What is Collateral Damage?

Michael Pollick

Military terminology is often in a state of flux, as is the case with the phrase collateral damage. Before the Vietnam War, military press releases rarely addressed the issue of extraneous damage caused by military operations. The mission itself may have been deemed a success, but there was little to no information provided about civilian casualties or property damage. During the Vietnam War, however, the term was coined to describe, and some would suggest downplay, the actual effect of a military campaign on the civilian population.

"Collateral damage" refers to casualties suffered by civilians in combat areas.
"Collateral damage" refers to casualties suffered by civilians in combat areas.

By describing civilian losses and property damage as collateral damage, government officials attempt to deflect criticism of an unusually high civilian death count. The euphemism is sufficient to imply such losses, but doesn't minimize the success of the overall mission. Phrases such as "civilian casualties" are often considered too direct for public consumption.

While the phrase may have its origins in military terminology, it has also found its way into the popular vernacular. The world of business is especially fond of the concept of collateral damage to describe the unintentional damage left in the wake of a singular action. If a company decides to move its offices out of a city, for example, the subsequent loss suffered by local vendors and restaurants could be described as collateral damage.

The sudden closing of a department for financial reasons could also cause collateral damage, as other employees lose their own positions as a result of the shutdown. This damage is usually viewed as significant but contained, meaning the number of losses or the level of damage is still acceptable when compared to the overall benefits of taking action. Military and business analysts alike may consider the perceived amount of unintentional damage an action could cause.

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Sometimes, collateral damage occurs on a social level. A divorce, for example, could be said to leave behind some such damage, as friendships and family relations disintegrate. Other events such as an unexpected death in the family or a tragic accident could also cause collateral damage, as others' lives are negatively affected by the sudden change. When a singular event creates a sudden upheaval in a number of lives, the resulting fallout could be accurately described using this term.

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