‘Collateral Damage’ a Familiar, Often Intended, Part of War : Air attacks: The allies are trying to avoid civilian casualties in the Gulf. But non-military areas have been deliberately targeted in previous conflicts.

“Collateral damage.” That’s the new buzz phrase of the Persian Gulf War. It means the unintended damage to civilians and non-military structures in the target area directly caused by military action. Although the words are new, the awful reality behind them most definitely is not.

And it didn’t start with “We had to destroy the town in order to save it,” the unfortunate remark of the young Army officer in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War that caused so much hand-wringing in the United States.

As far as the American military is concerned, collateral damage is older than the Republic. “If General Washington and his council of war should be of opinion that a successful attack may be made on the (British) troops in Boston, he do it in any manner he may think expedient, notwithstanding the town and the property in it may thereby be destroyed.” said the Continental Congress on Dec. 22, 1775.

And the exchange of letters on this score in September, 1864, between Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood during the siege of Atlanta are classic. Claiming military necessity, Sherman demanded the evacuation of all civilians from Atlanta. Hood responded that “the unprecedented measure you propose transcends, in studied and ingenious cruelty, all acts ever before brought to my attention in the dark history of war.”


“Talk thus to the marines, but not to me,” replied Sherman. “The use of Atlanta for warlike purposes is inconsistent with its character as a home for families. . . . You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”

Ironically, in the aftermath of the terrible blood bath of World War I, Italian Gen. Giulio Douhet sought to limit the carnage of ground combat by deliberately targeting civilians instead. As the U.S. Office of Air Force History noted in its introduction to the 1983 reprint of Douhet’s 1921 masterwork, “The Command of the Air,” Douhet propounded that “by bombing cities and factories instead of military forces (except air forces), the enemy could be defeated through shattering the civilian will to continue to resist.”

Not everyone agreed. “An air raid which involves in its accomplishment the wholesale destruction of noncombatants cannot be justified or condoned,” emphasized a 1936 Army Command & General Staff School manual on military strategy. “Any nation employing such methods will be condemned by the civilized world. Air raiding among civilized nations will have to be confined to military or semi-military objectives and thus will constitute one of the important supporting units in the conduct of war.”

But in World War II, that was not to be. From the German blitz of London to the Allied raids on Berlin to the firebomb raids on Tokyo to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Douhet’s theories were put to the test.


The destruction of German cities by bombing was nearly total. About 305,000 German civilians were killed and 780,000 injured from Allied bombing--35,000 were killed in the Feb. 13-14, 1945, raid on Dresden alone.

In a March 9, 1945, air raid on Tokyo, American B-29 bombers killed 83,793 people and injured another 40,918. The raid destroyed a quarter of Tokyo’s buildings and left more than a million people homeless. It was the most destructive air raid in history. Casualties exceeded the 70,000 to 80,000 killed in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the 35,000 killed at Nagasaki.

In the Korean War, collateral damage was also a matter of official policy. I was a sergeant with the 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division during the retreat from North Korea in November-December, 1950. We were ordered to conduct a “scorched earth” campaign. Knowing the Chinese Communist forces had to live off the land, as we withdrew we burned all houses, killed all livestock and destroyed all rice supplies. Civilian suffering was beyond belief. Millions of North Korean civilians fled south in subzero weather, and thousands died along the way.

When Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway assumed command of U.N. forces in Korea in late December, 1950, he canceled the “scorched earth” policy, but North Korean cities continued to be pounded from the air. On Aug. 29, 1952, for example, Far East Air Forces launched a 1,403-plane raid on the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, the largest air raid of the war.


Paradoxical as it may sound, the Vietnam War marked the beginning of the military’s attempt to return to its 1936 standards and limit collateral damage. The infamous “free-fire zones,” for example, were an attempt to lessen civilian casualties. Except in such zones, usually established in sparsely populated areas or in enemy-held territory, air strikes in Vietnam had to be cleared by local South Vietnamese officials.

By contrast, in World War II the entire continent of Europe was a “free-fire zone.” Thousands of innocent civilians were killed and wounded by Allied bombing attacks on roads and rail networks in Belgium, France and Holland, especially just before the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. In the process of the war, many French cities were indeed “destroyed in order to save them.”

Ramsey Clark’s charges Thursday that civilian bomb damage in Iraq is far worse than is being admitted brings to mind one of the major (if not widely reported) scandals of the Vietnam War. While it was widely asserted that Hanoi had been “carpet bombed” during the Vietnam War, the truth, as I found when I traveled there in 1974, was that the bombing had been especially selective. It was not like Berlin or Tokyo after World War II, where there was nothing but rubble to the horizon. You had to look to find bomb damage in Hanoi.

In his monumental “Vietnam: A History,” former war correspondent Stanley Karnow tells how such distortions occurred. “American anti-war activists visiting the city during the December, 1972, ‘Christmas bombing’ attacks, urged the mayor to claim a death toll of 10,000. He refused, saying his government’s credibility was at stake. The official North Vietnamese figure for civilian casualties for the period was 1,318 in Hanoi.” That was hardly the equivalent of the American incendiary bombing of Tokyo.


As the military briefers in both Saudi Arabia and Washington keep emphasizing, allied pilots, to avoid collateral damage, are going so far as to put themselves at risk. But even the best attempts cannot absolutely guarantee no civilian deaths or no destruction of civilian property.

Having said that, however, one thing is certain: With the tens of thousands of air sorties flown so far, and the tons of bombs dropped, if allied aircraft were indeed carpet bombing Baghdad, Baghdad would be no more.