US Air Strikes on Hospitals

Recently I commented on a list of eleven US air attacks on civilian targets.  The purpose of the exercise was to gain insight into the likelihood that the strike on the MSF hospital in Kunduz was intentional, i.e., done with knowledge that the facility was a hospital.

A weakness of using these eleven incidents for this purpose is that none of them were actually attacks on hospitals.  However, shortly after publishing my article friends made me aware of some hospital strikes.

The incidents are below.  As before, I give my subjective judgments of the probabilities the attacks were intentional.  These are on a scale from 0 to 1 where 0 means definitely unintentional and 1 means definitely intentional.

Falluja, November 2004  –  0.4

This article and this article describe a newly built hospital reduced to rubble at the beginning of the second siege of Falluja in November 2004.  The information is sketchy but it appears that many on the US side believed that Falluja hospitals had inflated civilian casualty figures during the first siege.  So there was a tendency to view hospitals as connected to the enemy camp.

There had also been a raid by Iraqi commandos on a different hospital in Falluja.  This suggests a climate of disrespect for hospitals. On the other hand, this hospital was raided rather than bombed so there doesn’t seem to have been a general policy of bombing hospitals.

Moreover, civilians were told to leave Falluja prior to the siege.  After this the US appears to have regarded remaining people as presumptively legitimate targets.  Injured fighters tend to flow toward hospitals, providing a further reason why they could be targeted.

So it seems plausible to me that the US could have viewed a hospital in Falluja at this time as a target.

Rutbah, Iraq, March 2003  –  0.05

This entry is in the Iraq Body Count database.  There is little to go on here other than the fact that it was during the “shock and awe” stage of the invasion where a lot of things were happening really fast.   Also, it’s a children’s hospital which means there would have been little reason to suspect that insurgents were being treated there.

This looks unintentional to me.

Mogadishu, Somalia, June 1993  –  0.05

This article by Alex de Wall is extremely interesting but, again, the information is sketchy.  Unfortunately, there was never an investigation so there is little hope that we will learn more about it.  But I can’t see a reason to suspect that the attack was intentional.

Looking at these incidents makes me somewhat more inclined than I was before to think that the attack on the MSF hospital was intentional.  I think that air powers must feel a constant temptation to attack hospitals, given that they may contain fighters.

Of course, the policy of MSF is, correctly, to treat anyone who needs medical attention regardless of whether or not that person is a fighter.  This is the right policy for them to have but I’m not sure it’s getting the respect it deserves.


Scoring US Attacks on Civilian Facilities

This is a follow up to my article about the attack on the MSF hospital in Kunduz that I just published on

To support the analysis I went through every US attack on civilian facilities listed in this article and scored them for how strong I judge the evidence to be that they were intentional attacks.

There is huge scope for debate here.  The only certainty is that other people evaluating these incidents will form different judgements than I have.  I would love to hear criticism from readers and will gladly modify my judgements in response to good arguments.

The first step in the direction of this discussion is to lay bare my judgements so I provide these below in the order the incidents appear in the article by Jon Schwartz.

Bear in mind that “intentional” means that the attackers knew they were hitting a civilian facility.

A score of “0” means I am certain an attack was unintentional.  A score of 1 means I am certain it was intentional.  (I never actually use 0 or 1 because I’m never that certain.)

Here they are:

Baby milk factory – 0.01

It looks quite clear to me that the attackers thought it was biological weapons facility.  (This perception appears to be wrong.)

Air raid shelter  – 0.05

The US insists it was a command centre.  (This appears to be wrong.)

Sudan pharmaceutical factory – 0.01

The US thought it was an Al Qaeda chemical weapons facility.  (This appears to be wrong.)

Train bombing in Serbia – 0.20

A pilot took out a bridge and didn’t seem to notice a train on the bridge.  I think there is a chance that the pilot just wanted to complete his mission of taking out the bridge and decided to ignore the train.

In addition, the US released a video of the incident meant to show that although the pilot had the technology to divert the missile the situation developed too fast for him to react.  But a later story came out saying that this film was sped up by 3 times.

Serb TV – 0.99

This one was clearly intentional.  The US/NATO viewed this TV station as a legitimate target of war on the theory that it was a propaganda outlet.  Bill Clinton confirmed this in a press conference.

Chinese Embassy – 0.3

A New York Times investigation concluded that this was down to ridiculous incompetence. The Guardian says they were told by several people in the know that it was deliberate because there was military activity inside the embassy.  I’m thinking it was probably an accident but I’m not sure.

Red Cross Complex – 0.01,  0.01

This was bombed once, leading to a lengthy discussion of where all the Red Cross facilities were, and then the US bombed the same complex a second time.  These are clearly accidents and also show just how incompetent such operations can be.

Al Jazeera Kabul – 0.10

Information is really sketchy but the fact that the BBC was also hit in the attack kind of suggests accident to me.  Still, the Bush people really hated Al Jazeera although I’m not sure how strong this sentiment was so early in the Afghanistan war.

Al Jazeera Baghdad – 0.8

This one seems very likely to have been intentional, given the extent to which the Bush administration was up in arms over Al Jazeera.

Palestine Hotel – 0.03

Seems to have been unintentional.  Journalists appear to generally accept this verdict.

Total 2.51  in 11 incidents  for an average of 0.23

In my article I ventured that this number overestimates the probability that the MSF attack was intentional since hospitals are special so we should go a bit lower than 0.23.

To be clear, I think that based just on the historical record the attack on the MSF hospital was probably unintentional but we should not rule out the possibility that it was intentional.

In addition, we can’t settle the question just from looking at the historical record.  There needs to be a proper investigation.

I would add the following important point.  Suppose the attack was intentional.  In this case it is hard to have a lot of confidence that the US investigation will uncover this fact.  Top US officials have already queued up to declare the attack a terrible mistake.  In this environment both the investigators and the investigated will surely be loath to allow the investigation to find otherwise.

Finally, the above scoring is for the incidents I used to inform my article.  However, immediately after the article came out some people drew my attention to some other incidents.  So I will soon write a follow up post incorporating these incidents into my analysis.

My Second Article on the Attack on the MSF Hospital in Kunduz

I have a new article up at about the US attack on the MSF hospital in Kunduz.

After writing this earlier article I found myself still thinking about the incident – hence the second one.

People reading both will wonder why I wrote in the first one that we shouldn’t obsess over the intentionality question and then I turned around and wrote a whole article about exactly this question.  The answer is that I penned the second article accidentally.

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Seriously, though, I recognize the tension but think they can stand side by side.  On the one hand, there should be a serious investigation of the incident that does not pre-judge it as a terrible mistake as the US has already done.  On the other hand, if solid evidence does emerge that the attack was unintentional then that revelation should not let the US off the hook for allowing such a mistake to happen.

Watch this space for follow-up posts.  I already have new material!

Department of Corrections: Mike Spagat Edition

Hello old friends.  Once again I need to apologize for neglecting you but I  plan to atone for my sins by flooding you with interesting stuff over the next few weeks.

I’ve been reading the new book by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner on “Superforecasting”.  It is spectacularly good and I will definitely come back to it on the blog but for now I draw attention a a relatively minor point of the book.

Those of you who have clicked the “About” link on my web page know that it contains this:


Well guess what?  No one can find a solid record of Keynes actually saying this and it appears that, in fact, he didn’t say it.


….and, yes, I’m aware of the irony of using precisely this quote to define a blog which devotes a lot of effort to correcting errors.  So I must issue a correction and an abject apology.

That didn’t feel too bad, which is good because I’m sure it won’t be the last time I issue a correction on this blog.

Meanwhile, I pledge to live by the sentiment of the apocryphal quote.

World War II Deaths Visualization

Everyone should watch this film by Neil Halloran which manages to convey at least some sense of the scale and proportions of human losses in World War II.  Hopefully, others will follow in the footsteps of this pioneering work.

My main nitpick is that many viewers may walk away thinking that the true World War II figures are known with more precision than they really are.

That said, the narration clearly states that the Soviet number is disputed and could be very much higher than the one with which Halloran shocks his viewers.  He also notes that the number of Roma deaths is disputed and that there is an extremely wide range of estimates of civilians killed by the advancing Red Army during the collapse of the Nazi regime.

Moreover, it seems very unlikely that further information could overturn basic comparative facts cited in the film such as that Poland suffered the highest percent of people killed while the Soviet Union suffered the highest absolute number.

So maybe I’m a little harsh on whether or not Halloran adequately conveys the uncertainty of his subject.  Still, I do worry that future projects will give in to a temptation to sweep too much uncertainty under the rug.

Nevertheless, this project is an extraordinary achievement.