rare’ apology to the head of Médecins Sans Frontières [MSF] — Doctors Without Borders. The apology came following a horrific U.S. airstrike on a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan which claimed the lives of at least 22 people, of whom 12 were medical staffers and 10 were patients. One MSF nurse described the U.S. airstrike’s ensuing horror with scenes of ‘patients burning in their beds’.
The apology comes after days of extremely damning publicity for the United States, which has re-initiated airstrikes against the Taliban, following the group’s takeover of the city of Kunduz from which it had been pushed outback in 2001. These renewed attacks come less than a year after the Obama administration declared an end to military combat in Afghanistan— ending, formally, the longest war in U.S. history.
Renewed military operations aside, this ‘rare apology’ by the U.S. government is a painful reminder of exactly what it takes to get some semblance of recognition of wrong-doing, particularly (but not limited to) outside the borders of the country and in the so-called War on Terror.
The bombing of the Kunduz MSF hospital is not the first — nor the last — attack against innocent civilians under the guise of rooting out “terrorists”.
In the realest terms the only reason the United States has issued an apology to MSF, which has called the attack a ‘war crime’, is because a French-based international organization with extensive reach, respect and notoriety was attacked. And while the apology is not only absolutely mandatory as is a thorough investigation, compensation for victims and that those involved are held accountable, so is the acceptance that were MSF a locally-based Afghan charity/humanitarian organization there would have not been an apology.
There would have been no apology if it were an Afghan family home; a wedding convoy or a small school.
There’d be no recognition of a “mistake”.
There’d be limited media coverage and any outrage would fade with the news cycle.
We would just be told that ‘suspected militants’ or ‘terrorists’ were believed to be inside the hospital — as the Afghan government claimed with the MSF attack. And we wouldn’t know better because a local Afghan organization or a family or a small school or village wouldn’t have the same far-reaching platform an international organization like MSF has.
We wouldn’t know because one the truths of the past fourteen years, in particular, has been that the War on Terror has eaten alive, burned and beheaded many innocent lives in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen. Innocent lives who’ve been clustered together under the dehumanizing doublespeak of ‘collateral damage’ and, often, just nameless ‘militants’ who we believe to be just that despite being given no evidence; despite there be no process of juridical justice that we claim so sacrosanct at home.
But accountability, apologies and the administration of justice are a far cry when the United States government rarely even acknowledges the death of innocent civilians abroad.
There have been, of course, exceptions — but the point of exceptions is that they lack the attribute of being, well, the norm; the rule.
Whether drone strikes in northern Pakistan, in Yemen, Somalia and/or airstrikes in Iraq, in Syria or Afghanistan, civilian deaths remain blurry. Civilians cease to be civilians; they become criminalized by virtue of their skin color, their faith, their birth place and their location — all in the name of some greater good that doesn’t include the good of the victims.
An iconic image of the early years of the Iraq War was that of 5-year old Samar Hassan, who lay screaming in her blood-soaked dress amidst a group of U.S. soldiers after her parents had been shot dead in their family car at a checkpoint while on their way back home, in 2005. Her parents were two of countless Iraqi civilians killed at U.S checkpoints, on roads and in home raids by U.S. and coalition soldiers— deaths the U.S. government rarely, if ever, acknowledged publicly. The Guardian’s 2010 reporting of the leakedIraq War Logs painted a gruesome picture of the trigger-happy impunity with which Iraqi life was taken.
There was also the now emblematic case of the Yemeni wedding convoy that was struck by a U.S. drone strike on December 12th, 2013. Following the attack, Yemeni officials claimed at least ‘14 innocent civilians were killed, 22 injured and that 9 were in critical condition.’ The United States governmentdenied that any innocent civilians had been killed. Instead, the government claimed that it had actually killed militants associated with their intended target: an Al Qaeda militant, Shawqi Ali Ahmed al Badani.
Earlier that year, in September, villagers in the Eastern province of Kunar, Afghanistan, claimed that 14 civilians had been killed in a U.S drone strike. , NATO’s International Security Assistance Force initially maintained that “10 enemy forces” had been killed in the strike.
The province’s governor told Reuters that “four women, four children, two drivers, a merchant and three suspected (insurgents) were killed.”
A little closer to home, this past week Yale Associate Professor of American Studies Zareena Grewal wrote in the New York Times of how a U.S. drone strike (presumably intended for the Islamic State) in Mosul, Iraq killed four members of her husband’s family, injuring others. According to a comment made by Grewal on her personal Facebook page, U.S. media and the Pentagon refused to even acknowledge the attack until the New York Times editor went to the Pentagon and let them know her piece was being published.
Grewal and her family were then told that the government would look into the “credibility” of the “civilian casualty allegation” before deciding to take any further action, which may include a formal investigation.
Grewal painfully notes that while the deaths of Iraqi civilians have been and continued to be referred to as ‘civilian casualties’, her own loved ones had “not even earned that ghastly euphemism.”
These are merely but four of the innumerable accounts of civilian deaths across the vast terrain of fourteen years of the U.S’ War on Terror — deaths we both may have read about in passing in a headline and deaths we will never hear or read about. And this period of time is certainly not the first, and assuredly not the last, time where the targeting of civilians has been an essential part of fighting the battle. Even when just a “mistake”.
So, the President can apologize, rightfully, to MSF for the Kunduz attack.
But we can, also rightfully, recognize how empty those words are.