Collateral damage: Putin cannot hide behind a euphemism

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If you were to ask me which term I dislike the most, my answer would be a certain phrase probably invented by a politician: “Collateral damage.” Dictionaries define it as a noun denoting all forms of damage resulting from warfare incurred by people who are not part of the military. That is, instead of the forces of the other side, you kill innocent civilians in war and coolly refer to them as “collateral damage.” “Oh, we are sorry that our rockets destroyed apartment blocks where civilians, including women, children and old men, were living peacefully in their homes. It is not the damage we intended; but it happened anyway, as an ancillary part of the process…”

I am not a war historian; Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole told the American television channel MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell that armies likely started killing noncombatant civilians during the American Civil War. In World War I, armies fought armies; warfare happened in the countryside. But World War II was fought in cities and towns, so armies deliberately killed civilians. The armies would put a red cross or red crescent on hospital tents on the battlefield to save them from intentional fire. However, when the U.S. Army joined the European war, they brought with them the concept of destroying villages and hospitals to secure a victory. Later, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) documented the bombing of health facilities by the U.S. and the Syrian regime in the country. Similarly, several Western observers and journalists reported that invading U.S. and U.N. coalition forces intentionally hit many of the health facilities when they moved into urban areas in Iraq, too. PHR reported that the civilian population developed “a fear of being near medical facilities.” According to their report, that anxiety had become all too common among Syrians.

The basic concept that civilian areas and medical facilities in towns (even on the battlefields) are safe from the destruction of war has been distorted to unsettle an army or a nation’s capacity for resistance and its confidence in itself.

Now noncombatants are primary targets in the military occupation of a country. The political leaders who started the occupation and targeted civilians in urban areas tell us that harmed civilians – women and children, sick and wounded people in hospitals, and women in labor at nursing facilities – were just “an incidental result of military activity.”

With the development of precision-guided munitions, we would expect that there would be no “incidentally harmed civilians.” However, they are aimed at the apartment blocks where people reside. We saw high-rises pierced through the middle; we saw beds and bath tubes dangling in the air where there was supposed to be an apartment. This was not “collateral damage.” It was intentional. A Russian soldier aimed at those city blocks and when he saw the floral-pattern curtains in the window, cocked the safety lock of his rocket, caressed it first and then pulled the trigger. The residents of those apartment flats, mostly women and children, are probably still buried under the rubble.

That euphemism “collateral damage” not only dehumanizes noncombatants killed or injured during combat but also aims to exonerate political leaders from noncombatant casualties. Former U.S. President George W. Bush and former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair are responsible for the half a million civilians their armies killed during the Gulf War. We could blame Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who still thinks he is acting as Petrovych Goloborodko (his role in the “Servant of the People” political comedy television series that carried him to his position now) for not having the tact to prevent the calamity in his country. However, it is Russian President Vladimir Putin who has blood on his hands every time a Russian rocket is fired into a civilian home.

It’s in Putin’s hands

Only Putin can stop it. He can establish peace right now. Just like the “Peace Now” movement by Israeli citizens that pursues peace, compromise and reconciliation between the Palestinians and Arab states in order to guarantee Israel’s future security and identity as a state, Russia’s secure future as we know it now lies in Putin’s hands.

Russia’s future security is also important for many nations in the Balkans and Caucasus. The dismemberment of the Russian Federation would have a devastating impact on Central Asia, too. As a national security expert, Mr. Putin should have the analytical capacity to see what is behind the security and diplomatic teams U.S. President Joe Biden has put together at the White House. Biden may not know the specifics of the redesign plans his team members have in store, but Putin has no justification to act unaware given the history. He may somehow get away with the literal murder of thousands of Ukrainian civilians, but if the Russian Federation collapses, he cannot retreat to his dacha as former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev did after the demise of the Soviet Union.


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