- Bugsplat: The Politics of Collateral Damage in Western Armed Conflicts by Bruce Cronin
First, a word about the title of the book: "Bugsplat" was the unfortunate moniker of a 2003 Pentagon software package designed to model and mitigate collateral damage caused by US airstrikes. If one wanted to telegraph the banality of killing civilians in war, one could not choose a better image than that of an insect plastered on a windshield (that is what a bomb's "probable damage field" resembled). It is hard to say which is more surprising: how acronym-free and bluntly un-Pentagonese the name was; or, in light of the attention showered on civilian protections in recent years, that defense officials would choose such a flippantly dehumanizing title in the first place. True to form, the Pentagon later changed the name of the software to "Fast Assessment Strike Tool—Collateral Damage," or "FAST-CD."
"Bugsplat" is, however, the perfect title for Bruce Cronin's primer on collateral damage in modern Western warfare. In several brisk case studies—the Persian Gulf War, NATO/Serbia, Israel/Hezbollah, and the US/Al-Qaeda—Cronin identifies an almost scripted strategy for the conduct of high-tech, low-risk warfare: transfer risk from soldiers to civilians, employ overwhelming force, and seek decisive victory. The means of choice are airpower, drone-launched missiles, and other stand-off weapons that protect the safety of Western soldiers and ensure the detachment of democratic societies back home. Cronin shows that most of these civilian casualties are not accidents or oversights amid the heat of battle, but flow from carefully considered strategies and tactics. This is not the fog of war at all; it is deliberate, normalized violence against civilian populations.
These tactics constitute what Cronin calls "reckless endangerment warfare." It is illegal for belligerents to directly target civilians or to show wanton or depraved indifference to their fate, in the case of a mass aerial bombing, for example. Even if attacks on civilians are not technically intended, Cronin argues, they nonetheless occur in predictable [End Page 1020] and preventable ways. Nor are these civilian losses outweighed by military necessity; most attacks fail to secure the "definite military advantage" that customary humanitarian law requires. Even state-of-the-art targeting comes up short. The operational appeal of Bugsplat was its speed in estimating the civilian spillover of airstrikes (five to ten minutes as opposed to a cumbersome process of pre-vetting targets). The ethical appeal of the program was that it would reduce the numbers of civilians killed or maimed. Cronin contends that high-tech targeting systems have failed to live up to the humanitarian hype, instead allowing attackers to expand the target set and penetrate more deeply into civilian areas. His main takeaway is that precision-guided munitions, computerized modelling, and other advanced technologies do "not appear to have had any effect on reducing collateral damage in armed conflicts."1
While Western belligerents point to improvements in targeting and compare themselves favorably to their adversaries, especially in asymmetric wars, detachment from the actual impact of violence on the ground is also a prime mover of reckless warfare. Cold War rhetoric about "strategic rings" and "centers of gravity" has been replaced by the language of "dual-use" infrastructure and "effects-based" strikes against military objects, but also economic, diplomatic, and information targets. The dream is a war with zero same-side casualties. As Cronin notes, drone warfare comes close to smashing all semblance of reciprocity. Strikes on named targets as well as signature strikes based on observed patterns of behavior cause more civilian fatalities than the Pentagon concedes. Though even risk-free tactics exact costs on both sides. Drone operators stationed at consoles, continents away from the violence, are not immune to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other stressors of war, perhaps because they virtually hover over bomb sites and see the human costs of war up close.
Cronin's affirmative argument for "feasible precaution" is less well developed. He wants belligerents to...