Brian Cloughley writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:
I started thinking about the phrase after a recent, disturbing trip to Pakistan. ‘Collateral damage’ is a seemingly bland phrase, but it indicates stomach-churning contempt for human life. It was fashionable during the Vietnam war, when countless thousands of civilians were blown to bits, burned to death by napalm, or otherwise destroyed or maimed by a military machine that was out of control.
In later years the jargon words fell into disfavour with those who killed civilians in conflict, if only because the world had realised that when some robotic mouthpiece mentioned ‘collateral damage’ in a media briefing it was certain that official savagery had resulted in the deaths of an unknown number of innocent people. But the phrase came back into fashion.
During NATO’s war against the Serbs there was a particularly repulsive spokesman called Jamie Shea whose smug account of the destruction of a bridge in May 1999 was a typical attempt to justify the killing of civilians. Of this particular blunder the BBC recorded that “At least 11 civilians were reported killed and a further 40 injured when Nato bombers mounted a daylight raid on a bridge in south-central Serbia . . . Rescuers who went to aid the injured were hit in the second attack.”
And Shea announced that the bombs were directed at a “legitimate designated military target.” There was no regret for the massacre, or even for the killing of patients when NATO planes bombed a hospital in Belgrade.
Then came the sublime moment, the resurrection of the We-are-the-Masters jargon, after a US airstrike on a train killed a dozen civilians. It provided an opportunity for Shea to declare “We regret any loss of life that this may have caused because our policy remains to minimize collateral damage.” The fool couldn’t see the absurd callousness of his statement – and he could hardly admit that ‘collateral damage’ is usually caused by criminal incompetence and sometimes with criminal intent.
The phrase wasn’t used much during the Iraq fiasco and has been avoided during the equally senseless war in Afghanistan. Which doesn’t mean to say there have not been enormous numbers of civilian deaths. Many blameless civilians have been killed in Afghanistan – and Pakistan – by foreign forces and their video-gamers in the sky.
In Afghanistan in October, for example, the reporter Kathy Kelly related that : “. . . the first picture showed his cousin’s ruined home. A US aerial bombardment had destroyed the dwelling. The next pictures were of two bloodied children. ‘All of his children were killed,’ the spokesperson said. ‘All his family, his wife, his five children, by an attack from the air’.”
In Pakistan most of the killing of civilians by US drone-fired missiles goes unrecorded. There is no doubt many of the 100 drone strikes this year have killed some very nasty people, but it would be ridiculous to claim there have been no civilian casualties. The attacks take place in remote areas of the country, and the dead are rarely seen by independent witnesses. But the slaughter of his fellow citizens by US missiles is not a cause for concern to Pakistan’s President Zardari who is reported in Bob Woodward’s ‘Obama’s Wars’ as telling the Director of the CIA in 2008 that “Collateral damage worries you Americans. It does not worry me.”
Give that man an ‘A’ for bluntness. And a ‘Z’ for decency, honour, loyalty and compassion.
The Prime Minister of Pakistan, Yousef Raza Gilani, had no problems with drone strikes either, and in 2008 told the US ambassador in Islamabad (as learned through Wikileaks) “I don’t care if they do it as long as they get the right people. We’ll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it.” What a fine example of caring democracy, to be sure.
But only too often American missiles and assassination squads do not “get the right people”. The US military and the CIA have an appalling record in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the numbers of ‘collateral damage’ deaths have been enormous; and there has been a policy of official lying about civilian casualties until forced by facts to admit the truth.
It is difficult to conduct investigations into drone killings in Pakistan’s isolated valleys, but a Washington-based organisation, the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, managed to probe some of the strikes and determined there had been “30 civilian deaths in just nine cases that we investigated – all since 2009 – including 14 women and children.” In one account, “In June 2010, Shakeel Khan was sitting in his home in North Waziristan with his family when a drone missile struck: ‘I was resting with my parents in one room when it happened. God saved my parents and I, but my brother, his wife, and children were all killed’.”
But there is not only butchery in the drone campaign ; there is colossal damage being done to Pakistan, with massive propaganda advantage to insurrectionists, extremists, thugs and anarchists of all descriptions. The country is in ferment and on the edge of social disaster. There could hardly be a worse time for the US, in concert with an unpopular, corruption-struck and feeble government, to carry on blitzing.
The US has achieved control and lost credibility. But the government of Pakistan has lost both. That’s collateral damage, too.
Brian Cloughley is author of War, Coups and Terror: Pakistan’s Army in Years of Turmoil.