Why Bombing a Hospital Is a War Crime

“We tried to take a look into one of the burning buildings. I cannot describe what was inside. There are no words for how terrible it was. In the Intensive Care Unit six patients were burning in their beds.”

So said Lajos Zoltan Jecs, a nurse at the hospital the U.S. bombed in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 22 people: doctors, staff, and patients (including three children). This image is now spiraling through the Internet and across the global consciousness.

The hospital was not “collateral damage”; it was deliberately targeted, deliberately destroyed, in multiple bombing runs that lasted at least half an hour. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), which operated the hospital, contacted its sources in the U.S. government immediately, pleading for the attack to stop — to no avail. The bombing continued until the hospital, with more than 180 occupants, was destroyed.

And we’re left with the aftermath of a mass murderer spree, except the killer isn’t dead or hogtied and shoved into a police wagon. The killer gives a press conference.

Oh same old, same old!

The killer offers condolences, promises to investigate itself. “If errors were committed, we will acknowledge them,” said Gen. John Campbell, commander of American forces in Afghanistan. The killer, as usual, waves aside any real responsibility.

But this time, maybe… maybe… something is different. The organization that ran the demolished hospital, as Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, is a Western-based international humanitarian association with media credibility and powerful support outside the Third World. It’s not like we’ve simply bombed another wedding party or killed a few more women and children in an outlying village. On this occasion, those who have suffered also have a global voice.

Jecs’ words cry out from the MSF website: “It was crazy,” he said. “We had to organize a mass casualty plan in the office, seeing which doctors were alive and available to help. We did an urgent surgery for one of our doctors. Unfortunately, he died there on the office table. We did our best, but it wasn’t enough.”

And the world, or a sizable piece of it, can put itself inside the burning, deliberately bombed hospital. And the U.S. is accused of committing a war crime.

I’ve been pondering those words ever since they entered the conversation: pondering their moral weight, their heart-stopping, accusatory coldness. My initial reaction was, well, of course, it’s a war crime. Indeed, the two words, “war” and “crime,” ought to be inextricably linked. It’s impossible to wage war — especially the way a superpower wages war, with so many weapons of mass destruction at the ready — without violating conventional moral strictures, without killing civilians in mind-numbing numbers, with virtually every action.

So why is this different? Bombing a hospital, especially with deliberate intent — apparently at the behest of the Afghan government, which has hated the hospital for treating the injured regardless what side they’re on — is depraved and utterly reckless. Not only did the U.S. kill patients and staff members from all over the world, who were working there because of a commitment to give help to those in harm’s way, but it destroyed one of the few medical centers in a city with a population of more than 300,000.

All of this clearly makes the act a crime by any moral standard, but in point of fact, we’ve been doing this for so long and causing so much horrific damage — in the long term as well as the short term, considering, for instance, the environmental consequences wrought by the use of depleted uranium missiles and bombs — that one more act of carnage, 22 more murdered civilians, hardly seems more “criminal” than all that happened throughout the Middle East before the Oct. 3 bombing.

Nevertheless, I felt a need, in my heart and in our collective heart, to address the bombing’s strategists and apologists with moral directness, of the sort my friend Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, a long-time antiwar activist, recently described:

“Before the 2003 Shock and Awe bombing in Iraq,” she wrote, “a group of activists living in Baghdad would regularly go to city sites that were crucial for maintaining health and well-being in Baghdad, such as hospitals, electrical facilities, water purification plants, and schools, and string large vinyl banners between the trees outside these buildings which read: ‘To Bomb This Site Would Be A War Crime.’ We encouraged people in U.S. cities to do the same, trying to build empathy for people trapped in Iraq, anticipating a terrible aerial bombing.”

She encouraged doing this again and, in fact, a public demonstration was held in front of Stroger Hospital, Chicago’s enormous county hospital, protesting the Kunduz bombing. Suddenly I imagined Americans standing in front of every hospital in the country, proclaiming that there’s no difference between bombing a hospital in Afghanistan and bombing one here.

And that’s when I realized the significance of calling the bombing a war crime. Doing so attempts to bring both moral and legal force to bear on what was done and interrupts the post-war-crime press conference. Indeed, the act creates — births — this force: an international conscience.

Because the outrage is global, the time is ripe. To call the bombing of the Kunduz hospital a war crime and act on what must happen because this is the case – to demand reparations, healing and a public rethinking of the aims of this war – is, perhaps, the most effective way people have, at this juncture of human history, to address war itself, to stand up to its powerful perpetrators and put a halt to their uncontrolled behavior.


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Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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