The Ripple Effects of “Collateral Damage”

If there is a single factor driving the U.S. armed forces and militaries around the world to explore airborne and surf unmanned combat vehicles, it is the growing political cost of battlefield casualties. What those technological marvels have been unable to do, however, is eliminate unintended casualties to civilians in wartime – a phenomenon commonly and somewhat coldly referred to as “collateral damage.”

As part of making a case for finding new ways to reduce or eliminate casualties among non-combattants in wartime, Eric Larson and Bogdan Savych wrote Misfortunes of War: Press and Public Reactions to Civilian Deaths in Wartime. In the book, the authors look at the communications aspect of the problem, not only assessing the different responses to the issue in Europe, the US, and elsewhere, but also urging military leaders to address the problem and specific incidents with the public in a more forthright manner.

This is going to continue to be an issue with all armed forces around the world, especially in an age where the Internet has altered the political and psychological effects of conflict. Indeed, the authors note that the challenge is likely to get worse with time, as incidents that would once have been buried in the scale of the conflict are magnified and twisted for the purposes of one side or the other. Part of the solution is finding ways to eliminate such damage altogether, but in a day of precision weapons and tactics, mistakes are still unavoidable.

Save eschewing “wet works” altogether, governments and non-state actors are going to find themselves enmeshed in a war of words over every mistake, and the states have the most to lose. The communications war will thus grow in importance, so this book is an essential read for anyone communicating – or being communicated to – such tragedies.

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