Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is calling for an investigation into the March 18, 2019, U.S. airstrikes in Baghuz, Syria, after revelations by The New York Times that they killed dozens of women and children. Three 500-pound bombs were dropped on civilians gathered near the Islamic State’s last entrenchment in eastern Syria.
The U.S. command acknowledged the casualties from the strike (80 victims) only after the Times reported it. The U.S. military had tried every means to cover up the crime. Bulldozers buried the bodies of women and children at the site of the strike. The public report of the Pentagon’s inspector general was censored. And a whistleblower who tried to pass on evidence of the atrocity to Congress was removed from office.
War Means War
U.S. Central Command in Qatar said the airstrikes were justified because women and children of Islamic State group fighters have — at times — taken up arms, adding that “no formal war crime notification, criminal investigation or disciplinary action was warranted.”
This case shows the systemic impunity that has prevailed at the highest levels of the military hierarchy for decades. This is the norm when the United States is at war. The use of lethal force by the Pentagon is not only justified when its soldiers are fired upon, but is authorized if the Americans simply believe that the enemy is displaying “hostile intent.” In 2009, an overwhelming, bipartisan majority in Congress expanded the definition of human shields. Being in close proximity to a terrorist is enough to qualify a civilian as a human shield and thus allow for their elimination.
It is not surprising that the Pentagon thought it could get away with the Baghuz massacre. U.S. war crimes do not mobilize much public opinion, and thus elicit almost no negative reaction from elected officials. An email obtained by The New York Times revealed that the Pentagon only initiated a war crimes investigation when there was a high potential for media attention, or when images of the atrocity could cause an outcry in the victim country or internationally.
Democrats or Republicans, Same Story
Republicans have repeatedly defended civilian killings by U.S. forces in the name of fighting terrorism. For the same reason, Democrats in Congress have justified Israeli bombings of civilian targets in Gaza.
Joe Biden continues with Donald Trump’s foreign policy, which he has regularly condemned; his support for Israel is also unconditional. He arms the Saudi and Emirati forces that have killed tens of thousands of civilians in airstrikes in Yemen.
U.S. administrations, both Democratic and Republican, put strategic considerations ahead of human rights. Unfortunately, this is true of most of the world’s leaders.