Remember this semi-viral North Korea story from last week?
The comic spectacle is SO easy to picture: North Korea unveils their most advanced weapon to date, then at a big public reveal, the missile sputters, makes that wimpy noise from when a cartoon nerd tries to flex and their muscle dangles down, and crashes to the ground onto an anthill (not damaging it). Then a furious Kim Jong-un goes "NOOOOOO!!!" and slams a big long table and the other end flips up like a seesaw and knocks a painting of his dad on a horse up into the air and it crashes down on him so his face is bursting through the horse's ass on the portrait. The image is so vivid, you don't even need to read the body of the article to know that this exact scenario transpired verbatim.
But in reality, is this anywhere even close to what this story means? In a word, nah:
"Placing large emphasis on single tests is probably unwise," agreed Karl Dewey, a proliferation editor at Jane's Intelligence Review, a U.K.-based publication. "Until we know more about the missile type and design objectives, it's probably too soon to start speculating on how this failure informs this picture." ... "The DPRK is still struggling to perfect its missile technology," according to Cameron, at the EU-Asia Center. "Sometimes it succeeds as it did two weeks ago by launching four ballistic missiles at once; and sometimes it fails."
A story about one missile failing one test was deemed push-notification-worthy by news sites, then trended organically, because we all just can't resist a story that undermines North Korea's tough talk by making their military look like a joke. It's a pattern that dates back through all of America's recent wars, and it's repeating itself with North Korea. We simultaneously portray these rival countries as ...
1) rapidly militarizing, unstable supervillains who must be dealt with swiftly, but also
2) inept buffoons with a far inferior military whom the U.S. would crush instantly in any action.
These two somehow-not-conflicting notions then dovetail perfectly to help us both justify a war and make said war seem super easy and winnable. It's really a perfect propaganda tool for our military -- citizens are not gonna rush to enlist for some war where it sounds like they'll definitely be killed. But do you actually feel "afraid" of Kim Jong-un at all? Don't you feel like, 70 percent sure you could take him in an arm wrestling match or a game of darts, even though you definitively suck at both? Why do you suppose that is?
Take this New York Post headline:
Piggyback rides! North Korea looks like some new CBS Hogan's Heroes reboot that's now called HOGAN and somehow features no Asian actors. And sure, The Post is a tabloid that can squeeze a full goofy article out of "Guy kind of looks like he's on another guy," but consider these other North Korea headlines it printed this month alone:
North Korea is a credible threat that's hellbent on destroying the U.S. and its Pacific allies, but fortunately, it also consists of a bunch of piggyback-riding children playing dress-up who we'll crush in eight seconds as soon as we're finally like "fiiiine" and get around to doing it.
This same pattern was extremely evident in the lead-up to the Iraq War. I was a wee child when Operation Desert Storm was happening in the early '90s, but even I knew the running joke that "Scud missiles are really shitty." A quick Google search of racist image macros confirms this perception:
It was even a joke on The Critic, which makes anything count as "official" to me:
20th Century Fox
And yet this is the regime that was so deadly that the U.S. had to attack it a second time to depose a dictator who allegedly possessed weapons of mass destruction, resulting in a conflict that cost the lives of more than 4,000 American service members and well into the six figures of Iraqi civilians alone.
It's not like this is some recent internet-induced phenomenon, either. You can go way back and find the same pattern before and during most of our nation's conflicts:
Keep your eyes peeled for it in the news. Two stories happening within a week of each other -- one depicting a country (likely North Korea) as a red alert zone that we need to stop immediately before they destroy us all, then another showing them as inept buffoons with a barely functional arsenal. "Here's a bully who keeps picking on the weaker kids. You could totally kick that bully's ass, by the way." Nothing feels better than putting a bully in his place, and the people who release these stories to the press know it.
The media keeps making the perfect case for wars by making them seem simultaneously extremely necessary and extremely simple, the latter of which they never are. But we've gotten really good at convincing ourselves otherwise, whether it's the Iraq Wars, the World Wars, or those riveting War of 1812 propaganda posters where someone confusingly scrawled "Down with the ... British, I think ... because of, like, taxes or a ship or some shit? Doesn't matter, sign up and help us kick their bullying asses!"
Dan Hopper is an editor for Cracked, previously for CollegeHumor and BestWeekEver.tv. He fires off consistent A-minus tweets at @DanHopp.
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Most rich kids just want to be pop stars.
How did these hyper-specific tropes spread so quickly?
The Hollywood rumor mill has been playing games with celebrity deaths for at least a century.