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Collateral Damage

Posted by Henric C. Jensen on July 31, 2006

Collateral damage is a military euphemism that was made popular during the Vietnam War (Army Technology). But the euphemism has now been in use so long that it is accepted as a correct and proper term within military forces, meaning “unintentional damage or incidental damage affecting facilities, equipment or personnel, occurring as a result of military actions directed against targeted enemy forces or facilities. Such damage can occur to friendly, neutral, and even enemy forces” (USAF Intelligence Targeting Guide). Note that this definition is not concerned with what is major or minor, lawful or unlawful (war crime), civilian or military, legitimate or not. The only thing relevant is if the damage was intended by those causing it. If it was targeted, it is not collateral. Even if it were enemy forces, if it was not targeted it is collateral. Etymologically, the expression “collateral damage” is a construction so convoluted that it probably was originally used as military doublespeak rather than a euphemism, as the adjective “collateral” doesn’t seem to have been used as a synonym for “unintentional” or “accidental” earlier. “Collateral” comes from medieval Latin collateralis, from col- ‘together with’ + lateralis (from latus, later- ‘side’ ) and is otherwise mainly used as a synonym for “parallel” or “additional” in certain expressions (“collateral veins” run parallel to each other and “collateral security” means additional security to the main obligation in a contract). However, “collateral” may also sometimes mean “additional but subordinate,” i.e. “secondary” (“collateral meanings of a word”), and that specific meaning of a rather obscure word in the English language seems to have been picked up and broadened by the military in the expression “collateral damage.” (from Wikipedia)

I do not like the term “collateral damage”. The way it is used implies both a premeditated intention or calculation and an fatalistic acceptance of loss of civilian life, casualties and material values. We all know that in war civilians suffer, get hit and killed, but knowing this and deliberately calculate with actual “acceptable numbers” of civilian casualties are two completely different and diametrically opposed things. The former is a matter of insight and common sense – the latter is nothing but crass, cold-hearted and dehumanizing cynicism. Collateral damage is just another way of reducing human life to a dispensable nuisance.

The term collateral damage is even more sinister when it is used, openly or in attitude, about one’s own civilians. Most countries do their best to protect their citizens during war – it’s a natural response to threat, to want to move the civilians out of the way. That is the job of the Army and Leadership of a country – to safe-guard the civilian population.

So what do we say about “soldiers” and “officers” who deliberately move the civilians close to military posts or stop them from leaving/fleeing the area with the intention of them getting hurt or killed? How is that even conceivable?

Loss of life can never be acceptable. Every death, even that of an enemy soldier, should be lamented as a tragedy.


2 Responses to “Collateral Damage”

  1. MikeK said

    It does seem hard for some to understand that “a loss of a life” is exactly that; a loss.


  2. […] On a more serious note we have: define term collateral damage – now there’s a Topic for you – how to define collateral damage. That is a good Blog Topic, but too heavy for tonight I am afraid. And if you just have to read about collateral damage tonight – there is an Entry here. […]


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