Collateral Damage and Warfare: 1600s to Present

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As a function of violent conflict, collateral damage has remained a constant and hardly changing aspect of wartime activities. An aspect of war that has sustained itself as a common and recurring theme of armed conflict, collateral damage has survived shifting methods of waging war since the 1600s, primarily due to its nature as an inevitable consequence of violence, the indiscriminate way in which most wars have been conducted, and the lack of technological innovations until very recently that enable the capacity to remove collateral damage as a constant aspect of armed conflict. In the modern era, collateral damage has been shown to be an aspect of war that has experienced significant shifts with regards to the extent in which it impacts the conduct of war, though the fundamental issue of attacks against noncombatants is a problem that has remained relatively unchanged since the 1600s. 

The intent of a war waged in the classical interpretation of the word is to compel an enemy state, nation, or other agency to one's own will through the application of violent and armed force. While the semantics of the definition of war are up to debate, it is clear that a state of war nonetheless exists when two groups are engaged in conflict with each other. War, therefore, cannot exist without violence, or the application of armed force. Thus, it is accepted that violence is a natural result as well as the method of conducting a war, though the target of that violence may be called into question. Through the conduct of war, the enemy populace can be divided into two classifications: combatants and noncombatants. The concept of a “just war”, which “distinguishes both morally and legally between what may be done to combatants and what may be done to noncombatants”, allows insight into the ways in which violence is an inevitable consequence of armed conflict, and thus collateral damage occurs as an inevitable result of war.  Collateral damage, better defined by Kamm in 2005 as the “side effect” of causing harm to noncombatants without the intent of causing death or destruction, is, therefore, an aspect of war that has remained constant throughout the history of armed conflict since the 1600s.   While collateral damage is traditionally avoided by the military agencies responsible for the professional conduct of war, violence, and aggression against noncombatants in the war starting in the early modern period has been a recurring theme. Indeed, Condra and Shapiro in 2013 report that attempting to avoid collateral damage is a “moral obligation for forces representing liberal democracies”. 

Throughout the history of armed conflict since the 1600s, collateral damage and violence against noncombatants in the pursuit of achieving victory over combatants in an armed struggle is seen most clearly in four large conflicts: The Thirty Years' War, which saw the devastation and slaughter of a great swath of what is modern-day Germany, the First and Second World Wars, which reflect similar views regarding the issue of noncombatants in wartime, and the War on Terror, in which collateral damage as an aspect of warfare has seen its most dramatic shift since the 1600s. In particular, the Thirty Years' War is a prime example of a conflict where historians now “recognize that most suffering [...] related only indirectly to military conflict, resulting instead from economic disaster, famine and disease.”  This is largely due to the indiscriminate ways in which war was waged in the early modern period—large scale razing of crops, disruption of harvests and trade routes, and the spread of famine and disease as a result of warfare, sieges, and battlefield conditions, resulted in the deaths of far more noncombatants and civilians than military participants in the conflict. Indeed, Lederer reports that “the role of combat casualties in the strategic arena of a grand war was relatively insignificant and potentially sustainable.”  The finding that the greatest cost of human life in armed conflict comes as a result of indirect, noncombat actions is supported by Soviet historian Ismailov's account of Soviet deaths during the Second World War, in which he initially states to be approximately four million combat deaths.  The remaining twenty-odd million deaths, therefore, are civilian. Gagin et al indicate some one hundred thousand Iraqi and Afghan civilians have died as a result of wartime conditions in their nations since the start of the War on Terror in 2001.  These statistics, therefore, apply directly to the indiscriminate ways in which warfare has been waged since the early modern period. Though direct neutralization of enemy combatants is the usual intended goal of the conflict, it is the unarmed and civilian populations that suffer the most. 

Technological innovations have proven to be fundamental when addressing the ways in which collateral damage has persisted as a constant, yet somewhat shifting aspect of warfare since the 1600s. The targeting on noncombatants has been a contentious issue since the Thirty Years' War, in which many heretical German towns and villages would face summary execution and brutal attacks for their adherence to the wrong faith. In more modern times, the sinking of the British civilian vessel Lusitania is the landmark example of collateral damage during wartime. The nearly twelve hundred civilian deaths are notable for the horrific death toll on behalf of the Germany U-boat fleet, as well its accidental provocation of the United States to enter World War I on behalf of the Allies.  The example of the Lusitania is one where collateral damage is seen in its purest form—the German intent to prevent military supplies from reaching the European theater shows a deliberate methodology that results in attacking noncombatant targets in order to achieve particular war aims. Here, however, it is important to note that attacking civilians was not the stated nor intended goal of the Lusitania attack; instead, the attack was seen as a logical and acceptable step in preventing the arrival of war supplies to the beleaguered British. In the present era, the “United States conducts targeted strikes consistent with the well-known principles of distinction and proportionality to ensure that the targets are legitimate and collateral damage minimized.”  It is with the contemporary debate over drone strikes that the present-day interpretation of collateral damage as an aspect of warfare is shown to be shifting, as the technological capacity to target very specific locations and individuals from afar drastically reduces the capacity for states to cause collateral damage. Thus, collateral damage as an aspect of war has seen its greatest change in the modern era, as the new ability to remove individual targets helps to reduce, though not completely eliminate, the presence of collateral damage. 

Collateral damage is both the inevitable consequence of armed conflict and the unfortunate legacy of war. Due to the very nature and purpose of war, namely the intent to use force to compel an enemy to accept a situation of one's own choosing, collateral damage is impossible to avoid in any realistic scenario. At the same time, collateral damage has been greatly reduced in its presence as an aspect of modern warfare given contemporary developments and technological innovations aimed at preventing unnecessary death and suffering. The shifting way in which collateral damage is viewed as a constant aspect of warfare is, moreover, continually changed and manipulated by continual technological and strategic changes in how warfare is managed. 


Condra, Luke N., and Jacob N. Shapiro. 2012. "Who Takes the Blame? The Strategic Effects of Collateral Damage." American Journal Of Political Science 56, no. 1: 167-187. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost(accessed June 3, 2013). 

Cooper, Jr., John Milton. 2000. "The Shock of Recognition: The Impact of World War I on America." Virginia Quarterly Review 76, no. 4: 567-584.Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed June 2, 2013). 

Gagin, Roni, Yael Unger-Arnov, Shiri Shinan-Altman, and Aviva Tessler. 2011. "The Suffering is Similar-Is the Treatment Equal? An Intervention With Arab Terror Injured." Social Work In Health Care 50, no. 5: 376- 389. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed June 3, 2013). 

Ismailov, Anvar Ismailovich. 2011. "On the Issue of Human Losses during the Great Patriotic War, 1941-1945." Journal Of Slavic Military Studies 24, no. 2: 232-237. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed June 1, 2013). 

Kamm, F. 2005. "Terror and Collateral Damage: Are they Permissible?*."Journal Of Ethics 9, no. 3/4: 381-401. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed June 4, 2013). 

Lederer, David. 2011. "The Myth of the All-Destructive War: Afterthoughts on German Suffering, 1618–1648*." German History 29, no. 3: 380-403.Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed June 3, 2013). 

Sterio, Milena. 2012. "The United States' Use Of Drones In The War On Terror: The (Ii)Legality Of Targeted Killings Under International Law." Case Western Reserve Journal Of International Law 45, no. 1/2: 197- 214. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost(accessed June 4, 2013).