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US Mistakes Provide Perspective on the WCK Tragedy

In the dark of night in an active war zone, a military aircraft targets humanitarian aid workers. Their roof is clearly marked with their organization’s internationally-recognized name. They have coordinated their location carefully with all parties. Despite taking every conceivable precaution to ensure their location is known and protected, they are nevertheless attacked. Numerous innocent aid workers, who had bravely risked their lives to help those suffering from the war, are killed.

This sounds like the recent tragedy in which Israeli forces mistakenly killed seven aid workers in a World Central Kitchen convoy.  But it also describes an incident on October 3, 2015 in which a United States Air Force AC-130 gunship shelled a Doctors Without Borders trauma hospital in Konduz, Afghanistan.  The scenarios are eerily similar.  Just as the WCK vehicles had the organization’s name and logo on their roofs, the Doctors Without Borders hospital had a brightly-lit sign on its roof reading “Médecins Sans Frontièrs,” the group’s well-known French name.  Just like the WCK convoy, Doctors Without Borders had carefully coordinated its work with the relevant authorities, informing the United States Department of Defense and the United States army in Kabul of its GPS coordinates, both of which had confirmed receipt of the information.

Despite all these precautions, due to a terrible series of human errors, a United States gunship targeted the hospital that night and shelled it relentlessly.  At least 42 people were killed, including 24 patients, 14 staff, and 4 caretakers.  Another 37 people were injured.  Patients were burned alive in their beds.  Doctors Without Borders medical staff were decapitated or lost limbs.  Some were shot from the air while they fled the burning building.  Doctors Without Borders desperately called United States military authorities, begging them to stop the attack, but the shelling continued for an hour until the main hospital building was completely destroyed.

The President of the United States at the time was Barack Obama.  The Vice President of the United States was Joe Biden.  Notwithstanding the loss of innocent life, the United States mission in Afghanistan continued throughout the remainder of their term and beyond.

More recently, on August 29, 2021, just days before withdrawing the last American troops from Afghanistan, President Biden himself ordered a drone strike in Kabul that killed 10 civilians, including an aid worker and seven children.  That incident too is eerily similar to the WCK tragedy in an important respect.  In the case of WCK, Israeli forces believed the convoy included a terrorist based on footage showing what appeared to be a weapon slung over his shoulder that likely was just a bag; in the case of the Kabul strike, the United States military believed the aid worker’s car contained bombs, which likely were nothing but water cannisters.

That the United States military has repeatedly made the same mistakes as the IDF does not excuse what happened to the WCK convoy.  It does, however, underscore a critical and inescapable fact about war.  Not only does war inevitably harm non-combatants when military targets are attacked (some harm to non-combatants in those situations is indisputably permitted by the laws of war, within limits)—war also inevitably results in additional harm to non-combatants due to plain old human error.  Mistakes, including grave and devastating mistakes, are simply impossible to avoid.  Lessons must be learned, and processes must be improved, but no army—not even careful Western armies like those of Israel and the United States—can completely eradicate human error that kills civilians.  Perhaps the best evidence of this is that so-called “friendly fire” is consistently responsible for about 20% of military deaths in modern warfare—a fate Israel has not been spared in Gaza.  Mistaken civilian casualties are unsurprising when armies cannot even avoid mistakenly killing their own soldiers.

What we should understand from the inevitability of human error is that such mistakes cannot be allowed to impede the progress of a just war.  Otherwise, no nation could ever defend itself using military force.  We can only hope that President Biden, in reflecting on his own experience, will appreciate this and will continue to provide Israel with the full support of the United States as Israel fights for its life, and the lives of the hostages, against a cruel and despicable enemy.

About the Author
Michael Rader is an attorney who focuses on patent and intellectual property litigation. Mike serves on the Board of Directors of American Friends of Leket Israel (which supports Israel’s National Food Rescue Organization, Leket Israel) and on the Board of Directors of Tzohar Israel Foundation (which supports Israel’s leading Modern Orthodox rabbinic organization, Tzohar). He and his family reside in the New York area.
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