Terry H. Schwadron
Nov. 18, 2021
Selective censorship of the news by Right-leaning publications or by viewers of those outlets who reject news from other journals is not serving us.
There’s been no noticeable reaction to an extraordinary, extremely well-done, months-long, investigative report in The New York Times over the weekend that the U.S. government hid a 2019 airstrike that killed dozens of civilians in Syria in the waning days of the Islamic caliphate.
The attacks dropping a 500-pound bomb, followed by a gigantic 2,000-pound bomb, killing at least 60 civilians, including women and children, had been reported at the time by military officers involved, but was halted before reaching the top of the military chain of command and buried it.
Lots of “mainstream” news outlets picked up on the Times investigation, but you wouldn’t know any about it from Fox News, Breitbart, Newsmax, OANN or others. They simply didn’t run it as news.
Maybe it was because it happened while Donald Trump was still president, or maybe the simple declaration from the Pentagon on Saturday that the air attacks were “justified,” or lax coverage by the weekend news crew. But given the attention to all-things-Afghanistan-withdrawal as a military and moral outrage being put at Joe Biden’s doorstep, it is a little surprising — and highly disappointing.
The problem here is that for whatever reasons, the military stopped any investigating at some point of an attack that had all the earmarks of a war crime.
Hmm. Maybe this is critical military theory at work, in which we care more about image than about systemic effects and deaths.
According to the report, which was replete with sourcing by name and rank, misgivings about a bad error in combat judgment started airing the U.S. military’s Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar even as uniformed personnel were watching the live drone footage on March 18, 2019.
As The Times reported, an Air Force “legal officer flagged the strike as a possible war crime that required an investigation. But at nearly every step, the military made moves that concealed the catastrophic strike. The death toll was downplayed. Reports were delayed, sanitized, and classified. United States-led coalition forces bulldozed the blast site. And top leaders were not notified.”
It was one of the largest civilian casualty incidents of the war against the Islamic State, but it has never been publicly acknowledged by the U.S. military. A Defense Department inspector general inquiry issued findings that were stalled and stripped of any mention of the strike.
Worse, the report made clear that the way the military avoided questions was to have declared the attacks necessary under a state of threat, a status that basically widens the military options in combat.
In its statement, Central Command acknowledged that 80 people were killed in the strikes including 16 Islamic State fighters and four civilians, adding that it was unclear if the other 60 people were civilians, partly because women and children could have been combatants. The military said the strikes were “legitimate self-defense,” proportional and that “appropriate steps were taken to rule out the presence of civilians.”
When Do We Explain?
By contrast, the mistaken targeting of a house in Kabul killing 10, including children, amid the confusion of the week of withdrawal from Afghanistan, drew tons of coverage, congressional questioning, and special, painful admissions from the top Pentagon brass.
In particular, the Afghan issues are constant political fodder for Republican opponents of the Joe Biden administration. Even Democrats are pretty silent.
So far, there has been nothing about these disclosures, which look a lot like targeting a crowd heavy with women and children fleeing the caliphate. Maybe we don’t care if these civilians were killed, because of who they were, or that fleeing fighters were mixed among them. Maybe we need to think anew about military conflicts where we cannot determine who is our enemy.
But for sure, we should know about the attack. To that degree, hard work at The Times has done the rest of us a service; the decision by partisan opponents of the current president to ignore these deaths in protection of The Former Guy is not serving any public good.
The political Right would say that “leftist” mainstream news organizations are failing to disclose information about Hunter Biden’s laptop or what isn’t true in the Christopher Steele dossier or enough about immigration problems, but those topics have been covered by the very institutions being targeted for criticism.
Who is served by ignoring news that may show our military capable of error?