Mariupol, Kunduz, and the Neglected Legacy of U.S. War Crimes

by Samuel B. Parker



Earlier this month, the Russian Air Force executed an airstrike against a pediatric hospital and maternity ward in the city of Mariupol, Ukraine. The attack was a coordinated and deliberate act of aggression against an unprotected civilian population during a ceasefire: a war crime. While the exact number of casualties is not yet (and may never be) clearly determined, at least three people were killed in the blast.


For some, the assault was eerily reminiscent of another episode that transpired seven years earlier.


On October 3rd, 2015, the pilots of a U.S. AC-130U gunship, acting on orders from their superiors in the Pentagon under President Barack Obama, opened fire on an installation that was later revealed to be the Kunduz Trauma Center, a Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) hospital providing free medical care for the injured in the midst of an active war zone in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Recounting the hour-long onslaught, members of Doctors Without Borders remarked that "patients burned in their beds, [and] ... staff were decapitated or lost limbs. Others were shot from the air while they fled the burning building." Forty-two staff and patients died in the barrage, and the hospital was completely demolished.


A war crime.


Commentators have drawn a number of legitimate and striking parallels between these two events. In the more recent case in Mariupol, the Russian government, after first denying responsibility, insisted that the medical facility had been compromised by radical Ukrainian militia, and maintained that all noncombatants had been warned of the impending airstrike and thus afforded the opportunity to evacuate beforehand. Similarly, after the United States destroyed the Kunduz Hospital and murdered several dozen people inside, U.S. officials initially claimed without substantiation that the building was occupied by Taliban operatives and described the airstike as a defensive maneuver; they later pivoted to blame the Afghan Army for allegedly requesting the airstrike.


In reality, none of the victims in either Mariupol or Kunduz were ever alerted to the imminent bombardment and, in both scenarios, the belligerent parties had a comprehensive awareness of the actual nature, purpose, and function of the targets. They chose to strike anyway.


Why is this incident in Kunduz relevant in the context of the incident in Mariupol? Because it serves as an important reminder: while the customary assumptions of American culture and society often promote the idea that the United States is a responsible, accountable, and benevolent international actor that works diligently to secure peace, stability, and justice on behalf of the vulnerable and oppressed across the globe, the truth is often profoundly—jarringly—different.


President Vladimir Putin is a war criminal, and ought to be regarded and condemned as such. But by any consistent standard, President Obama and many of his predecessors are also war criminals, and the violations of human rights perpetrated by the United States are no less disturbing, no less deplorable, no less damning than the atrocities committed by anyone else. No special immunity exists for American leaders and troops; no "exceptionalism" or "manifest destiny" can absolve a nation that routinely spurns the rules of engagement and the laws of war.


The United States has both the power and potential to represent an overwhelming force for good in the world. It seldom, if ever, succeeds in doing so. As the new contest for Eastern Europe rages in Ukraine, Americans must acknowledge that dangerous American hegemony cannot justify unchecked and unanswerable violence. They must recognize that the documented role that the United States has played in the wanton destruction of human life has undermined its institutional credibility, damaged its international reputation, and entirely subverted its position as a virtuous and trustworthy moral authority.


The United States ostensibly sought to protect the people of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and so many others in past conflicts. In the end, the U.S. government slaughtered Korean, Vietnamese, Afghan, and Iraqi civilians in service of this supposed goal. Americans cannot allow a recurrence of this horrifying pattern. As influential people across a wide political spectrum continue to suggest or demand direct American intervention in the Russo-Ukrainian War in the months to come, remember: U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts has had utterly devastating consequences for innocent men, women, and children almost every time. NATO enforcement of a no-fly zone over Ukraine and other proposed measures would inexorably lead to open war between the United States and Russia and, if history is any indication, U.S. involvement in open war only jeopardizes the very people it purports to defend.

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