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Fatal Mistakes

The Pentagon on Tuesday blamed “unintentional” human mistakes for the American-led airstrikes in September that killed dozens of Syrian government troops. ...
“In my opinion, these were a number of people all doing their best to do a good job,” said Brig. Gen. Richard A. Coe, the officer who led the investigation. ...
According to a redacted copy of a report that summarized the investigation, a drone examined an area near an airfield in Deir al-Zour Province in eastern Syria on Sept. 16, identifying a tunnel entrance, two tents and 10 men. The forces were not wearing recognizable military uniforms or identification flags, and there were no other signs of their ties to the government, the inquiry found. ...
“Human factors like ‘confirmation bias,’ ‘improper labeling’ and ‘invalid assumptions’ resulted in labeling of individuals as Islamic State of Iraq and Levant forces early in the process, which colored later analysis and resulted in continuing misidentification of the forces on the ground,” the United States Central Command, which oversees American military operations in the Middle East, said in a statement.
The next day, drones and jets were deployed to attack the airfield. They began hitting tanks and armored vehicles. In all, 34 precision guided missiles were dropped on the Syrian forces.
- Michael Schmidt, ‘Unintentional’ Human Error Led to Airstrikes on Syrian Troops, Pentagon Says, Nov. 29, 2016



A year earlier, American forces in Afghanistan mistakenly attacked a Doctors Without Borders hospital, killing 42 people:

The air controller was wrong. His mistake was one link in a chain of human errors and equipment and procedural failures that led to the devastating attack on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan last year that killed 42 people, the Defense Department said Friday, in its first extensive account of what happened in the city of Kunduz, early on the morning of Oct. 3. ...
In a heavily redacted report, which runs more than 3,000 pages, military investigators described a mission that went wrong from start to finish. Even after Doctors Without Borders informed American commanders that a gunship was attacking a hospital, the airstrike was not immediately called off because, it appears, the Americans could not confirm themselves that the hospital was actually free of Taliban. ...
The gunship, responding to a call for support from Afghan commandos who said they were under fire, mistook the hospital for the intended target — a building in the city being used as a base by the Taliban — and unleashed sustained and repeated barrages from its heavy guns on the medical facility, despite frantic calls from Doctors Without Borders to military commanders.
- Matthew Rosenberg, Pentagon Details Chain of Errors in Strike on Afghan Hospital, April 29, 2016

The gunship was also struggling to find the building. It had the right coordinates, but its targeting system malfunctioned. It pointed the aircraft to an empty field. The crew members, however, spotted a building nearby that they and the Green Berets on the ground concluded was the N.D.S. building.

It was not. They were looking at the Doctors Without Borders hospital, and they missed what should have been obvious signs. None of the people spotted inside the compound appeared to be armed.

At 2:08 a.m. on Oct. 3, the gunship opened fire. The first round hit a courtyard where nine unarmed people were milling about.

The attack continued until 2:38 a.m., the investigators found, and the gunship fired 211 rounds, killing 42 people. Military investigators would describe the attack as a violation of the laws of armed conflict and “a disproportional response to a threat that did not exist.”
- Matthew Rosenberg and Joseph Goldstein, U.S. Role in Afghanistan Turns to Combat Again, With a Tragic Error, NYT, May 8, 2016


Residents of Grenfell Tower had complained for years that the 24-story public housing block invited catastrophe. It lacked fire alarms, sprinklers and a fire escape. It had only a single staircase. And there were concerns about a new aluminum facade that was supposed to improve the building — but was now whisking the flames skyward. ...
A formal government inquiry into the fire has just begun. But interviews with tenants, industry executives and fire safety engineers point to a gross failure of government oversight, a refusal to heed warnings from inside Britain and around the world and a drive by successive governments from both major political parties to free businesses from the burden of safety regulations.

Promising to cut “red tape,” business-friendly politicians evidently judged that cost concerns outweighed the risks of allowing flammable materials to be used in facades. Builders in Britain were allowed to wrap residential apartment towers — perhaps several hundred of them — from top to bottom in highly flammable materials, a practice forbidden in the United States and many European countries. And companies did not hesitate to supply the British market. ...
For years, members of Parliament had written letters requesting new restrictions on cladding, especially as the same flammable facades were blamed for fires in Britain, France, the United Arab Emirates, Australia and elsewhere. Yet British authorities resisted new rules. A top building regulator explained to a coroner in 2013 that requiring only noncombustible exteriors in residential towers “limits your choice of materials quite significantly.”
- DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, DANNY HAKIM and JAMES GLANZ, Why Grenfell Tower Burned: Regulators Put Cost Before Safety, NYT, JUNE 24, 2017


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