Collateral Damage and the Lesser of Evils

The discourse of collateral damage, then, is not only overtaking the human rights discourse but also incorporating it and using it to justify so-called humanitarian warfare. Within this logic of utilitarian calculus of risk–benefit analysis, refugees are numbers to be plugged into complicated equations to assess the benefits of helping them, primarily in terms of the safety and security of the so-called host nations. Even humanitarian aid organizations such as Doctors without Borders now employ risk management personnel charged with calculating the risks and benefits of giving aid (see Neuman and Weissman 2016). These calculations cannot account for the singularity of individuals and their experiences; nor do they factor in human dignity or respect or the basic quality of life. Within this calculus, refugees become exchangeable, fungible, and eventually disposable.

For example, Turkey’s membership into the European Union is contingent on the nation taking a certain quota of refugees. Ongoing negotiations between the EU and Turkey revolve around how much money the EU will provide in exchange for each refugee and whether Turkish citizens will be able to move freely within the EU, even while the freedom of movement of refugees is severely restricted and circumscribed. Closer to home, the U.S. government is paying Mexico to keep refugees from Central America from crossing the border to seek asylum. The United States has “outsourced” the refugee problem to Mexico, where most asylum seekers are either detained for long periods in rat-infested jails eating worm-infested food or deported to face violence or death back at home (see Nazario 2015). Refugees have become disposable insofar as their lives, safety, and security, along with their freedom of movement, are exchanged for both money and the freedom of movement of others.

Refugees have become collateral damage in civil wars and the so-called war on terror, when they aren’t pawns to be exchanged in negotiations between governments. In this new form of warfare, international military forces organized by state officials, and operating according to international “rules of engagement,” are no longer necessarily tied to national constitutions or declarations of war. These operations are often designed to minimize “collateral damage.” This form of international warfare, without a front line, without a clear enemy, without a formal declaration of war, without judicial approval, seemingly beyond nation-states, is fought in the name of national security and protecting citizens. Yet, American and European nationals carry out terror attacks from inside state borders, where “hotbeds” of religious fanaticism supposedly spawned in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria are actually sprouting and growing in Florida flight schools or Brussels suburbs. Smart bombs and surgical strikes supposedly limit the loss of life, while computer programs are used to calculate collateral damage in the name of a more humane killing. And the military follows “rules of engagement” agreed upon by our allies, designed not only to limit loss of life but also to limit liability, particularly legal liability or liability to media scandals.

These rules of engagement are based on calculations of proportionality in which computer models perform risk–benefit analyses to assess what targets are worth and what collateral damage is acceptable. Humanitarian aid figures into these calculations insofar as military strategy includes shoring up the sovereignty of so-called failed states by considering issues of poverty and famine insofar as they are causes of state failure and the radicalization of terrorists, using human rights discourse to cover over calculations of the risks of poor and hungry people becoming terrorists. Contemporary warfare waged by superpowers looks more like targeted assassination justified by complex utilitarian calculations of what deaths are worth more than which lives. In the words of Daniel Resiner, former head of the International Law Division of the Israeli military,

proportionality is a complex logic with many variables—but how do you compare these? There is no choice but to ask the question, compare and calculate. Proportionality does not tell us what to include in the calculation, what is the equation and what is the exchange rate? . . . Does one dead child equal one dead grownup, or does he equal five grownups? As a lawyer I need numbers to work with. I need thresholds in order to instruct the soldiers. Any number could become a useful benchmark. But when the ground of the law is shaking I am also unstable. (Weizman 2011, 13)

As a lawyer, Resiner is uneasy with the aftershocks of this earthquake in our conception of tolerance, which defines and quantifies how much suffering we can tolerate in terms of proportional logics and the lesser of evils. Tolerance becomes a matter of benchmarks and thresholds wherein “any number” will do as long as there is a clear cutoff between what we can and what we cannot tolerate. The new war craves precision. Surgical strikes, rules of engagement, and computer formulas for acceptable risks and tolerable collateral damage are part of the fantasy of precision and accuracy that privileges quantity over quality, not only to justify violence, but also to disavow the pain and suffering it causes. Within the formula of collateral damage, containing violence and suffering becomes an alibi for more violence and suffering in calculations based on arbitrary thresholds of death assigned by government agencies and the military. Who will die, and how, is calculated using computer programs similar to those used by corporations to project profit margins or by insurance companies to project risk. Statistical analysis replaces ethics or politics as the basis for assessing “just war.”

The impossibility of predicting the future, risks or benefits, is disavowed by the fervent adherence to models for calculation that create the illusion of control, mastery, and measure, all in the name of preventing the “worst” violence. Military analysts weigh their options based on calculable measurements of how much violence and death they expect given different possible scenarios. Invoking these calculations, international “peacekeeping” forces justify their killing and oppose it to the irrational, incalculable killing of terrorists. Western forces claim to operate according to the rules of war, now defined in economic terms, while terrorists supposedly don’t play by the rules. Even as international military forces continue to make and change the rules in this war without end, front, or declaration, they claim their adherence to rational, principled, measured rules of engagement wherein thresholds of collateral damage and computer programs replace ethical reflection. Within this economic model, the lesser of evils is fewer collateral deaths and more terrorist deaths, calculated with the greatest precision. Of course, reports of civilian causalities and mistakenly bombed hospitals or schools destroy the myth of precision and accuracy in surgical strikes and drone warfare. Even so, within the logic of collateral damage, international military forces can supposedly avoid the “worst.”

Certainly since World War II, the “worst” has been associated with the genocide of the Holocaust, if not also with the shadow of annihilation wrought by nuclear bombs dropped on Japan. Following the logic of contemporary warfare, the worst is seen as incalculable violence unleashed outside of any equation of exchange or rational utilitarian principle for measurement. Weizman (2011, 12) argues that contemporary warfare’s lesser-of-evils model claims to avoid the worst “by opening a field of equivalence, in which different forms of potential and actual violence, risk, and damage become exchangeable, proportionality approximates an algorithmic logic of computation,” wherein the computer becomes the paragon of ethics by removing human sentimentality. Within this logic, reason is reduced to calculation, and ethics becomes computation. Indeterminacy, undecidability, and personal responsibility are evacuated from this fantasy of calculability. And the right thing to do is determined by an answering machine rather than by an ethical or properly political response.