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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

collateral damage

(1990’s | militarese | “civilian casualties,” “accidental damage”)

A classic military euphemism. The term began to appear in the press during the 1970’s, always in martial contexts. In the decades before that, it saw occasional exposure as a legal term, which meant something similar to the military use — havoc wreaked off to the side, destruction caused that was not part of the main event. So a defendant might be held responsible not just for selling you stolen property, but for damaging it in transit. “Collateral damage” (nothing to do with the usual legal use of “damages”) in that sense does not seem to have risen to the level of a standard legal term (I failed to find it in my usual on-line legal dictionaries), but it turned up now and then in judicial decisions. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger used the phrase in just that way in 1974. The first examples I found of militarese uses date from the 1960’s; some have conjectured that the phrase arose during the Vietnam War, which seems likely enough. It got its first workout in the mainstream press during discussions of the neutron bomb in the late 1970’s. Still used mainly in military contexts at the end of the 1980’s, “collateral damage” came into its own during the following decade. By 2000, it appeared comfortably in many contexts — finance, medicine, forestry, relationships — and could be used jocularly or ironically, a sign that a new expression has arrived. A film of that title was released in 2002. It remains widely used.

The phrase aims to disguise destruction of persons or property, and it has always had a certain ambiguity, although I would say (and American Heritage agrees with me) that as time has gone on, the militarese use has shaded decisively toward using “collateral damage” to mean killing people, not destroying buildings, infrastructure, and so forth. Non-military people almost always use it to refer to human carnage. During the neutron bomb debates, “collateral damage” generally referred to the city, not the people, because the whole point of the neutron bomb was that it killed all the people but left the buildings intact. Even there it was slippery, though, because another property of the neutron bomb was that it led to less widespread destruction, so people one town over might well be spared and not turned into collateral damage. I would guess even today that a military spokesman might use it either way, but if you totted up the instances, I suspect it means dead non-combatants much more often than buildings reduced to rubble.

Collateral damage is supposed to be unintentional. It may be incidental (as in insignificant), or it may be quite harmful. One explanation for its rise might be the unhappy experiences of the U.S. military in Vietnam. The strategists and planners emphasized capturing the “hearts and minds” of the folks we were invading. Reports from the battlefield suggested that the local population resented it when we destroyed their homes utterly for no good reason, so the word went out: avoid messing with people who are just trying to get on with their lives. The guerrilla nature of the conflict made such distinctions difficult to observe with any rigor, and not all the soldiers were happy about the restrictions placed upon them. And because of the new rules, the Pentagon boys needed a handy phrase that would refer quickly to an aspect of the war they desperately needed to get under control.

The notion of collateral damage can claim kinship with two other militarese notions: surgical strikes and legitimate targets. Theoretically, collateral damage is understood to be people or objects that should not be destroyed, even in war. If everything and everybody are fair game, there’s no such thing as collateral damage — it’s all good. Surgical strikes: The rueful tone associated with the use of the phrase by military commanders has to do with the fact that our precision weapons are not as precise as we want them to be. Gosh darn it, that missile was only a few hundred yards off target, but all those people we weren’t even trying to kill died anyway. “Collateral damage” has become an apology of sorts, though general use of the term has not prevented us from inflicting plenty of it. It is an example of an unintended consequence, an attempt to acknowledge error while avoiding guilt.

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