5 Stupid War Myths Everyone Believes (Thanks To Movies)
Even if you've never been to war, you probably think you can spot where war movies get it wrong. Surely the Spartans didn't really go into battle wearing nothing but capes and loincloths, and obviously dudes aren't picking up heavy machine guns and mowing down entire armies, Rambo-style. But if you start to really delve into what war movies get wrong, you find out the answer is everything. Even the stuff that looks fairly authentic.
Common myths include ...
"Ancient Battles Started With A Charge And Turned Into Melee Combat"
Where You Have Seen It:
Return Of The King, Braveheart, 300, 300: Rise Of An Empire, King Arthur, every single other movie in that genre
Two armies are lined up against each other on a field. The generals give the order to charge, and both armies will hold a disciplined formation for, oh, about one minute:
At that point, any semblance of a formation comes apart as the troops just run-scream their way into a massive melee, Braveheart-style. The battle immediately turns into a total free-for-all, allowing the main characters to show us the superiority of their cool combo attacks against random extras. At some point, the protagonist inevitably spots the main villain or their lieutenant, at which point he usually just strolls toward them through the middle of the field, killing a couple of enemies on the way.
But Actually ...
Sure, some brave people used to fight like that. Or, rather, tried to. You know what history calls them now? Losers, or "I'm sorry, who?"
The reason the armies of ancient Macedonians and Romans tended to win against less organized folk (say, the Celts) is not because each and every one of their soldiers was more ferocious in single combat. It's because their professional troops stayed in those boring, organized formations and specifically avoided just charging into battle. Their well-armored and disciplined troops formed up into ranks and pushed their way down the field, one step at a time. That first minute of battle in the 300 clip was surprisingly accurate ...
Right down to Spartans having CGI six-packs.
... before everyone suddenly turned on Matrix Mode and gained the power to slow down time:
It's well known that bullet time was invented by Teddy Roosevelt.
That tightly protected formation is essentially a tank, which would allow armies to amble around the battlefield spear-stabbing everyone, resisting their natural urge for badass, glistening-pecs warfare. Most every successful pre-firearm warrior culture organized special formations like that to whip out against their less strategically minded opponents. Even Vikings, the poster boys of undisciplined berserker rage, often fought in basic shield-wall formations.
As for the whole "break from formation to engage in slow-mo melee combat" thing, it just didn't happen if the warriors knew what they were doing. The thing about fighting shoulder to shoulder in close formation and close enough to the enemy to smell their (lack of) deodorant is that you don't have much room to dance around swinging a sword. As such, especially during the classical era of Greece and Rome, battles between hoplites or legions mostly consisted of which side was better at holding their line and pushing the other side back.
Basically, a slightly less violent version of Red Rover.
In other words, it was tedious as shit, both to watch and participate in. You can see the irony here; the method depends on the other side wanting the same thing movie audiences want now -- acrobatic, one-on-one combat to prove who is the better man. The armies who succumbed to that temptation got their asses kicked.
Now, we all know that, centuries later, armies attempted to do the same with muskets, lining up on the battlefield in flamboyant uniforms only to be slaughtered by smarter enemies shooting from cover. In other words ...
"Muskets Turned Linear Warfare Into A Ridiculous Mass Suicide"
Where You Have Seen It:
The Patriot, Last Of The Mohicans, Barry Lyndon, Sharpe, any film about the Napoleonic Wars or 18th-century warfare in general
The "let's line up on an open field and musket-blast each other" era is the goofy laughingstock of warfare history: Pompous officers in powdered wigs eye each other from afar as their rows of soldiers in funny hats and obnoxiously bright clothes prepare to slowly march toward each other. Each party politely fires a couple of volleys that decimate scores of opponents. After that, they attack each other with bayonets and proceed to slaughter each other by the thousands.
If you look closely, you can see everyone's stabbing-hand pinky is properly extended.
It wasn't smart or strategic, but by jove, that's how warrin' was done in the good old days! You know, back when wars were fought by gentlemen. More tea, Jenkins?
But Actually ...
It's unlikely linear warfare was ever anyone's choice for an optimal strategy. It was only done because for quite a long period in military history firearm technology sucked ass. It may seem like they were using their guns the same way the 300 gang used their spears, but it's not because they were morons who couldn't think of an alternative. The guns weren't much good for anything else.
"So stand in a straight line until they figure out a better way of killing you."
Soldiers in the 17th, 18th, and early-19th centuries fought in line formations largely because the smoothbore muskets that they used were really, really inaccurate; think mostly useless beyond 50 or so yards. Add to this the fact that muskets produce so much smoke that, after a few volleys, the entire battlefield was obscured by it, and basically your only chance was to make your guys stand in a huge line and have them fire in the same general direction, hoping like hell that the flying swarm of projectiles might accidentally kill an enemy or two.
Muskets are the 20-sided die of gunpowder warfare.
Occasionally, they even did, but not nearly at the rate Hollywood would have you believe. In general, your average Civil War battle had a death toll of just 13 to 15 percent (but more on that in a moment).
As for the one decidedly non-goofy part of linear warfare, the dreaded bayonet charges? While they certainly took place, their murder-effectiveness tended to rate somewhere slightly below "slipped in his own fear urine and broke his neck." Statistics from the musket period show that even some of the bloodiest battles saw just around 2 percent bayonet-inflicted casualties.
At least half of which came from people stabbing themselves in the ass when they sat down.
Yep -- just like those dumbass musket barrages are actually pretty well-developed (if ineffective) tactical choices, these fearsome blade-attacks are really just a bunch of hot air. Which helps us debunk this next one ...
"Pretty Much Everyone On The Losing Side Dies"
Where You Have Seen It:
The Last Samurai, Platoon, Gladiator, Braveheart, Stannis' last stand on Game Of Thrones
The battle is over, and the dust has settled. Fallen men carpet the ground in all directions. The few surviving main characters look around and take solace in the fact that they are one of the lucky ones who managed to make it through. The opposing side has either been killed to a man, or the few still living turn tail and run.
"Spare the one they call 'Tom Cruise.' He is the chosen
The moral of the story: War is hell.
But Actually ...
It sure is. But not because everyone ends up dead. You'd actually be hard-pressed to find a complete battlefield massacre anywhere outside a particularly bloodthirsty Call Of Duty session. Even a rare super-battle like WWI's Battle Of Verdun -- generally considered one of the deadliest battles in human history -- saw the majority of soldiers walk away with life and limb intact. The numbers broke down like this:
2.4 million total soldiers
Up to 976,000 casualties
Not exactly a party, is what we're getting at.
And that's about as bad as it gets. You'll note the casualty figure is about 40 percent, and that that measures how many soldiers are put out of commission -- they might have died, or gotten wounded. They might have succumbed to sickness. They may have surrendered or been captured, or just gotten a severe case of "fuck this, I'm going home."
So, for instance, while the Civil War has an estimated 1.5 million casualties, these "only" amount to around 620,000 dead. At the battle of Gettysburg only about 6 percent of the losing Confederate army was killed on the field. Hell, this even applies to the swords-and-pikes era of warfare: As long as each side had shields and armor, not as many guys died during an infantry fight as you might think, simply because it's pretty damn hard to kill an armor-wearing guy when all you have is a spear or short sword that you can't really use because you're in a goddamned battlefield and everything's crowded.
Unless you're standing way off to the side with a bow and arrow.
If you want to see real wartime destruction, head to the nearest military hospital instead. The biggest killer in all of mankind's battlefields is, hands down, disease.
The reason there are so few actual combat casualties by comparison has to do with our next myth ...
"Everyone Is Actively Trying To Murder Each Other"
Where You Have Seen It:
Pretty much any movie made about war
The one constant theme in war movies is, of course, people on opposing sides trying to kill each other. It doesn't matter whether it's ancient Greece, feudal Japan, or WWII-era France: In every war, every man is trying his best to kill the enemy. They don't necessarily like it, but they have to; because if they don't, the other side will gleefully kill their asses. If anyone refuses to participate in the battle, he's singled out as a coward. To win, we need every man to give his all, dammit!
"They may take our lives-"
But Actually ...
You know what the vast majority of people are really, really uncomfortable with? Murdering random people that they have never met. So they skip that part of the warrin' experience. At least, most of them do.
After WWII, the U.S. military did studies on how many men would shoot at the enemy on their own accord. The results showed that only about 15 to 20 percent of men would voluntarily fire upon the enemy. The rest just would not fire unless an officer was present and specifically ordering them to do so.
"The only thing I see are the insides of my eyelids. Wait for orders."
That's probably how it was for most of history -- most people just stayed out of it. It has changed recently, thanks to professional armies (that is, people who actually want to be there as opposed to conscripts or draftees) and conditioning techniques specifically designed to dehumanize the enemy and make killing easier. By the time the Vietnam War rolled around, the U.S. military had managed to hitch its soldiers' fire rate up to 90 to 95 percent. But even this doesn't mean they were actually trying to hit the target.
Yeah, it turns out U.S. troops fired 52,000 rounds for every single human they hit during the Vietnam War. It's almost like there was a connection between this and that thing we just told you about most battles having surprisingly small fatality rates, and how full-on bayonet charges barely managed to kill anyone. Could it be people have been trying to deliberately miss each other as much as they can get away with? It's almost as if people don't actually enjoy war.
At the very least, it's hard as shit to actually kill a person with a gun, even after a thousand years or so of advancements in the technology. Which brings us to ...
"Enemy Rifles And Machine Guns Are The Real Danger; Artillery Is Just Background Noise"
Where You Have Seen It:
Saving Private Ryan, Band Of Brothers, Gettysburg, All Quiet On The Western Front, War Horse, The Pacific
A group of soldiers is charging an enemy position, as dirt gets kicked up all around them from exploding shells. A couple extras may even get thrown screaming through the air, but for the most part you know all those artillery explosions are there mainly to create ambience. As long as the troops either keep quickly moving or find cover, we know they will probably be OK.
"You got dirt on my uniform, you Nazi bastards!"
But when the protagonist's force encounters a machine-gun nest or a well-hidden dude with a sniper rifle, you know that shit is on.
But Actually ...
Look, we kind of understand that Hollywood mainly treats artillery as an afterthought -- they've spent decades convincing us that skeleton-liquifying explosions are a mere inconvenience.
In reality, however, artillery is your absolute worst fucking enemy on the battlefield. Machine gun pits can be -- and often are, as evidenced by our significant cache of war hero articles -- taken out by a single guy with a serious case of the Rambos. As for snipers, they're generally not considered weapons of mass destruction, unless you're up against The White Death himself. Artillery, however, has been the primary combat-related killer during most every period of warfare, from the invention of gunpowder to WWII. In WWI, an estimated 70 to 80 percent of enemy-inflicted casualties were from artillery, while machine guns and rifles were busy huddling in the corner and hoping Spanish Flu didn't find them.
Five percent of those were from people who cracked their heads tripping over the shells.
Even if you take the explosion factor out of the equation, cannons are formidable as hell. The solid iron cannonballs used in conflicts like the Civil War had a tendency to not just land on the ground -- they could pass through ranks of soldiers, a-rollin' on the ground like the Devil's own bowling ball and taking off limbs left and right. And that's before they even bothered to switch to anti-personnel ammunition like grapeshot or canister shot, which basically turned cannons into vastly overpowered shotguns.
Those smaller balls gave out more teabaggings than every COD player and frat-bro combined.
An example of the artillery's might: A little (except not really) guy history knows as Napoleon never brought any superweapons or true, groundbreaking innovations to the battlefield. A huge reason behind his considerable military success was the simple fact that Napoleon had a massive boner for artillery warfare, and he understood the shit out of the destruction its barrages could inflict. So he made sure he had more cannons than his opponents, which meant he could do more long-range damage, at a faster rate.
But that just brings all of this full circle. Hollywood hates that kind of warfare for the same reason real generals love it: It's impersonal. A movie wants every battlefield death to be a meaningful duel between two badasses. One guy shooting another, or stabbing another, or flying his airplane so close to the enemy that he can look right into his eyes before pulling the trigger. Every death is the culmination of a personal drama between heroes.
Instead of firing computerized weaponry at an enemy you can't even see.
In reality, the vast majority of people who have died on a battlefield were blown to pieces by bombs or shells launched indiscriminately by men who couldn't even see them, or succumbed weeks later from dehydration caused by diarrhea. And who the hell wants to watch that?
Chris Janney lives in New York City. Some of his hobbies include being a starving independent film producer and reading books on military history.
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For more battlefield myths, check out 5 Bullshit 'Facts' Everyone Believes About WWII and 5 Myths About The Revolutionary War Everyone Believes.