Collateral damage

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Collateral damage is a military term which describes the unintentional or accompanying damage of material, property, and or the deaths of people who are not directly associated with the primary target itself.[1] Collateral damage exists in almost every military conflict, up to and including:

  • Damage to non-military material or cultural goods, destruction of dwellings or entire settlements such as from aerial bombardment, missile raids or aftermath;
  • Mutilation or killing of civilians by land mines;
  • Killing of civilians as a result of misinformation;
  • Killing of wildlife and livestock.

Legal classification

In accordance with international humanitarian law, care must be taken to ensure that the civilian population, civilians and civilian objects are spared from collateral damage. An attack that is accompanied by an incidental damage is contrary to international law if the incidental damage was foreseeable and:

  • If it had been avoidable by the application of practically possible precautionary measures in the choice of means of appeal and methods, or
  • If civilian casualties and/or damage to civilian property are out of all proportion to the expected concrete and immediate military advantage.

Accordingly, the deliberate acceptance of collateral damage may be in accordance with international law, if it could be avoided only by a waiver of the attack and if the attack can expect a correspondingly significant military advantage. The principle of proportionality may require a balance of human lives, possibly in greater numbers, compared to the predicted military advantage.

These principles are laid down in Articles 51[2] and 57[3] of the Geneva Conventions. The primary intent of these principles is to ensure protection of the civilian population at large:

"The civilian population and individual civilians shall enjoy general protection against dangers arising from military operations. To give effect to this protection, the following rules, which are additional to other applicable rules of international law, shall be observed in all circumstances." (Art. 51.1)

As well as to ensure that as much as possible that military sites and facilities are to be targeted:

" attack shall be cancelled or suspended if it becomes apparent that the objective is not a military one or is subject to special protection or that the attack may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated;" (Art. 57.2, sec. b)


The first use of the term collateral damage took place in 1947 as a result of the investigations and reports made concerning World War II. Widespread civilian casualties and damage to civilian property were caused by strategic bombing of enemy cities in support of their war industry; as a result, civilian casualties were called collateral damage. Given the low accuracy of the bombing during the Second World War, it was inevitable that civilian casualties would occur. However, bombing attacks such as the Japanese bombing of Chongqing and indiscriminate German attacks on V-weapon Allied cities go beyond the definition of collateral damage, since these raids were intended to terrorize and kill enemy civilians.

It is the goal of most modern armed forces to exclude collateral damage as much as possible, because of the damage to an army's reputation, the hindering of military goals and objectives, or the altering of a future policy envisioned for the attacking country, the conquered country, or both. Collateral damage is often hushed up by its own political propaganda or shown as minor and unavoidable, while the enemy's propaganda over-emphasizes, exaggerates or even invents. Serious collateral damage often leads to the formation of an enemy image that can prolong a conflict, serve the enemy's propaganda, and continue to bring the civilian population into the target area to use as human shields against the enemy.

American domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh, convicted and executed for his role in the bombing and killing of 168 people in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, shockingly told reporters that he had no sympathy for the children of a day care center within the building, dismissing it as "...a large amount of collateral damage."[4][5][6]

Political use of the term

In the United States, collateral damage has also been used and employed within politics, for example the damage in trade which many claim could result as a consequence of the tariffs the Trump Administration placed on several nations, primarily China.[7] Primarily, however, it has been used as a means to justify an end to further the socialist agenda of the Democratic Party. Recently, the veiled threat made by the Democrats would be the punishment meted out to others "...who do not share our view", according to Democrat House leader Nancy Pelosi on October 14, 2018:

"We owe the American people to be there for them, for their financial security, respecting the dignity and worth of every person in our country, and if there is some collateral damage for some others who do not share our view, well, so be it, but it shouldn’t be our original purpose,"[8][9]


  3. [1]