Higgins: Defining collateral damageWritten by Tim Higgins | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Now Dictionary.com defines collateral damage as a noun meaning:
- the killing of civilians in a military attack
- any damage incidental to an activity
The first definition is simple enough for any to understand, and I’m sure has been going on for as long as military attacks have. Despite all of the carefully planned strategies for its battles, war has always been a rather curious form of organized chaos. “All plans are great until the first shot’s fired,” is a military maxim that every commander must factor into his battle plan.
Over time however, the rules have changed. During World War II many decried the Germans in the “Battle of Britain” for their bombing of the civilian target London. Germans countered with accusations on the firebombing of Dresden late in the war, and on Tokyo later still. The war itself ended with attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, inflicting significant damage and civilian loss of life. But WWII was the beginning of the “push button war,” where soldiers miles in the air were capable of inflicting damage on land that they would never set foot upon with a single finger movement.
Missile technology likewise came to real prominence during this war, and nations pushed a button in one country to inflict damage on another many miles away, not knowing exactly where their weapons would land and what collateral damage might be inflicted. While many nations still pursue such technology in claims of real or imagined self-defense, they are also working to extend the reach of their offensive technology to intimidate neighboring nations with potential collateral damage.
The latest U.S. version of this technology is the unmanned drone. Once unarmed and for use strictly in reconnaissance, they have now become flying weapons platforms. In the continuing “war without uniforms,” these remote weapons have long been used in Afghanistan. A number of strikes were even made in neighboring Pakistan, with the understanding that terrorists are hardly respecters of borders and must be dealt with where their bases are.
Recently, the U.S. government admitted to expanding this program to make targeted attacks in Yemen, a land not adjacent to the current or former war zones of Iraq, Afghanistan or even Pakistan; but across significant stretches of land or water. Calling these “signature strikes,” they will apparently be “allowed” when there’s a “clear indication” that an al-Qaida member is present. Of course regardless of the precision of these weapons, there is no doubt that collateral damage likewise occurs and civilians in nations in which the U.S. is not engaged in battle are killed.
And so we come to definition No. 2, and wonder at the incidental damage occurring. While I understand that the War on Terror is one without borders, it is not one to which we make up the rules as we go along. And while we have granted a great deal of discretion to presidents to conduct battle in foreign lands going back to the days of George H.W. Bush (some would say far too much), I don’t recall an act of Congress that allows the Commander in Chief to fight wherever and whenever he sees fit.
These are in fact nations whose sovereignty we apparently seem to ignore to attack our enemies, killing a few of their citizens in collateral damage. One might suggest that behind the scenes we ask their permission, but what are the chances that a nation the size and military strength of Yemen would refuse us? The question remains however, by what interpretation of the Constitution or of law do we have the right even to ask?
How would we react to Mexico sending drones over this nation’s borders in order to deal with drug cartels that kill thousands every year if they were hiding on our side of the border? How long in turn before we consider the threat on Mexico’s side in the same light as Yemen and deploy such technology over there? Even if other nations (or a body like the U.N.) should grant us or anyone such authority, why would we want it?
So when we finally get around to the long-overdue discussion of how to define the property and human cost of collateral damage that we are doing around the world, perhaps we might likewise begin to discuss that done to a nation that was at least once considered to be under the rule of law. What law or constitutional authority permits these overseas adventures? Which article defining executive authority in our limited government permits a death sentence to be issued without charges being brought, a trial occurring or a verdict being issued? How are such arbitrary judgments going to convince an increasingly suspicious world that it’s not we who are the enemy? And while the collateral damage done in places around the world should be cause enough to reconsider such policies, that occurring at the same time to this nation should be a far greater concern to those hoping to remain free.