In March 2019, Air Force officers in an Allied Operations command center in Qatar watched video from a high-altitude drone over a battlefield in Syria. The live feed showed women and children huddling for cover against the bank of the Euphrates River.
Suddenly an American F-15E jet flew into view and dropped a 500-pound bomb on the crowded civilians. As the dust began to clear, the plane dropped not one, but two, 2,000-pound bombs, killing almost all the survivors.
Eighty people perished in the bombing. Civilian and military officials in the Trump administration kept reports and investigations of the event from the public until the New York Times finally broke the story last weekend.
The bombing, near a town called Baghuz, took place four days before the last ISIS fighters in Syria surrendered there. The end of the so-called Islamic State was a tremendous public relations win for the Trump administration.
The Times investigation “showed that the death toll from the strike was almost immediately apparent to military officials. A legal officer flagged the bombing as a possible war crime that required an investigation.”
The Defense Department’s independent inspector general (IG) began an inquiry, the Times reported. The report containing its findings, however, was delayed and cleansed of any mention of the strike. US-led forces bulldozed the site of the bombing.
A former Navy officer who worked for the IG on the investigation criticized the lack of action on the results of the inquiry. He was fired a month before the 2020 election.
The Times reports I have read avoid pointing at Trump administration officials as being responsible for a coverup of the Baghuz bombing. Instead, the newspaper simply reports on the actions of officers and commanders on the scene.
That gives us the facts we need to know, but it does not tell us the most crucial information. That is, what can we do in the future to prevent such tragedies?
The U.S. military had an elaborate and detailed process for ensuring that such strikes were legal and justified. However, as the Times reporting reveals, American commanders on the ground allowed a top-secret special operations unit, Task Force 9, to call in air strikes directly to the pilots.
That entirely bypassed the process intended to protect innocent civilians caught between ISIS and the American coalition forces. In fact, the Times reported, those in the Qatar command center had no idea the Baghuz bombing had been called for until they saw it live on-screen.
An assessment of the results of the strike was ordered immediately but it was never done. The only group that made an immediate investigation was Task Force 9. It reported that 16 Isis fighters but only four civilians were killed.
Times reporters spoke with Air Force investigators who forwarded information about the Baghuz bombing to the staff of Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, then the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The committee took no action.
That the truth was concealed for so long is not unusual. History on the fly has a way of neglecting good deeds and bad ones as they happen.
It’s only when individuals are willing to forsake the glamour of current events and take up the drudgery of searching through records and archives and eye-witness reports and then talking to those who were present and confirming with interviews the facts reported do we finally tend to hear the truth about our past.
War is dirty and dangerous. Innocent civilians do become the victims of war. That shouldn’t be covered up, though. We shouldn’t have to wait for historians to let us know what’s really happened.
Dave Finkelnburg is a long-time Idahoan, a former newspaper journalist, and is currently semi-retired from an engineering career.