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October 10, 2015

Surgical Strike

The US bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan is just one symptom of
comprehensive military failure

By George Monbiot


“The strike may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility.” This
is how an anonymous Nato spokesperson described Saturday’s disaster in
Afghanistan. Let’s translate it into English. “We bombed a hospital, killing 22 people.”
But people, hospital and bomb, let alone we: all such words are banned from Nato’s
lexicon. Its press officers are trained to speak no recognisable human language.

The effort is to create distance: distance from responsibility; distance from
consequences; distance above all from the humanity of those who were killed. They
do not merit even a concrete noun. Whatever you do, do not create pictures in the

Collateral damage and “nearby” also suggest that the destruction of the hospital in
Kunduz was a side-effect of an attack on another target. But the hospital, run by
Médecins Sans Frontières, was the sole target of this bombing raid, by a US plane
that returned repeatedly to the scene, dropping more ordinance on a building from
which staff and patients were trying to escape. Curiously, on this occasion Nato did
not use that other great euphemism of modern warfare, the surgical strike – though it
would for once have been appropriate.

Shoot first, suppress the questions later. The lies and euphemisms add insult to the
crime. Nato’s apparent indifference to life and truth could not fail to infuriate, perhaps
to radicalise, people who are currently uninvolved in conflict in Afghanistan.

Barack Obama’s promise of an internal investigation (rather than the independent
inquiry Médecins Sans Frontières has requested) is as good as the US response is
likely to get. By comparison to both his predecessors and his possible successors
(including Hillary Clinton), Obama is a model of restraint and candour. Yet his armed
forces still scatter bombs like confetti.

There are hardly any circumstances when bombs, whether delivered from planes or
drones,  by the US, UK, Russia, Israel, Saudi Arabia or any others, improve a
situation, rather than exacerbating it. This is not to say that there is never an
argument for aerial war; but that if such a step is to be contemplated, the
consequences must be examined more carefully than anything else a government
does. Yet every month we see reports of airstrikes that appear reckless and impulsive.

Of course the Taliban, Isis and Al Qaeda not only kill civilians carelessly, but also
murder them deliberately. But this surely strengthens, rather than weakens, the need
for a demonstration of moral difference.

An analysis published last year by the human rights group Reprieve revealed that
attempts by United States forces to blow up 41 men with drone strikes killed 1,147
people. Many were children. Some of the targets remain unharmed, while repeated
attempts to kill them have left a trail of shattered bodies and shattered lives.

Because the US still does not do body counts, or not in public at any rate, the great
majority of such deaths are likely to be unknown to us. As the analyst Paul Rogers
points out, the US Air Force dropped 1800 bombs while helping Kurdish fighters to
wrest the town of Kobane in northern Syria from Isis. It used 200 kg bombs to take out
single motorbikes. Of the civilian population killed in this firestorm, we know almost
nothing, but it does not appear to have been the cause of much grief or even
reflection. An air force major involved in the bombing enthused that “to be part of
something, to go out and stomp those guys out, it was completely overwhelming and
exciting”. Sometimes this professed battle for civilisation looks more like a clash of

Every misdirected bomb, every brutal night raid, every non-combatant killed, every lie
and denial and minimisation is a recruitment poster for those with whom the US is at
war. For this reason and many others its wars appears to be failing on most fronts.
The Taliban is resurgent. Isis, far from being beaten or contained, is growing and
spreading: into North Africa, across the Middle East, and in the Caucasus (a
development that Putin’s intervention in Syria will only encourage). The more money
and munitions the West pours into Syria and Iraq, the stronger the insurgents appear
to become. And if, somehow, the US and its allies did succeed, victory over Isis would
strengthen the Assad regime, which has killed and displaced even greater numbers.
What exactly are the aims here?

By invading Iraq in 2003, destroying its government and infrastructure, dismantling
the army and detaining thousands of former soldiers, the US, with Britain’s help,
created Isis. Through bombing, it arguably helps to sustain the movement. Everything
it touches now turns to dust, either pulverised directly by its drones and bombers, or
destroyed through blowback in the political vacuums it creates.

There are no simple solutions to the chaos and complexities Western firepower has
helped to unleash, though a good start would be to stop making them worse. But a
vast intelligence and military establishment that no president since Carter has sought
to control, the tremendous profits to be made by weapons companies and military
contractors, portrayals of these conflicts in the media that serve only to confuse and
bamboozle: all help to ensure that armed escalation, however pointless and counter-
productive, appears unstoppable. Russia’s involvement in Syria is likely to provoke
still greater follies.

There are no clear objectives in these wars, or if there are, they shift from month to
month. There is no obvious picture of what victory looks like or how it might be
achieved. Twelve years into the conflict in Iraq, 14 years into the fighting in
Afghanistan, after repeated announcements of victory or withdrawal, military action
appears only to have replaced the old forms of brutality and chaos with new ones.
And yet it continues. War appears to have become an end in itself.

So here comes the UK government, first operating covertly, against the expressed will
of parliament, now presenting the authorisation of its bombing in Syria as a test of
manhood. Always clear in his parliamentary strategy, never clear in his military
strategy, David Cameron seeks to join another failed intervention that is likely only to
enhance the spread of terrorism.

Astonishing advances in technology, in military organisation and deployment: all these
have made bombing much easier than it used to be. And the consequences harder to