“Collateral Damage” Isn’t
April 30, 2013
“Collateral Damage” isn’t. That is, what has been labeled “collateral damage” is not what, given this label, it seems to be.
Something, some eventuality is labeled “collateral damage” when it is the unintentional consequence of an action. For example, when bombing or using a drone and civilians are killed or maimed, this is said to be “collateral damage.” It is as if we are saying, “We did not intend to kill or maim those civilians; we had legitimate military objectives but as a result of accomplishing those objectives, there was ‘other damage,’ ‘collateral’ with the intended damage.”
There is, however, another, less noticed, or less spoken about feature of such eventualities, viz., that this damage is not only unintended but that it is also incidental. That is, by labeling some eventualities “collateral damage,” we come to understand them as unconnected to, not bearing upon our larger and primary goals or ends. Such damage is then thought to be “incidental” to the outcome of our war-making.
To take a particular example, the U.S. is now using drones with some frequency in Pakistan and the use of these drones leads to “collateral damage.” At times, and some would say often, we kill and maim those we had no intention of killing or maiming. Also, the use of drones upsets the lives of Pakistanis who are forced to live with their presence, not knowing if or when a Hellfire missile might come out of the sky like one of the god’s lighting bolts to strike them or others dead. The Obama administration, which has made much greater use of these drones than did the Bush administration, tries to limit this damage both by acting responsibly and by “redefining” it in a way that makes it seem minor.
This is all well and good but here is my thought: “Collateral damage” is not incidental in the sense of being unconnected to, not bearing upon our larger and primary goals, e.g., in Pakistan, eradicating al Qaeda. In fact, such damage is so far from being incidental that it actually plays a central role in undermining our ability to accomplish our larger and primary goals.
So, like “friendly fire,” which isn’t, “collateral damage” isn’t also. And by labeling such eventualities as “collateral damage,” we are only fooling ourselves, i.e., into thinking that despite such eventualities we can still accomplish our larger and primary goals. And if you wish for some evidence to support this observation, just consider how what we called “collateral damage” in Vietnam, for example, made it impossible to “win those hearts and minds” it was, correctly, thought necessary to win in order to save a portion of that nation and preserve it as non-Communist. As was famously said then, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” I believe this way of thinking and acting is delusional and, of course, deadly as well. But it is deadly not only to the victims but to the victimizers as well. We cannot see this, however, because we use such terms as “collateral damage,” terms that blind to the consequences of our own actions.
Moreover, such terms fool us into thinking that what we take to be policies that reflect strength or power are actually policies that reflect weakness or powerlessness. For if “collateral damage” isn’t, and if it isn’t in the sense that such damage undermines our capacity to achieve our larger and primary goals, then we fail to see that we are like Sisyphus, condemned to do the same things over and over without even the possibility of succeeding.
A British diplomat who had been invited to watch the video of a drone firing a Hellfire missile and killing some militants commented: “It almost isn’t sporting.” Typically, a Brit made his point with considerable understatement. But it is plausible to add: Not only is it not “sporting;” it is also “counterproductive.” Or in less technological terms: It is madness.