Why we simply ‘walk away’ from the victims of collateral damage

Collateral damage is neither actively sanctioned nor a war crime, and this uncertainty means the perpetrators hold no responsibility to the victims.

The international coalition bombing ISIS in Syria and Iraq recently reached the milestone of 10,000 airstrikes. According to official US statistics, the targets destroyed include 5418 buildings, 6221 fighting positions, 1170 targets related to oil infrastructure, 906 staging areas, and more than 6133 ‘other targets.’ So far, the coalition acknowledge that 21 civilians have been killed as collateral damage from these bombings.

Of course, these numbers ring uncannily absurd: We all know the kind of damage our bombs typically inflict. So how is it that we accept them so easily? Why do we — like Russia and the Assad regime — make scant attempt to recognise or investigate the many reports of civilian casualties from independent observers? Why do we resign ourselves to ‘walking away’?

One answer may be the tidal wave of suffering engulfing all civilians in Syria and Iraq, including those who managed to flee. The horror makes the collateral damage we leave in the wake of our airstrikes look insignificant and less newsworthy.

However, closer inspection reveals a deeper layer. Rather, it seems, an answer to such questions may be found in our tradition of viewing collateral damage (killing or injuring civilians in war) as a form of killing that entails no responsibility whatsoever. When we kill civilians in war, and such killing is classified as collateral damage, we do not only take their lives. We insist that because the killing was ‘collateral damage’, we owe them nothing. No responsibility is attached to such killings, and no liability. We stress that if we have ever offered financial reparations to bereaved relatives for their loss, we have done so not because of a legal obligation or duty but entirely ex gratia — out of goodwill. To us, the lawfulness of collateral damage renders pointless any question of responsibility or liability.

We usually see no problem with that. Rather, we speculate about how much collateral damage we should accept. Currently we discuss if we should do away with the ‘Zero Civilian Casualty Approach’ that guides our current bombings in Syria and Iraq, because it allegedly impedes our ability to fight ISIS.

But let us recall that collateral damage was first recognized as a separate category of killing in war because we did see a problem. Throughout history, we have tried hard to figure out if, or to what extent, the unintended side effects of human agency, including acts in war, entail responsibility. In fact, this problem plays a significant role in the history of theology, moral philosophy, and political thought — from Adam and Eve to the modern state.

But no-one has ever presented us with a clear solution to the problem. No naturally given ‘right’ authorises what we today call ‘collateral damage’. Nevertheless, in the context of war we solved the problem by agreeing on a set of international rules that make collateral damage lawful, and thus free us from any legal questions about responsibility or liability towards the victims of collateral damage.

Today we take for granted this solution: we believe that collateral damage entails no responsibility. To be sure, it requires a very deeply held conviction to be able to rip off the head and limbs of a child (that is after all what bombs do), however unintended, and then walk away with nothing more than a taciturn ‘We are sorry for your loss.’

The point is that the problem of collateral damage is real and enduring. The rule of lawful collateral damage we apply in Syria and Iraq is based on a political agreement; an agreement that originates with the powerful and the privileged — not the weak and the wretched.

When we debate whether we should accept more collateral damage in our bombing campaign against ISIS, this is the reasoning we apply. In fact, we can only have that debate because we agree that no responsibility is attached to the collateral damage we inflict. And therefore we may walk away.

Frederik Rosén is a Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies and has published widely on a range of topics related to military force and global governance. His latest book, Collateral Damage: A Candid History of a Peculiar Form of Death, has just been published by Hurst.

On Twitter: @FrederikRosen

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