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Collateral damage

Definition Collateral damage refers to the unintentional harm, injury, or death inflicted upon civilians, their property, or infrastructure during a military operation. It is generally an undesired consequence that occurs due to targeting an enemy-held position or combatants. The term acknowledges the unintentional nature of the harm and emphasizes efforts to minimize such effects during […]


Collateral damage refers to the unintentional harm, injury, or death inflicted upon civilians, their property, or infrastructure during a military operation. It is generally an undesired consequence that occurs due to targeting an enemy-held position or combatants. The term acknowledges the unintentional nature of the harm and emphasizes efforts to minimize such effects during military operations.

Key Takeaways

  1. Collateral damage refers to the unintended harm or destruction caused to people, property, or infrastructure during a military operation, particularly affecting civilians or non-combatants.
  2. Measures are often taken to minimize collateral damage, such as the use of precision-guided munitions, carefully planned mission objectives, and adherence to strict rules of engagement.
  3. The concept of collateral damage is significant in international humanitarian law and has ethical implications, as it balances military necessity against potential harm to civilians, with the goal of reducing civilian casualties and protecting their property.


Collateral damage is an essential term in military operations as it highlights the unintended, yet unavoidable harm caused to civilians, their property, and non-military infrastructure during armed conflicts.

This concept is crucial because it underscores the ethical and legal obligations of parties involved in warfare to minimize the impact on innocent bystanders.

Acknowledging collateral damage raises awareness about the human cost of military engagements and encourages the development of policies, strategies, and technologies aimed at reducing such casualties.

Furthermore, the term serves as an important reminder for decision-makers to consider both the strategic objectives and potential consequences of a military operation, emphasizing the need for balancing military necessity with humanitarian considerations.


Collateral damage refers to the unintended or secondary destruction, injury, or fatalities caused during military operations that were not specifically targeted or planned. This concept is utilized to acknowledge the inescapability and unpredictability of unforeseen consequences arising during warfare, despite the meticulous efforts of militaries to minimize civilian casualties and protect non-combatant infrastructure.

The underlying purpose of acknowledging collateral damage is to ensure a constant awareness of the moral and ethical concerns involved in these operations, thus reminding military officials and policymakers of their responsibilities to make every effort possible in reducing the risk of harm to innocent lives, minimizing the impact on communities, and abiding by international laws and principles of humanitarian action. An important aspect of collateral damage is the discussion it fosters regarding the proportionality of the methods and tactics employed in military operations.

This term serves as a framework for evaluating the balance between military objectives and the unintended consequences during armed conflict. Collateral damage considerations are embedded within rules of engagement, influencing strategic and operational decision-making processes.

It is crucial for military planners to continuously assess the potential collateral damage associated with their operations, refraining from conducting those with disproportionate harm to civilians or the environment relative to their potential military gains. Therefore, the term “collateral damage” plays a key role in shaping transparent discourse on the ethical dimensions of warfare, emphasizing the importance of humanitarian concerns when conducting military operations.

Examples of Collateral damage

Operation Allied Force (1999): During the NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, collateral damage occurred when a number of civilian infrastructure targets were hit, including the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, which killed three Chinese citizens and injured 20 others. NATO admitted that the bombing was a mistake caused by outdated intelligence information.

Battle of Mosul (2016-2017): During the battle to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS fighters, collateral damage became a major concern as airstrikes were carried out in densely populated areas. In one incident, a U.S. airstrike in March 2017 hit a building believed to be holding ISIS fighters, but accidentally also caused the collapse of neighboring buildings, leading to over a hundred civilian deaths.

Kunduz Hospital Airstrike (2015): In October 2015, a United States Air Force AC-130 gunship mistakenly attacked the Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) facility in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 42 people and injuring more than 30 others. The incident was a tragic case of collateral damage caused by the misidentification of the hospital as a hostile target. The U.S. government apologized and paid compensation to the victims and their families.

FAQ: Collateral Damage

What is collateral damage?

Collateral damage refers to the accidental or unintentional harm caused to civilian property, infrastructure, or individuals as a result of military actions. This can include loss of life, injuries, or damage caused by the indirect consequences of military operations, such as force majeure events or environmental damage.

What factors contribute to collateral damage?

Several factors can contribute to collateral damage, including the use of imprecise weaponry, proximity of civilians to military targets, miscommunication among military units, or faulty intelligence. Additionally, the complexities of modern warfare can make it difficult to accurately assess and predict potential collateral damage risks.

How do militaries try to minimize collateral damage?

Militaries often undertake efforts to minimize collateral damage by implementing strict rules of engagement, utilizing precise weaponry, conducting thorough pre-strike assessments, and employing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems to better understand the environment in which they are operating. They may also attempt to avoid known civilian areas or places that may lead to additional risks when planning operations.

What are the consequences of collateral damage?

Collateral damage can have significant and lasting consequences, including loss of life, emotional trauma, damage to infrastructure and property, displacement of populations, and long-term environmental damage. Additionally, collateral damage can lead to increasing tensions between involved nations and have negative impacts on public opinion, both domestically and internationally.

Are there any legal or ethical considerations regarding collateral damage?

Yes, there are legal and ethical considerations related to collateral damage. International humanitarian law (IHL) and the principle of proportionality mandate that military actions should minimize harm to civilians and civilian property, while the principle of distinction requires that combatants must distinguish between military objectives and civilian objects. Violations of these principles can lead to accusations of war crimes or crimes against humanity, making it essential for militaries to take steps to minimize collateral damage.

Related Military Operation Terms

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Disability compensation
  • Combat-related special compensation (CRSC)
  • Traumatic injury protection (TSGLI)
  • Dependency and indemnity compensation (DIC)

Sources for More Information

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