Who Takes the Blame? The Strategic Effects of Collateral Damage


  • We thank the following people for comments and suggestions: Huda Ahmed, Eli Berman, Chris Blattman, LTC Liam Collins, LTC Lee Ewing, Jim Fearon, COL Joe Felter, Kelly Grieco, Paul Huth, Kosuke Imai, Radha Iyengar, Stathis Kalyvas, Adam Meirowitz, Ulrich Müller, Doug Ollivant, Ken Schultz, Gaby Guerrero Serdán, Paul Staniland, John Stark, Elizabeth Wood, MAJ Matt Zais, and participants at the 2009 and 2010 annual meetings of the American Political Science Association, the Contentious Politics Workshop at the University of Maryland, College Park, and the Program on Order, Conflict, and Violence colloquium at Yale University, in addition to three anonymous reviewers and the AJPS editors. We thank Josh Borkowski, Zeynep Bulutgil, and Nils Weidmann for coding the district-level estimates of sectarian population. Most importantly, we thank our colleagues at Iraq Body Count for their years of hard work documenting the human costs of the war in Iraq. This material is based upon work supported by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) under Award No. FA9550–09–1–0314, by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under Award No. CNS-0905086, and by the Army Research Office (ARO) under Award No. W911NF-11–1–0036. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the AFOSR, United States Department of Defense, NSF, or ARO. The Supplemental Evidence and data used for this article are available at http://www.princeton.edu/∼jns/.

Luke N. Condra is Assistant Professor of International Affairs, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh, 3601 Wesley W. Posvar Hall, Pittsburgh, PA 15260 (lcondra@pitt.edu). Jacob N. Shapiro is Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs and Co-Director of the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project, Department of Politics and Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, Robertson Hall, Princeton, NJ 08544 (jns@princeton.edu).


Can civilians caught in civil wars reward and punish armed actors for their behavior? If so, do armed actors reap strategic benefits from treating civilians well and pay for treating them poorly? Using precise geo-coded data on violence in Iraq from 2004 through 2009, we show that both sides are punished for the collateral damage they inflict. Coalition killings of civilians predict higher levels of insurgent violence and insurgent killings predict less violence in subsequent periods. This symmetric reaction is tempered by preexisting political preferences; the anti-insurgent reaction is not present in Sunni areas, where the insurgency was most popular, and the anti-Coalition reaction is not present in mixed areas. Our findings have strong policy implications, provide support for the argument that information civilians share with government forces and their allies is a key constraint on insurgent violence, and suggest theories of intrastate violence must account for civilian agency.