5 Myths About War You Believe (Because Of Movies)
Most of us learn everything we know about war from movies. Where else are we supposed to get our information from, the news? Documentaries? Actually signing up to serve? Nah, just watching The Hurt Locker 10 times will do the trick, right? Except that war movies are constantly lying about war to moviegoers, because as it turns out, war is super complicated and needs to be simplified for mainstream audiences. That's why a lot of aspects of war that we take for granted are about as factually accurate as that scene in The Patriot where Mel Gibson stabs a man with the American flag and wins the Revolutionary War. For example ...
Tanks Were Unreliable Death Traps
Movies like Patton and Fury clearly dictate that tanks are where it's at. And, of course, they're absolutely right. Thick armor plating, treads capable of climbing over uneven surfaces (like enemy faces), a gigantic cannon capable of shooting God right out of the sky ... what's not to like?
They even make Shia LaBeouf look cool.
Yeah, they're a real sweet deal when everything's going fine.
But what if a tank gets stuck?
"AAA says we're out of their service area."
Despite them being portrayed as the modern-day cavalry, you really did not want to be part of an armor crew in either the First World War or its illustrious sequel. The tanks of WWI were the first-ever tanks to be used in war -- and they were a total nightmare. They broke immediately, and when they did work, they got bogged down and generally could not cope with the terrain at all. When the first tanks arrived in Europe, one tank commander wrote:
"I and my crew did not have a tank of our own the whole time we were in England. Ours went wrong the day it arrived. We had no reconnaissance or map reading ... no practices or lectures on the compass ... we had no signaling ... and no practice in considering orders. We had no knowledge of where to look for information that would be necessary for us as tank commanders, nor did we know what information we should be likely to require."
Out of 50 tanks sent to attack the Somme, only 36 made it. The rest broke down and/or got stuck in the mud, with horrendous results. WWI's Siege of Fray Bentos at Passchendaele, a very fancy name for what ultimately boils down to "a protracted assault against a tank that got stuck in the mud," is a perfect example of this. Cheekily named after a tinned meat company, the Fray Bentos was chugging along until it fell into a crater and couldn't get out again. One gun was pointing at the sky, the other at the ground -- and to make matters worse, the Germans had noticed.
They do have an infuriating attention to detail.
For three days, the men of the Fray Bentos found out just how shitty being in a tank could be. Any attempts to get out were met with death and grievous injuries, and escape was made almost impossible after the corpse of one of the crew wedged the door shut. The temperature inside rose to about 90 degrees fahrenheit. The breach of one of the main guns crushed a man's ribs and left him to die slowly. German forces made several attempts to swarm the tank with grenades and had to be repelled. On the third night, when water and rations had been exhausted and those still alive were low on ammo, they decided to mount a suicidal escape. But the Germans were only interested in capturing the tank and so let the Fray Bentos survivors leave in peace. That's how much WWI tanks sucked -- even the enemy didn't have the heart to shoot you once you finally managed to escape one.
Things did improve for tank crews in WWII, but not a lot. It was still an insanely miserable, dangerous, flammable place to fight a war. And mud was still a problem.
"Aw shit, I knew we forgot about something."
The makeup of the most common Allied tank, the Sherman, was riddled with so many small weaknesses it might as well have been a miniboss in a video game. If hit low, the interior was liable to erupt into a ball of hellfire, roasting everyone inside. That's the opposite of how a tank is supposed to work. In WWII, the loss rate of Allied Sherman tanks was a blood-pressure-ramping 580 percent. They malfunctioned, caught fire constantly, and were basically horrible death traps for those inside. In fact, one of the reasons the Allies achieved armor superiority over the Germans is that they had so many bullshit Sherman tanks they were forced to continuously improve them. So don't listen to the movies -- you were as likely to die from merely occupying a tank as you were from being shot by one.
Confirmed Kills Are Not An Actual Thing
When movies want to let the audience know how badass their soldier heroes are, they don't point at scars or years served, but often to the number of lives they've taken for their country. "Confirmed kills" are offered like they're soldiers' official high scores. Most people became aware of the concept of confirmed kills because of American Sniper, a movie that made it very clear we should all think Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle is a badass because he has more than 150 of them. Or at least, that would be impressive if confirmed kills were even a thing. They're not.
The only thing more fake than the baby scene.
Although the military keeps extensive records of what happens in the field, the number of enemies that each soldier sends to kingdom come isn't included. According to one of its spokespersons, the U.S. Army "does not keep any official, or unofficial for that matter, record of confirmed kills." In fact, military brass doesn't actually like it when their killing machines talk about how much killing they've done. U.S. Special Operations Command say that they treat all figures as unofficial and actively refrain from reporting them because "it's so difficult to prove, and what does it mean?"
If such a number does find its way into an after-action report, meanwhile, it's because a soldier chose to include it -- with nothing to back it up but his word. This type of reporting is only usual for specialists like snipers, who tend to deal with taking out single targets. And that's mostly because there's really not much else to write about. Chris Kyle himself described the reports as comprising "the time, the place, the caliber used, the distance he was, what exactly he was doing, where he was standing, what he was wearing." So basically, "confirmed kills" are nothing more than page filler for snipers who are trying to embellish their reports and have run out of shit to say about their target's dress sense.
"Target is in position and is wearing socks with his sandals. Ugh."
The Rules For Who You Can Shoot And When Are Insanely Complicated
Military engagement in movies couldn't be simpler: if it looks, acts, and quacks like an enemy, shoot first and check driver's licenses later. However, in the real world, soldiers actually have to be legal scholars to understand the massive rulebook that comprises the "rules of engagement" (ROE) -- a series of guidelines outlining the conditions under which, and only under which, soldiers can even look at someone else.
"MY EYES ARE CLOSED, SO IT'S OKAY!"
The main ideology behind the modern ROE for the U.S. Army has changed over the past few wars. Now, the full ROE are so complicated they go on for approximately two dozen pages. That's a bit much for most hack screenwriters. They prefer to still base their ideas about engagement on World War II, when the ROE was focused on "status-based targets" -- i.e. as long as they weren't surrendering, anyone wearing a Nazi uniform was fair game. Shoot them, hit them with a car, whatever you want. The only limits are the tools at hand and your imagination.
Now, however, the rules differ wildly from what most cinemagoers would expect. For instance, the main crux of the ROE issued to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan advised that soldiers can only use proportional force against "conduct-based targets" -- people acting in a hostile or aggressive manner, or displaying hostile intent. The change came about as a result of the guerrilla-style tactics that the various bad guys in Iraq and Afghanistan used. It's impossible to have a mandate for shooting people dressed in bad guy clothing when the good guys are dressed the exact same way. So instead of treating every street in Baghdad like a level of Call Of Duty, soldiers today have to have a Masters in Psychology to know if that angry stare from the dude wielding an AK-47 is because he's about to open fire, or because he still has a lot of unresolved issues about his father swirling around in his head.
"I- Honestly, I just need a hug."
However, it's not the byzantine nature of the ROE that's toughest on soldiers, but the fact that it keeps changing, as it did throughout Iraq and Afghanistan to accommodate the U.S. military's ever-evolving tactics. It wasn't uncommon for troop leaders to contact military lawyers in the midst of some engagements, just to get confirmation of whether they could shoot back or not. It wouldn't make for good cinema if Rambo had to spend half of each movie on the phone with Jameson from legal asking how many of the 300 potential enemies rushing his location he's allowed to point his machine gun at.
The Trenches In World War I Were Actually Little Cities
Out of all the big wars, World War I must be the least cinematic. That's why filmmakers tend to only use it to represent everything shitty about war: death, barbed wire, mud, machine guns, the indifference of military high command as to what happens to their troops, and poetry. And nothing symbolizes this depressing failure as much as the trenches, one or two shallow graves military command decided to dig for the poor common soldier.
But the British will be damned if they won't laugh about it anyway.
However, it wasn't always intended to be this way. While we might think of the trenches as elongated holes filled with mud and despair (and poop), they only represented a small, lethal part of a sophisticated system of primary, secondary, and tertiary trenches -- all of which were designed as a massive military ant farm that both repelled enemy attacks and functioned as part of a massive supply chain dishing out equipment, men, and intelligence to where they were needed most.
In fact, the complexity of the trenches was designed to counter another favored stereotype of the First World War -- that soldiers were seen as easily replaceable machine-gun fodder. The trenches were cut as zig-zags so that, should an enemy force breach the lines, all the troops weren't just standing in a straight headshot-able line from the North Sea to the Alps. Also, the walls were paneled with wood and the parapets reinforced with a ceaseless line of sandbags, and there were large medical stations installed throughout, because even these generals took care not to just let entire regiments die from gangrene and patience.
Though they were still careful not to give pilots parachutes in case cowardice got the best of them.
Soldiers didn't even spend that much time in a position where they could be sent into the veritable meat grinder that was over the top of the trenches, because they were rotated through the different trenches so frequently. It's estimated that the troops only spent 15 percent of their time in the frontline trench, as opposed to 10 percent in the support trench, 30 percent in the reserve trench, and 45 percent having some well-earned R&R in a French whorehouse. We can't stress this enough -- while men did go over the top to their inevitable deaths, it was more of a lottery than a conveyor belt of slaughter.
Of course, some stereotypes still hold true. The trenches, for instance, were indeed muddy, waterlogged holes. But wherever possible, military engineers would lead their trenches into underground rock quarries, literally everywhere in France, to use these natural bunkers as sleeping quarters, medical bays, and shelter from artillery. Some of these underground warrens were so complex that in one, they were able to install "electric lights and telephones, command posts, a bakery and butcher's, a machine shop, a hospital, and a chapel." These warrens were so vast, the troops had to construct makeshift "street" signs in order to prevent people from getting lost -- you really didn't want to take a wrong turn somewhere and wind up in the German neighborhood.
It does have better food, though.
Even the main threat to the troops -- poison gas -- wasn't the unstoppable force of bloodshed that we've been led to believe. It was an absolute crapshoot whether it'd work or not. If you wanted to douse your enemy, you had to time it precisely according to the wind and hope that a mild breeze didn't either blow it off-course or disperse it into nothingness. Even worse, troops would then have to risk burns and suffocation walking through their own gas cloud because chemical compounds don't give a hoot whose side you're on. Waiting for these perfect conditions could also take weeks. Basically, poison gas attacks in World War I were like an incredibly lazy Hulk that was just as likely to turn on you when it finally deigned to enter the battlefield. Waiting for your enemy to die of old age was a more effective technique.
All Soldiers Don't Share An Unbreakable Bond (And Sometimes They Kill Each Other)
It is often said that the bond soldiers develop in war is unbreakable, that those who experience battle together will become a band of brothers. You know, like in Band Of Brothers, or Saving Private Ryan, or any other war movie that's basically a buddy comedy but with a lot of death and carnage happening in the background. But the truth is that giving a bunch of random dudes guns doesn't exactly make them friends for life who trust each other implicitly.
Shrimp, on the other hand ...
No, soldiers are subject to the same amount of petty squabbling, mistrust, and competitiveness that befalls any large group of people. And while you do see some of this in movies -- Full Metal Jacket, Heartbreak Ridge, Captain America: The First Avenger -- those are less extreme than what actually happened during the Battle of the Bulge. To clarify, we're not talking about the 1965 movie Battle Of The Bulge with Henry Fonda, which was so inaccurate that Eisenhower held a press conference just to talk about how severely the film cocked everything up. Unlike the beautiful camaraderie in the movie, the actual battle was fraught with so much hostility and infighting among the Allied troops that if a camera crew had documented the battle, they would have accidentally invented the reality show format.
During the Battle of the Bulge, many troops thought that German soldiers were disguising themselves as American troops in order to sow chaos behind the front lines (they were doing exactly that, by the way, but that's beside the point). After rumors started flying (and a convoy went missing), paranoia spread through the Allied ranks. In order to root out possible spies, camp guards began asking returning soldiers questions that only "real Americans" would know, mostly related to baseball ... with mixed results.
That's not even factoring in having to keep Yankees and Red Sox fans from murdering each other.
Some poor bastards were locked away because they got the questions wrong, some got locked away because the sentries themselves didn't know the correct answer, and some were straight-up shot. They also apprehended soldiers with names that sounded suspiciously German, or those who had collected German trophies while in Europe. Even General Bruce C. Clarke was detained for five hours for getting a question about the Chicago Cubs wrong. Guess he wasn't a fan of baseball. Or patriotism.
For more ways Hollywood has lead us astray, check out 5 Bizarre Ways Everyone Gets World War II Wrong and 5 Stupid War Myths Everyone Believes (Thanks To Movies).
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And to further straighten out your noggin, check out Cracked's De-Textbook: The Stuff You Didn't Know About the Stuff You Thought You Knew.