The shelling or bombing of the Doctors without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, reminds me of my time in an artillery battery in Vietnam. In general we only fired at targets that had been precleared by someone in our chain of command, or we fired for forward observers who were engaged with the enemy. In a few cases, working with our quad-50 machine gun crew, we would have to seek clearance to fire at someone who we thought was sneaking around our perimeter, just in case it was a South Vietnamese unit wandering around.
We had a number of no-fire areas marked on our maps and charts, indicating the locations of towns and bases. I don’t think we ever fired into one of these no-fire zones. It would have required all kinds of special clearances.
From the discussion it sounds as if the question in Kunduz is whether the Afghan or US forces were taking fire from the hospital. Even if they were taking fire from the hospital, would that warrant calling in an air strike on it? In Vietnam there was supposedly a pretty rigorous process for clearing a fire mission on a target that was not engaged in actual combat. American liaison officers checked with Vietnamese contacts about whether there were any civilians or friendly troops in the area.
The situation would have been complicated in Kunduz because the city had been friendly until the Taliban takeover. The entire city would have been a no-fire area, and there would have been to reason to fire into it. With the Taliban attack, the whole city would still be considered a no-fire area because there would be civilians everywhere. However, if friendly troops were taking heavy fire, there would have been a debate about whether it was necessary to accept “collateral damage” in order to neutralize the enemy. It would seem that a decision of that nature should have been made pretty high up.
Doctors without Borders claims that no one was firing from the hospital. In that case, there seems no justification for attacking it. However, if they are wrong and there was firing, then maybe there was justification, but Doctors without Borders legitimately would want to know who decided that they were expendable. I guess that is what the military review will try to determine. I am inclined to give our troops the benefit of the doubt in the fog of war, but screw-up do happen.
In Vietnam one night someone came up on our radio channel asking if we were firing at certain coordinates. We were not, but we could hear him asking other batteries if they were firing there. Finally one battery answered and said that they had just finished a “battery three-by-three” on that target. The stranger on the net said that it was a small town, which was now destroyed. A “battery three-by-three” means that an entire artillery battery, probably four large or six small guns, fired nine volleys in the shape of a box around the target. Obviously something went wrong in the clearance process for that fire mission.