‘Collateral Damage’ Is a Confession, Not an Excuse

“Civilians are not collateral damage,” the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean tweeted (or whatever it’s called now on X, formerly Twitter) on October 27. “Patients are not collateral damage. Health staff & health facilities are not collateral damage. Children, women & men sheltering in health facilities are not collateral damage. International Humanitarian Law must be respected.”

WHO is obviously referring to events in Gaza. Unfortunately, the statement goes both too far and not far enough.

The “too far” part:

On a quick read of “international law” – specifically Protocol I and the 1997 Additional Protocol of the 1949 Geneva Conventions – the claim that people in hospitals can’t be “collateral damage” seems unsupported. Article 19 does order that such facilities “shall not be attacked,” but if the attack is on a nearby “legitimate” military target, then per Article 51(5)(b) the attackers merely need avoid  “anticipated civilian damage or injury” that’s “clearly excessive” in relation to “anticipated military advantage.”

The “not far enough” part:

There is no moral, nor should there be any legal,  Get Out of Jail Free Card for those who injure or kill non-combatants.

War is an intentional activity and “collateral damage” is therefore by definition not “accidental.”

When YOU squeeze the trigger on a rifle, pull the lanyard on a howitzer, or press a button that drops a bomb or launches a missile, YOU are morally responsible – and should be held legally responsible – for the results of your actions.

It’s on YOU to know where that munition is going and who’s on or near that spot.

If the results of your action include the deaths of, or injuries to, non-combatants, that’s also on you.

Your action may be intentional, reckless, or negligent, but whatever else it may be it is NOT accidental.

The obvious objection to imposing something analogous to a  “felony murder rule” on actions taken during war is that few would willingly participate in such activities if they expected to be held to account for their crimes. That’s a feature, not a bug. War is a bad thing. Making it harder to recruit people to conduct it is a good thing.

Regimes (both actual and would-be) try to claim special exemptions from basic morality for themselves and their agents when it comes to the lives and livelihoods caught in the middle of their fights. But shiny badges and fancy uniforms don’t change the moral equation. Nor should they.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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