Opinion Based Blog

Collateral Damage: The Modern Means of Disguising Destruction

Author: Parishi Jain, 2nd year law student, SVKM’s Pravin Gandhi College of Law

‘Asymmetrical warfare is a euphemism for terrorism, just like collateral damage is a euphemism for killing innocent people.’

– Alan Dershowitz


On a warm summer morning of August 2018, the world woke up to the chants of ‘Death to America, Death to Israel!’ going on and on during the last rituals of the 40 children who became victims to the U.S.-led military attack in Dahyan, Yemen. The attack hit a bus filled with civilians of whom 51 died, most being children aged between 10 and 13 years. Saudi Arabia still continued to refer to this as ‘legitimate’ military action and attributing the incident as ‘Collateral Damage.’
Collateral Damage is a euphemism, a jargon, an abstract term used essentially to undermine the gravity that it holds. This term is often used by military personnel to refer to the people, the innocent civilians caught in an unfortunate incident of otherwise ‘targeted killing of enemies’ as has been dubbed by former U.S. President Barack Obama. As Harold Pinter says –
‘All that happens is destruction of human beings, unless they’re Americans, then it is called Collateral Damage.’

The United States military defines it as unintentional destruction of allied or neutral targets in what is called a ’friendly fire’. However, such jargons dehumanize the killing of non-combatants and are often used to reduce the perceived accountability of military leaderships miserably failing in preventing civilian casualties.
‘Collateral’ is derived from medieval Latin term ‘collateralis’. ‘Col’ means together with and ‘lateralis’ being used as a synonym for additional. The term ‘Collateral Damage’ either first emerged in 1961 in T.C. Schelling’s article titled ‘Dispersal, Deterrence and Damage’ or originated as a euphemism during the Vietnam War. However, the essence of it can be traced back to the World War II era and former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s and President Harry S. Truman’s U.S.A. which bombed the towns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan killing approximately 350,000 people and affecting the generations to come.

Alternatively, the present-day example of Yemen serves the same such that the United Nations even stopped updating the death toll when it reached 10,000 people in 2017; whereas independent organisations continue to claim that this number rose to somewhere around 60,000 to 100,000. Yemen has been devastated ever since a conflict that arose in 2015 by Houthis (militant group) which forced President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to flee the country. Concerned by the rise of the group, the U.S., UAE, Iran etc intervened to restore the situation. This prolonged war is yet to come to an end and has led to the worst humanitarian crises in recorded history. The war has left over 22 million people in need of humanitarian aid and caused world’s largest food security emergency coupled with the outbreak of Cholera and the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic. All of this is sought to have affected millions.

Similarly in Syria, the Pentagon ‘empowered’ the coalition forces to call airstrikes on its own during Operation Mosul. Airways, an NGO that records civilian casualties from airstrikes in ISIS’s Iraq, alleges that over 4,300 people have been killed as a direct result of U.S.-led airstrikes between August 2014 to June 2017. The unrest in Syria began in 2011 with the Arab protests growing out of proportion over their discontent with the Syrian government. The protestors were violently suppressed after they called for President Bashar al- Assad’s removal. Several fractions were formed consisting of domestic groups (Free Syrian Army, Syrian Democratic forces etc.) with international allies such as Iran, Russia, Turkey, Israel, U.S.A. etc. These countries continue to target enemy forces via the means of airstrikes even when it is known that jihadist groups such as ISIS use civilians as human shields. Most often the actual targets escape and it is the innocent civilians who are left to pay the price. Furthermore, to note that there has been a sharp spike in the weekly airstrikes by the U.S.A. and its allied forces, ever since the Pentagon issued that statement i.e. since December 2016.
In a 2011 statement, the United States of America based Central Intelligence Agency professed that drone strikes apply targeted surgical pressure to the groups that threatens the national security and the sovereignty of the country. However, fourteen years old Sadaullah Wazir who lost four of his family members, had both of his legs amputated due to the airstrikes, begs to differ. Nabila, an eight-year-old, suffered severe burns, shrapnel in her shoulder and witnessed her grandmother obliterate right in front of her eyes. Another thirteen-year-old, Fahim Qureshi, had shrapnel impaled in his stomach, lost one eye, all while losing seven family members in a drone strike. This damage is unjustifiable. Sadaullah, Nabila and Fahim are not threats to the national security and sovereignty of neither the United States nor any country in the world.

Furthermore, the 1991 bombings by the U.S.A. during the Gulf War witnessed planes targeting a shelter leading to the deaths of 408 innocent civilians. In another incidence from the Kosovo War, NATO planes engaged in Operation Allied Forces fired on a train of refugees mistaking it for Serbian Military Vehicles. 73 refugees paid the price, of this mistake, with their lives. In July 2002, two U.S. aircraft killed 48 people after attacking a wedding party in Uruzgan, Afghanistan. Pentagon defended this action by stating that the pilots were only reacting to anti-aircraft fire using ‘heavy weaponry’; while in reality, as per the reports by Dr. Gulbudin (Afghan Defence Ministry Chief), it was the guests firing small arms into the air while celebrating the occasion. The accounts of such incidents are endless in number and are only growing by each day.

Matthew Evangelista, co-editor of the book ‘The American Way of Bombing: Changing Ethical and Legal Norms, From Flying Fortress to Drones’ once said-
“It is kind of paradox because the means to save them (people) – military means – also pose risks.”

But the question is – what if these means are doing more damage than they are supposed to? Would there still be a good cop in this good cop-bad cop situation? Who decides if the life of one terrorist is more important than the life of one innocent civilian? Well in reality this number is far greater than that. According to statistical analysis, 28 innocent people are sacrificed for every ‘suspected’ criminal. Moreover, it’s not only the dead who suffer but the people who remain alive and continue to reside in war-torn areas have it worse. These unthought-of bombings and attacks also lead to the destruction of key infrastructure such as roads, buildings, bridges etc. which makes the distribution of aid such as food and medicines difficult and also makes it impossible for the civilians to flee.
On some other occasions, the key infrastructural points end up in the hands of the militant groups. In one such incident, the Houthis delayed the distribution of 2,000 tonnes of food which could have easily fed over 160,000 people in Yemen. By the time the food got clearance by the militant group, it had already perished and the villagers had been reduced to eating boiled leaves as meals. According to a UN-Aid report, more than 300,000 nursing mothers, pregnant women and children aged less than five years in Yemen failed to receive nutritional supplements for over six months because of delays by the militant groups.

It is rather bizarre that these actions leading to ‘Collateral Damage’ come after article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights precedes to dictate the terms that ‘No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his/her life.’ Moreover, according to the ‘Principle of Distinction’ under Article 8 (2) (b) (i) of the Rome Statute, it is a criminal offence of ‘intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking part in hostilities.’ Furthermore, ‘Principle of Proportionality’ under Article 8 (2) (b) (iv), of the Rome Statute, which is in line with Article 51 (5) (b) of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Convention, states that it is an offence in –
‘Intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated.’
Therefore, wars and the current means adopted to end the wars only lead to suffrage and deaths of innocent civilians. As human beings, our foremost obligation is towards humanity and its wellbeing or else, years of civilisation, industrialisation and globalisation is only going to end in chaos with the human society battling for even a slight chance at survival.

‘The preservation of human life should be at the forefront and not an afterthought.’

– Kinda Haddad

1. Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, www.icc-cpi.int/resourcelibrary/official-journal/rome-statute.aspx#article8.
2. Sarah Heiland, Collateral Damage of Defending Democracy, The New York Times (2017), www.nytimes.com/2017/05/22/learning/editorial-contest-winner-the-collateral-damage-of-defending-democracy.html.
3. Alexandra Chang, Collateral Damage: A Warfare Challenge, Cornell Research, research.cornell.edu/news-features/collateral-damage-warfare-challenge.
4. James Griffiths, Collateral Damage: A Brief History of U.S. Mistakes at War, CNN World (2015), edition.cnn.com/2015/10/06/middleeast/us-collateral-damage-history/index.html.
5. Walter Simpson, ‘Collateral Damage’ Extends to U.S. Foreign Policy, WBFO News, news.wbfo.org/post/collateral-damage-extends-us-foreign-policy.
6. Tasneem Tayeb, Yemen’s Collateral Damage, The Daily Star (2020), www.thedailystar.net/opinion/closer-look/news/yemens-collateral-damage-1871623.
7. Yemen Conflict: Saudi-led Coalition Admits Mistakes in Deadly Bus Strike, BBC News (2018), www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-45382561.
8. Thousands Attend Funeral of Slaughtered Children, Asia News (2018), www.asianews.it/news-en/Thousands-attend-funeral-of-slaughtered-children.-Riyadh:-‘Collateral-damage’-44657.html.
9. All Feasible Precautions? Civilian Casualties in Anti-ISIS Coalition Airstrikes in Syria, Human Rights Watch Report (2017), www.hrw.org/report/2017/09/24/all-feasible-precautions/civilian-casualties-anti-isis-coalition-airstrikes-syria.
10. Petra Cahill, In Battle Against ISIS and Iraq, Civilians Suffer Most, NBC News (2017), www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/battle-against-isis-syria-iraq-civilians-suffer-most-n779656.
11. Anthony H. Cordesman, The Iraq War: Strategy, Tactics and Military Lessons (2003) pp. 266.

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