Collateral damage is damage that is unintended or incidental to the intended outcome. The term originated in the U.S. military, but it has since expanded into broader use.
The word "collateral" comes from medieval Latin collateralis
, from col-
, "together with" + lateralis
, "side" ) and is otherwise mainly used as a synonym for "parallel" or "additional" in certain expressions ("collateral veins" run parallel to each other and "collateral security" means additional security to the main obligation in a contract). However, "collateral" may also sometimes mean "additional but subordinate," i.e., "secondary" ("collateral meanings of a word"), and that specific meaning of a rather obscure word in the English language seems to have been picked up and broadened by the military in the expression "collateral damage".
According to the USAF Intelligence Targeting Guide, the term means:
" [the] unintentional damage or incidental damage affecting facilities, equipment, or personnel, occurring as a result of military actions directed against targeted enemy forces or facilities. Such damage can occur to friendly, neutral, and even enemy forces".
- United States Department of Defense definition collateral damage — Unintentional or incidental injury or damage to persons or objects that would not be lawful military targets in the circumstances ruling at the time. Such damage is not unlawful so long as it is not excessive in light of the overall military advantage anticipated from the attack. (Joint Publication 3-60)
Intent is the key element in understanding the military definition as it relates to target selection and prosecution. Collateral damage is damage aside from that which was intended. Since the dawn of precision guided munitions, military "targeteers" and operations personnel have gone to great lengths to minimize collateral damage
At least one source claims that the term "collateral damage" originated as a euphemism
during the Vietnam War
and can refer to friendly fire
, or the killing of non-combatants and the destruction of their property.
The term 'collateral damage' has also been borrowed by the computing community to refer to the denial of service to legitimate users when administrators take blanket preventative measures against some individuals who are abusing systems. For example, Realtime Blackhole Lists used to combat email spam generally block ranges of Internet Protocol (IP) addresses rather than individual IPs associated with spam, and can deny legitimate users within those ranges the ability to send email to some domains.
- In an interview before his execution, convicted U.S. bomber (and Gulf War veteran) Timothy McVeigh referred to the deaths of 19 children killed in the government office building during the April 1995 Oklahoma City bombing as "collateral damage".