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America's Long History of Hiding Airstrikes

We prefer our death from above, where it's out of sight and out of mind.
An AC-130H gunship. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

An AC-130H gunship. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A United States airstrike hit a Doctors Without Borders trauma center in Afghanistan on Saturday, killing 22 people, including 10 doctors from the medical organization, and injuring dozens more. The ensuing cycle of statements from the U.S. military establishment can best be described as a game of telephone. Depending on whom you ask among U.S. military, what actually happened here is unclear. An American spokesman initially described the attack as "collateral damage" to CBS, while a North Atlantic Treaty Organization coalition official asserted that the hospital had been targeted "as a response against a perceived Taliban threat nearby." Adding to the confusion, General John Campbell claimed the airstrike, launched from an AC-130 fixed-wing aircraft, came in response to a plea from Afghan forces pinned down by enemy gunfire. Chances are, we'll never get the full story.*

Doctors Without Borders, while calling for an independent investigation on Sunday, had a different name for what happened: "war crime."

"The reality is the U.S. dropped those bombs," Doctors Without Borders Director Christopher Stokes said in a statement Monday. "The U.S. hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and [Doctors Without Borders] staff.... There can be no justification for this horrible attack. With such constant discrepancies in the U.S. and Afghan accounts of what happened, the need for a full transparent independent investigation is ever more critical."

Airstrikes are clean and impersonal, our invisible vehicles of justice across the globe.

This isn't atypical: The U.S. has gone to great lengths to mask civilian deaths caused by airstrikes in order to shield the Obama administration from criticism by human rights activists and legal scholars, and to keep Obama relatively popular among American voters, the majority of whom back drone strikes abroad. Even when an airstrike kills an American citizen—which happens a lot—the actual U.S. policy that governs this sort of military action only comes out in fits and starts. "What's also disturbing is that the Obama administration continues to launder the details of its drone policy and programs through the media to avoid accountability," wrote the Freedom of the Press Center's Trevor Timm. "The reporting is all based on leaks that are—in the government's interpretation of the law—illegal, but which it's clearly happy to overlook."

It's a particular form of secrecy extending from a particular form of executive power that favors death from above over all else. Equipped with the world's leading drone apparatus and a legally sanctioned "kill list" of suspected terrorists, President Obama truly is America's first drone president. The Obama administration has pioneered the aggressive and surgical use of drone strikes. Some estimates put the total number of covert drone strikes ordered by the Obama administration in Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Yemen at more than 600 in the last decade, with more than 400 ordered on the terror-rich tribal areas of Pakistan. It's no surprise, really: After inheriting two wars and a geopolitical landscape as turbulent as ever, the Obama administration has been able to continue the War on Terror with lethal precision, without running the risk of worrying war-weary voters at home. Airstrikes, when carried out by drones or fixed-wing aircraft, are clean and impersonal, our invisible vehicles of justice across the globe. Hell, even Apple will keep independent apps tracking drone strikes out of the app store because such programs represent "objectionable content," despite the presence of more unseemly apps. "Out of sight, out of mind" is the mantra of the drone-friendly public.

While American airstrikes are quite lethal, they're not very precise; incidents like this past weekend's hospital bombing occur all too often. When President Obama declared in 2013 that "there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured" before he ordered a drone attack, an Open Society study found evidence of lower standards in Yemen attacks, where drone strikes killed, among others, a pregnant woman and many children. Of the estimated 5,800 killed by covert drone strikes across the Middle East since 2004, around 1,452 were civilians. The U.S.-led coalition's bombing of Islamic State targets, described as the "most precise ever" by military officials to the Guardian, likely killed 495 "non-combatants" in 52 airstrikes, according to independent monitoring group Airwars (although the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights pegs that estimate at around 162 civilians). In 2014, a U.S. drone strike killed 14 people on their way to a wedding; the government paid their families around $1 million to let it go. Manned airstrikes are not exempt from this logic.

The airstrike is, in a sense, the purest form of war: There are no soldiers coming home on oak boxes (unless a plane is shot down, hence the reliance on drones), no wounded veterans shell-shocked from foreign battlefields. But its political appeal is premised almost entirely on drones' being the best possible form of war—a means to kill terrorists without sending our men and women in uniform abroad to die. But airstrikes don't just come with collateral damage; as the Obama administration's drone program has shown us, it comes with an opaque, byzantine structure of accountability that makes it all but impossible for the families of civilian victims—let alone the American public—to make an informed decision about the way the Obama administration wages war in their name.

The American government has a long history of killing civilians and trying to brush off responsibility. It's unlikely that Doctors Without Borders, one of the toughest organizations in the world, will let them get away with it.


*UPDATE — October 6, 2015: This article initially attributed the bombing to a drone strike, when it was, in fact, caused by a fixed-wing aircraft.