The moment you try to understand warfare, you'll find yourself neck-deep in bullshit. Lies, propaganda, and competing agendas ensure that every conflict gets boiled down into a neat narrative of good vs. evil, oppression vs. freedom, or whatever. Honestly, even the basic stuff we think we understand about international conflict is, at best, mostly wrong. For instance ...
6Myth: The Overwhelming Cause Of Terrorism Is Religious Fanaticism
Every time the news erupts with reports of another terrorist attack, pundits put pressure on our leaders to go ahead and say what everyone's thinking: The number-one cause of terrorism is religion. Usually one religion in particular. (Hint: It's not Taoism.)
This particularly seems to make a lot of sense in the case of suicide bombings. You're a lot more likely to blow yourself up if you think you're going to get an awesome deal out of it in the afterlife, right?
Sure, religious extremism accounts for a lot of terrorist attacks, but it's certainly not the only motivator, or even the biggest one. The gold medalists of suicide bombings are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka -- who, despite sounding like a middle school softball team, are a completely secular group of militant communists.
Marietta Amarcord/Wiki Commons
No paradise bribes for these folks.
But sure, that's somewhere in the third world, where the rules all go out the window anyway. What about here in the West? Well, according to the Global Terrorism Index put out by the Institute For Economics and Peace in 2015, Islamic fundamentalism was responsible for a whopping ... 19 percent of terrorism-related deaths in the West between 2006 and 2014. The rest were motivated by much less mystical stuff, like political extremism, anti-government sentiment, or good old-fashioned racism.
In fact, of the three biggest attacks over that time, only one (the 2009 Fort Hood attack) was religiously motivated. The other two were the 2011 attack in Oslo, Norway by white nationalist Anders Breivik, and another white guy who drove his car into a crowd in The Netherlands in an apparent attempt to kill the Dutch Queen in the least efficient way possible.
Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images
He worships Odin, but that's not why he did it.
The same report revealed that even in the USA, Islamic extremists are not considered by law enforcement to be the biggest threat in terms of potential terror attacks. That award goes to anti-government "sovereign citizen" militia groups. You know, the kinds of people who like to usurp Oregonian wildlife parks.
Even when terror attacks are religiously motivated, studies have shown that the promise of afterlife reward doesn't have much to do with why people decide to blow themselves up. The bigger motivator is mundane ol' peer pressure. It turns out that people who are willing to die in the name of terrorism are mostly people who are desperate to feel like they're part of something, and happen to get caught up in a group that gives them that validation, whether it's one that pushes for jihad or one that thinks their country isn't sufficiently communist.
After all, it's not like our own pop culture isn't full of heroes who sacrifice themselves to take down the bad guys. And they're not doing it to get to Heaven. Everybody wants to be the fucking hero.
5Myth: Genocides Occur When Countries Reach A Racist Tipping Point
When you hear the word "genocide," your mind probably goes straight to the granddaddy of all genocides, the Holocaust (or possibly the Rwandan or Armenian genocides). Regardless of your go-to reference, each involved a nation hitting peak racism under some oppressive force and deciding to fire up the execution chambers to eliminate some hated minority. If so, it should be easy to spot a genocide coming, right? Simply find the nation with the most bigotry and hate crimes, and wait for it to boil over.
Warner Bros., Lionsgate
Then wait for Hollywood to make an Oscar bait movie about it.
Racism isn't complicated, people!
Powerful people are very good at using racism as a tool. And what looks like a wildfire is usually arson.
First, note that mass human extermination tends to be the kind of research subject best approached with a bottle of strong liquor on hand. Then, right away you'll find that many of the most significant mass killings of the 20th Century were based on social class rather than race -- as seen in the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia (all of which starved or killed groups they saw as disloyal, whether they were Ukrainian farmers or urban school teachers).
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
And the usual undesirables, such as anyone who wore glasses.
A study charmingly titled "Draining the Sea" reviewed data from every war between 1945 and 2000, and found that genocides are much less often about the government's hatred of one particular race than they are about preemptively wiping out the types of people who are likely to challenge that government's murderous, shitty authority. It so happens that, lots of times, the opposition can be largely distilled into a single racial or religious group.
When you're about to launch a war against your own citizens, it's easier to indiscriminately murder the entire class of people most likely to pose a threat than it is to try to pick out all the rebels one by one. (This is, oddly enough, where movies get it right. A regime like the Star Wars Empire would prefer to just blow up a whole planet where opposition may reside.)
Kishor Parekh estate
It's usually a pain to sort out who's circumcised and who isn't.
This, by the way, is one reason even the experts can't tell when a mass killing is going to take place until after it has already started. By the time the international community figures it out, it's usually too late to do anything but overthrow the murderous regime and say, "OK, seriously, we can never let this happen again."