Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Collateral Damage

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, July 15, 2014 --  

Countries aspiring to Western status must learn to be as high minded in war as they are at peace.

As Israeli bombs rain down on Gaza and Ukrainian artillery pounds rebels around Donetsk, civilians have as often as not borne the brunt of the casualties.

Such is the nature of warfare, especially urban warfare seen over the past weekend.   In Gaza, bombs killed two people in a home for the disabled1, and in Maryinka Ukraine,  Pro-Russian fighters told Russia Today that 30 civilians were killed and an orphanage destroyed.2  Such claims at times of war always deserve skepticism, but there is no doubt that civilians have suffered widespread casualties in both conflicts.

The issue of justifying collateral damage on innocents is far from new.  But it poses particular problems for both Israel and Ukraine, which fashion themselves as Western-oriented democracies fighting against anti-Western repressive forces.  Both Israel and Ukraine defend collateral damage saying that their opponents are also guilty of inflicting civilian casualties.  And they are right.  But this misses the point -- as democracies they must expect to be held to a higher standard.

Such criticism is especially appropriate for Israel, where a powerful, well trained and well equipped military faces off against zealous but poorly armed guerrlla opponents.  Unlike in Israel, Ukraine's hapless, poorly paid, and undisciplined military probably can't do much better.  (Although that's hardly an excuse for killing civilians.)

To be sure, militants in Gaza and Donetsk hunker down amongst civilians in dense urban areas knowing full well that they put them at risk.    It is not inaccurate to say they are using civilians as human shields.   As the Israelis and Ukrainians would undoubtedly say, "what do you expect from terrorists?"

But militants' taking civilians as shields hardly justifies violent actions against them that kill innocents.  In Israel, there have been exactly zero Israeli deaths from the primitive rockets emanating from Gaza since violence recently broke out, but scores of deaths of Gaza civillians.   Militants in Donetsk and Luhansk have certainly killed plenty of Ukrainian armed forces fighting them, and have reportedly kidnapped and killed a handful of hostages,  there is no evidence of widespread killing of civilians.

Indeed, inflicting collateral damage is especially damaging to the cause of aspiring Western-oriented democracies because it erodes their moral authority in ways where the reverse is simply not true.  Russia and Arab media outlets have zealously reported allegations of civilians harmed  by the Ukrainian and Israeli forces.  But when faced with similar criticism, they inspire relatively little outrage because of their existing bad-boy images.

Clearly, Ukraine and Israel are not alone on this issue. Reputational damage has also hit Americans and British forces over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And so it should. But in the case of both Ukraine and Israel, reputations were weak to begin with. Both nations are wrestling with international doubt about whether they really belong to the West — in Ukraine because of a history of corruption, repression and Soviet rule and in Israel because of a 47-year occupation of Palestinian lands.

War by nature is at times violently unforgiving in the indiscriminate killing it causes.  Countries aspiring to Western status must learn to be as high minded in war as they are at peace.


1. The Guardian, Disabled Palestinians Unable to Escape Israeli Air Strike, July 12, 2014 

2. Russia Today, 30 Civilians Killed, Orphanage Destroyed as Kiev Forces Hit Town Near Donetsk -- Local Militia, July 13, 2014