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2020 | Thomas Gregory - The costs of war: Condolence payments and the politics of killing civilians

Coalition forces have spent upwards of $50 million on condolence payments to Afghan and Iraqi civilians in the last twenty years. These condolence payments were intended as an expression of sympathy rather than an admission of fault or legal liability, and indeed the program itself has been criticized for its arbitrary, inconsistent, and low valuation of civilian lives. This article argues that strategic – rather than moral – imperatives have increasingly underpinned this program and shaped its development: as coalition forces began to recognize the strategic costs, to themselves, of civilian casualties, money became General Petraeus’ ‘most important weapon in this war.’  

In this light, the author argues that condolence payments should not be seen so much as a humanitarian gesture designed to recognize and alleviate civilian suffering, or as a tool for transparency and accountability, but rather as a ‘weapon system aimed at securing specific military goals.’   The risk is that symbolic payments to the victims may fall into disuse in conflicts where mitigation of civilian harm secures no strategic asset. In this sense, condolence payments merely create an illusion that civilians have some additional protection on the battlefield. In fact, they offer little assurance that a similar incident will not occur in the future.