Collateral Damage in Fiction


By Karen Wills

We’ve all seen feature photos that show victims of war—collateral damage is the modern term for them—the nonmilitary who suffer. Think of the crying infant by the railroad tracks of post-bombed Hiroshima; the agony of the naked Vietnamese girl’s face as she runs toward us, the beautiful shocked eyes of the Afghan girl.

By chance, I’ve lately come across characters, literary inventions, which are collateral damage in two big novels. I marvel at how the authors made them into what author David Long calls “bright human images.”


One of the novels is E.L. Doctorow’s, The March. It’s a broad epic depiction of Sherman’s March to the Sea. I hadn’t realized what a cross section of humanity, not just military, joined in the March. They included freed former slaves, nurses, refugees traveling with the very army responsible for their displacement, Southern deserters, and opportunists.

One memorable character is Emily Thomas, genteel daughter of a distinguished Southern judge. When her father dies just as Union Soldiers take over his house, Emily throws her lot in with the Union surgeon who helps her see to his burial. She becomes a nurse, like the doctor blind to blue or grey. She becomes stronger than she could have thought possible.

Pearl is an adolescent “white Negro” who carries a letter she intends to deliver written by  the Union officer who protected Pearl on much of the March. It’s written to his wife in Washington, D.C.

Each homeless person in the book finds a rough shelter and some measure of companionship on the journey. We see them as resilient, desperate, but purposeful, individual survivors.


The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundahti Roy has a more modern and terrible take on what countries warring over religion, power, and land can do to their own inhabitants. Written to show historic upheavals between India and Pakistan, and especially the battles over Kashmir, Roy gives us memorable characters of collateral damage. These include transgender people who become more and more marginalized, and those who lose loved ones to torture and murder on the part of police and military, and those who love well, but not wisely ( feminist Tilo and Kashmiri freedom fighter Musa) in dangerous times.

We care about these people and we think about what war has done to them. They become symbols of collateral damage of war. These books, and our own country’s present and historical involvement in war, make me think of the importance of creating characters who remind us of the importance of humanity, even in extreme times.                                                 river with no bridge

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