Tragic Mistakes are Common During War

Tragic mistakes happen in wars—particularly those fought in dense urban areas against adversaries who hide behind human shields—but they are not a reason to end conflicts before they are won. That is especially true when those wars are justified, fought by law-abiding, professional militaries, and waged again barbaric adversaries. Israel’s unfortunate, accidental strike that killed seven aid workers only shows how important it is that Israel finish the job against Hamas, not finish the war now.

Even though the advent of precision-guided munitions, GPS, satellite imagery, and other high-tech tools, couple with discussions of surgical strikes, can make modern warfare seem like its sterile, accurate, and infallible, as battlefield commanders we know otherwise. The reality of high-intensity warfare in a compressed battlefield is that commanders make rapid-fire decisions on sometimes imperfect information. The awful and brutal fact is that mistakes happen, even among the most advanced, law-abiding, and careful militaries in the world.

Indeed, in every conflict since the introduction of precision-guided munitions, the United States military has still made regrettable and tragic mistakes. In Operation Desert Storm, over 400 civilians were killed when the United States bombed what intelligence indicated was a command-and-control bunker but turned out to be an air-raid shelter. Rather than a Yugoslavian military target, in 1999 the United States mistakenly hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

The margin for error has only grown smaller as the United States and our partners turned to fight adversaries that wear no uniform, respect no laws, and hide among civilians. In Afghanistan, for example, the United States mistakenly struck a hospital in Kunduz, believing it was harboring Taliban fighters.

Such mistakes are not a reflection on the evil character or intentions of the military that commits them. Instead, militaries should be judged not on whether they commit mistakes, but on the steps they take in the aftermath of such tragic incidents.

After the Kunduz attack, the United States quickly took responsibility, apologized, and launched an investigation to determine how and why the incident had occurred. That is because, the U.S. military, as the Obama administration said at the time, “goes to greater lengths and places a higher premium on avoiding civilian casualties” than any other fighting force in the world.

And how has Israel responded to its mistaken strike on seven aid workers from the World Central Kitchen?

Precisely the same way as the United States. Israel immediately took full responsibility. Its leaders at the highest political and military levels publicly apologized. It committed to undertake a thorough review and to implement whatever changes it can to minimize the chances of such an incident occurring again.

Israel’s willingness to own up to its mistakes, identifies Israel, by U.S. standards, as one of the few militaries that “goes to the greatest lengths” to avoid civilian casualties.

Compare that Hamas’s response when one of its own rockets hit Gaza’s al Ahli hospital. Rather than take any responsibility, Hamas blamed the attack on Israel. Rather than apologize for killing its own civilians, Hamas inflated the number of casualties for propaganda purposes.

While Israel should take whatever additional measures it can to minimize the suffering of innocent civilians, the most important thing it can do for long-term peace and stability is win this war as soon as possible. American threats to throw Israel under the bus will likely have the opposite effect, giving heart to U.S. enemies in Hamas, Iran, and the “destroy Israel axis,” who believe that all they have to do is sit back, hold on, and prolong the war to create more dead and starving Palestinians until international pressure forces Israel to stop its attempts to destroy the would-be genocidaires on its border who have pledged to commit more massacres.

Attempts to suggest that Israel’s actions are anything more than a tragic mistake, or a reason for pressuring Israel to end the war before Hamas is defeated, are either blind to the realities of war or holding Israel to a higher standard than the United States holds itself to. Both are dangerous approaches. The standard that is set for Israel now by official U.S. rhetoric will be the standard that the U.S. military will be held to in future conflicts. And if that standard is unrealistic—and the expectation of zero mistakes or civilian casualties is entirely unrealistic—it will jeopardize future U.S. military operations. American adversaries will use the same tactics Hamas is now using to stop Israel—intentionally putting civilians in harm’s way and leveraging international outrage—to stop U.S. efforts to defend itself.

Using the casualties that Israel mistakenly caused as a reason to stop the war will only result in allowing Hamas to intentionally kill more civilians, Israeli and Palestinian alike. And, eventually, it will undermine U.S. security, too. To defend itself, Israel must finish the job; to defend America, the United States should help Israel win the war.

Gen Philip M. Breedlove, USAF (ret.) was the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and a participant in JINSA’s 2018 General and Admirals Program. GEN. James D. Thurman, USA (ret.) is former Commander, United Nations Command, ROK-United States Combined Forces Command, and U.S. Forces Korea, and was a participant in JINSA’s 2016 Generals and Admirals Program.