You’re right to say that I labeled “unnecessary” collateral damage as immoral. However, to get to the core of my statement there, I think we have to dive into what registers as unnecessary death in warfare. As in my last piece, such a statement may seem cold. I agree with that judgement, but I do so on the basis that war is cold. Victory parades on V-E Day and the toppling of our enemies may cause a warm patriotic fervor to swell within us, but that glow of victory is always fueled by the deaths of our countrymen.
Some would probably say that all death in war is unnecessary, because war in unnecessary. I think any realistic mind could recognize the falsehood of that sentiment. While some wars may be more worthwhile than others, there have been wars that couldn’t be avoided and also needed to be fought. Hitler couldn’t have been bargained with or waited out. The United States dabbled in that sort of foreign policy right before our Pacific Fleet went up in smoke. No, sometimes it takes more than a handshake and a piece of paper to achieve “peace in our time.” Neville Chamberlain will forever be the butt of historical jokes because of his failure to see this point.
So, war is necessary, and there’s never been a war – that I know of – without the loss of life. If one accepts my previous statement, they’re left to ask themselves: which deaths are necessary and acceptable and which ones are not? I’ll return to the example of the atomic bombings of Japan to explore my thought process here.
I’ve already established – and I think we agree – that the use of the atomic bombs at the end of World War II was both necessary and moral. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed an overwhelming amount of civilians, but it would seem that those deaths were necessary. One might say the civilians were the target, so they weren’t collateral damage. Someone else might say that the city was the target, not the civilians. But, that’s an issue of semantics and word games. I’m not interested in that at this moment, although that would be an interesting conversation to have.
I believe those Japanese citizens to be collateral damage, while, at the same time, their deaths were also necessary in moving us closer to our goal of ending the war. The shocking deaths of so many people in such a short amount of time is what pushed the Japanese past their ideals of honor and toward terms of surrender. That is a case, in my eyes, of necessary collateral damage.
On the other hand, an example of unnecessary collateral damage is the civilian deaths resulting from many American drone strikes in Middle Eastern cities. There’s usually no strategic or objective reason to execute a drone strike on a suspected terrorist whilst he’s surrounded by his family or bystanders. The absence of purpose behind those deaths is what makes them unnecessary and immoral. And, not only do the deaths not serve a purpose, but they are counterintuitive to bringing stability to the region we’re fighting in.
In more straightforward terms, I see unnecessary collateral damage as any death that doesn’t serve a specific purpose or advance us toward the goal of ending the conflict. Although, as I alluded to before, that doesn’t mean we should adopt a strategy of widely killing civilians. There are exceptions to rules, even in war. We can’t just look at every situation as if they’re all equal. Military action should be looked at on a case by case basis, and in some cases the existence of collateral damage is necessary, and perhaps even moral, if it facilitates another step in the process of sowing the seeds of peace.