Is Collateral Damage An Acceptable Part of War?

Collateral damage to civilians is one of the most consistent elements of modern warfare. As bombing attacks continue to take deadlier and more impersonal forms, collateral damage is all but an assumed part of warfare, perhaps not celebrated, but at the same time not really regretted. In the context of foreign conflict, collateral damage is treated as something that simply happens, and no fault is attributed to the forces which cause civilian deaths and destruction to their property. This should not be, “collateral damage” in war is completely unacceptable in all circumstances.

So called “collateral damage” is morally unjustifiable because of the simple facts that civilians are not combatants, and they are not the property of the states which are warring with one another. The persons who are maimed and killed and their property which is damaged do not suddenly become part of either state which is at war simply because the governing body of the area in which they live has determined to battle with another state. These persons belong to themselves in the same way which they did in a time of peace, and have every moral right to their life, their freedom, and their property just as they did prior to the initiation of interstate conflict. Even if Nation A has a justifiable reason to go to war with Nation B, this does not justify causing harm (either intentionally or by neglect) to the citizens of nation B.

Who the specific target of an attack is is irrelevant to the question of whether civilian deaths are justifiable. It’s certainly the case that manslaughter due to neglect is less morally wicked than premeditated murder, but this does not mean that manslaughter is morally upright. Additionally it’s important to remember that the far and away majority of collateral damage in war is not entirely accidental. For example, Florin’s military identifies target X they wish to destroy in Guilder, but they realize they cannot deal with target X without harming bystanders Y, and they determine that destroying target X in Guilder is important enough to justify the harm caused to the civilians of Guilder. This ethical calculus is utterly wrong, however. There is no way to morally compare the value of or right to life of specific persons, each and every one has this right, and it is not suspended just because they find themselves in close physical proximity to an important person or place in a time of war.

It becomes far easier to accept the ethical calculus above when the issue is removed from our view, but what would our reaction be if it happened in our neighborhood? Imagine a police officer engaged in a high speed chase, following fast on the heels of a bank robber who was caught in the act. The police officer drives willy-nilly all over the road in pursuit of the thief, causing several traffic accidents. He still cannot catch the robber, so he begins opening fire on the car he’s chasing. He misses several times, and his shots accidentally kill two pedestrians. Finally one of his bullets takes out one of the tires of the car, and the bank robber is apprehended. Is the police officer a hero in our eyes? Of course not, he killed two innocent bystanders and caused massive property damage to persons who had nothing to do with the crimes of the robber. Change the players in this hypothetical to a terrorist being chased and a military following after him, and move the setting to the middle east, and all of the sudden we find it perfectly alright. There is a serious inconsistency here, and it needs to be addressed.

Even though it is clear that collateral damage is completely unethical and unacceptable when removing the personality of individuals from the scenario, this cannot be done in the real world. Every civilian who dies due to collateral damage of an attack is a human being, one who has rights to his own life, one who has friends and family, one who has his own life to live that is completely separate from interstate conflict. The poor man whose situation requires him to live in a bad neighborhood is no more consenting to be mugged by a common thug than the civilian who lives in a region whose government is at war with another is consenting to be killed by a member of a military.

So called “collateral damage” causes the loss of real, human lives, and damage to the property of real human beings. Turning questions of how to wage war into a moral budgeting spreadsheet where the only goal is to make sure you kill more actual bad guys than you do civilians is not the solution. One civilian casualty is infinitely too many, and there is no moral justification for collateral damage in warfare.


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