6 Things Everyone Knows About War (That Are Totally Wrong)
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 ...
Myth: 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.)
"Pastafarians declare holy war on 'gluten-free infidels.'"
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.
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.
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.
Myth: 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.
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).
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.)
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."
Myth: Civil Wars Are The Result Of Oppressed Citizens Finally Rising Up
Civil wars break out when the citizenry of a particular nation has had enough of their government's bullshit and decide it's time for a change. Either there's some dictator who is trying to enact a bunch of Machiavellian laws, or there's a group of people who think their government's laws aren't quite Machiavellian enough. Whatever the case, civil wars are about "the people" getting fed up and storming the halls of power. After all, you've see The Hunger Games. And Star Wars. And Braveheart. And ...
This would have been called a civil war if the other side won.
Actually, they're usually motivated by greed. It turns out that nations which have a lot of easily obtained resources, such as oil wells, drug crops, or rivers full of diamonds, are the most susceptible to popular uprisings of the people, because the people want a sweet, sweet slice of the government's booty. It's such a well-documented phenomenon that it's known as "the diamond curse" -- which sounds the title of a noir detective movie that would feature at least one guy in a trench coat slapping a woman for getting hysterical.
In fact, the types of factors that tend to make civilians unhappy, like political and social differences, turn out to be statistically useless in determining whether a country is likely to break out into an internal conflict. The only thing almost all civil wars have in common is a group of people who'd be a lot richer if the pesky government wasn't in the way.
So we don't see these guys rising up anytime soon.
When you think of it in those terms, it even helps explain the one civil war most familiar to Americans (you know, the one they call "the Civil War"). The traditional understanding of the American Civil War is that it was an ideological conflict -- that half the country was ridiculously racist and wanted to break away to start their own racist country. However, the fact is that the North was coming to take away the South's most valuable economic resource: free labor. So the driving force was the same, but it happens that the resource in this particular case was human beings.
Myth: Women And Children Are The Most Vulnerable Victims Of War
It's not just a belief in disaster movies, but a feature of international humanitarian law, that gives women and children special consideration during wartime. The cry of "women and children first!" reflects an accepted understanding that these are the most vulnerable demographic to rampant enemy aggressors.
And our best chance of keeping the species going if this war is worse than we thought.
While we don't downplay the horrible things that can happen to women and children when war comes a'knocking, they usually aren't the first target of invading forces. During an invasion, hostile armies are more likely to target men and boys, whether or not they're really part of the defense force. This makes tactical sense, because you're cutting off the population that your enemy would use to repopulate its army. But it also displays the same mentality behind the one that leads people to prioritize the evacuation of women and children: It's assumed that the ladies and the kids are less of a threat.
"Awwwwww! Can we keep one? I'll walk him every day."
That's why during the 1999 invasion of Kosovo by Serbia, the first step of the Serbian forces was to round up and exterminate all the males, given that they were presumably the most likely people to fight back, regardless of whether they had any intention of doing so. The practice is so common that there's a sickeningly-cutesy term for it: "gendercide."
In defense of the systemic targeting and execution of a specific age and sex of person, it's historically safe to assume that the male portion of an invaded population poses a greater threat than the female portion, right? That leads perfectly into our next point ...
Related: On Grooming And Power Imbalances
Myth: Rebel Forces Are Almost Entirely Men
If you do a quick Google Image search for "rebel" or "terrorist," you're going to see a forest of lush, flowing beards. That's because in any of the multitude of countries currently embroiled in warfare (or in any of the great conflicts of the past), we tend to picture the combatants as legions of ruggedly grizzled dudes.
They force the dude in the back to wear the mask due to patchy facial hair.
Women make up a substantial portion of wartime combatants when they're allowed to participate, because of course they freaking would.
In the Sierra Leone civil war, an estimated 24 percent of the main rebel group were women and girls, compared to only 9 percent and 2 percent of the main official armies in the conflict (and 14.5 percent of the modern U.S. armed forces). Before anyone relatively ignorant of that particular conflict allows those statistics to inspire respectful lady boners of female empowerment, allow us to point out the dark side of that coin (and it is super dark): While you might assume that war crimes such as rape are a symptom of a more dude-centric military culture, statistics show that women fighters were as likely to participate in rape as their male counterparts, if not outright commit it.
This one war is hardly the only example. In Liberia's civil war, 22,000 out of 101,000 rebel fighters were female. And in Uganda's civil war, over 4,000 of the 21,000 combatants who were ultimately disarmed were women. These figures are likely underestimating too, because there's such a bias against viewing women as able combatants that some disarmament organizations turn women away, assuming they're bullshitting them.
A 2015 study in American Political Science Review looked at every conflict in Africa from 1950 to 2011. It found that other gender equality factors, such as equal rights and widespread repression of women, were not at all related to how often women participated in violent political organizations. If you repress women's rights, sometimes they'll look for a way to express themselves in the only groups that will accept them: rebels and terrorists.
Myth: International Laws Of Conflict Protect Civilians
After a few millennia of constant warfare, the world has gradually come to the conclusion that targeting noncombatant civilians is bad form. Since the acceptable behavior of nations toward civilians during wartime was defined by the Geneva and Hague Conventions, ordinary people who are chilling out in their homes no longer have to worry about some asshole dropping a bomb on their house, because that would be against international law, which is at least twice as serious than regular law. (It would require the full hour of Law & Order, rather than merely the second half.)
Other than galactic law, it's the highest law we have.
The thing with "international laws" is that they're more or less nothing but "international suggestions." Since there's no international government (despite what conspiracy theories you may have heard, the United Nations doesn't enforce anything), if a country signs a contract saying that they won't target civilians in wartime, they're basically operating on the honor system.
A 2006 study of all wars fought between countries from 1900 to 2003 put these treaties to the test, and found that the extent to which nations bothered to adhere to international protocol mainly depended on how hard they wanted to win. If there's any kind of advantage to be gained by killing civilians, countries will kill the absolute shit out of civilians. Who's going to stop them? Superman doesn't exist, and there aren't any War Police.
And the War Police would be too busy dealing with Zack Snyder's Superman randomly killing civilians, anyway.
All things considered, the tendency for countries to honor their pledge not to bomb innocent people rests largely on whether the bad press outweighs the benefits. For example, neither the United States nor Germany cared much about the original Hague Convention once World War II broke out. And no, it wasn't just the Germans who were targeting innocents -- the 1945 Dresden bombings were part of an allied campaign which indiscriminately killed up to 25,000 Germans in the name of reducing morale, only a small percentage of whom were in fact Nazis.
And if you're thinking that's too long ago to remain relevant, let's take a peek at this 2002 memo from the Bush administration which insists that the War on Terror "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions." Essentially, the Geneva Convention is adorable, but we're hunting for bad guys in an area of the world that already hates us, so who gives a shit?
John Ford is a boring office drone -- by day -- who used to write for Mic.com. This is his first Cracked article. He tweets stuff he likes to all 50 of his followers @j_p_ford. Also, he got a C in his only conflict studies class in college (hi, professor!), so take that as you will.
For more dumb things you believe about war, check out 5 Stupid War Myths Everyone Believes (Thanks To Movies) and 5 Myths About The Military You Believe (Thanks To Movies).
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