There are those who argue that all wars are stupid, and that there has never been a good reason for it. Others hold a different view. Wars are tragic, and in hindsight many of the wars of history could have readily been avoided. Some seem to have been triggered by overreaction to events, in which cooler heads and a less violent response could have defused a possibly deadly situation.
There have been bloodless wars, including the Pig War listed here. Even these brought up the weighty issues of national honor, and the use of military might to coerce a solution. Wars spurred by religion plagued Europe and North Africa for over one thousand years. Often these were fought over whether a monarch would be of Catholic or Protestant faith. Here are 10 “wars” that were fought over issues which can only be described as stupid.
10. The Cake War
Called variably the Cake War, the Pastry War, or the First French intervention in Mexico, an armed conflict between France and Mexico arose in 1838, and lasted into the spring of 1839. Its roots came from complaint by a French baker to his King, Louis-Philippe of France. The baker alleged Mexican military officers looted his shop in a suburb of Mexico City, and asked the French monarch to demand reparations from the Mexican government. Along with numerous other complaints from French businesses in Mexico, the demand moved the King to action. France demanded Mexico pay reparations in the amount of 600,000 pesos.
When Mexico refused the payment Louis-Philippe dispatched his navy, with an expeditionary force aboard, to enforce his demands. In December 1838, French forces captured the port of Veracruz, blockaded other Mexican ports, and bombarded coastal towns and fortifications. The brief war saw the return to power of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, following his humiliation during the Texas Revolution two years earlier. In March 1839, a treaty of peace between Mexico and France carried the obligation for Mexico to pay reparations of 600,000 pesos. It was never paid, and became one of the excuses for France’s Second Intervention in Mexico during the American Civil War.
9. The Pig War
The Pig War is so named because the only casualty in the otherwise bloodless conflict between the United States and British Canada was a pig. An American farmer, an Irish representative of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the pig resided on San Juan Island. Sovereignty over the island was under dispute between the United States and Great Britain. When the American farmer shot the Irish owned pig (it was rummaging in his potato patch), its owner demanded payment, in an amount ten times greater than the American was willing to pay. Rumblings between Canadian and American settlers spread. British authorities threatened to arrest the American, according to rumors. The Americans asked for military protection.
The US military dispatched a naval vessel and a contingent of troops to the island, commanded by George Pickett, later of Gettysburg fame, but then a Captain in the US Army. Nonplussed by the American show of strength, the British sent three ships, and Royal Marines established an encampment on the island. Both sides continued to build up their forces on the island, by the summer of 1859 what had been a contingent of 66 American soldiers under the command of a captain reached 461 troops, commanded by Brigadier General William Harney. They were opposed by five British ships carrying Royal Marines, supported by Canadian militia.
In August, the British Governor of Vancouver ordered the fleet to land Royal Marines and drive the Americans from the island, an overt act of war. The British commander on the scene, Rear Admiral Robert Baynes, refused, describing warfare over a pig as “foolish”, an indication that at least one clear head prevailed. In the end, after years of diplomatic squabbles, German Kaiser Wilhelm I arbitrated the issue in favor of the United States, which retained the island. Nobody was ever paid for the disputed pig, nor the potatoes which it devoured before its demise.
8. The Bucket War
In the 20th century two American universities, Indiana and Purdue, established an oaken bucket as the trophy awarded to the victor of their annual football game. The Old Oaken Bucket has been contested annually ever since. The rivalry has nothing on the Italians though. The city-states of Bologna and Modena fought a war in the 14th century, part of three centuries of continuous struggle, with the Modenese claiming an oaken bucket as a trophy of their victory at the Battle of Zappolino. The city of Modena retains the bucket to this day.
The bucket was not the cause of the war, as has long been claimed by some. Rather there were several hundred years of friction and conflict between those who claimed Papal supremacy and those who believed it in the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor. The Bolognese supported the Pope; Modena placed itself firmly in the camp of the Emperor. The event known as the Bucket War was really just one battle, fought after years of border skirmishes. When Pope John XXII declared Modena’s leader, Passerino Bonacolsi, a rebel against the church, Bolognese troops, about 32,000 of them, marched to capture or kill him. They were insured of indulgences from the Pope should they do so.
In the Battle of Zappolini, Bonacolsi’s army routed the Bolognese, who fled within the walls of their city. To celebrate their victory and honor the 500 of their men killed in the battle, the Modenese claimed an oaken bucket as a trophy (about 1,500 Bolognese were killed). Wars over Papal or Imperial supremacy continued for another two centuries. The bucket seized by the Modenese remained in their hands, and hangs today in the Torra della Ghirlandina in Modena. According to legend and Italian lore, it is the same bucket, though several historians have expressed their doubts.
7. The El Salvador-Honduras Crisis of 1969
In the summer of 1969, long simmering tensions between El Salvador and neighboring Honduras came to a head as both countries’ teams played against each other in World Cup qualifying soccer matches. On June 8, fans from both countries attended the first match, held in and won by Honduras. The match was notable for the rioting and fighting between the fans. El Salvador claimed Honduras did little to protect the visiting Salvadorans from both Honduras’s fans and police. The second match, on June 15, held in and won by El Salvador, featured worse violence and similar claims by Honduras against El Salvador.
The deciding match was held in Mexico City. Though El Salvador won, the same day the country severed diplomatic relations with Honduras. It claimed the latter nation had deliberately fostered an atmosphere of violence against Salvadorans, rendering thousands residing in Honduras homeless, as a result of the rioting. El Salvador claimed Honduras “has not taken any effective measures to punish these crimes which constitute genocide…”
A month later, both countries used their World War II vintage Air Forces to attack each other, and a Salvadoran army invaded their neighbor. The Organization of American States hastened to establish a cease fire, though about 3,000 total casualties were suffered by both sides. The war lasted about 100 hours, and is frequently referred to as the 100 Hour War. No territorial changes occurred as a result. In the ensuing 1970 World Cup, El Salvador failed to score a goal and lost all three of its matches.
6. Peruvian-Spanish War
In the mid-19th century Spain under Isabella II attempted to regain the power and riches it formerly boasted in South America. With America engaged in its own Civil War, unable to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, Spain’s adventurism intensified in the 1860s. A brief conflict with Peru in 1864 led to a peaceful resolution, though Spain demanded reparations paid to Spanish citizens of that country. When Peru refused, the Spanish Navy occupied the Chincha Islands, a source of considerable revenue for the Peruvian government. The revenue came from bird droppings, called guano, harvested for processing as fertilizer.
Nearly half of all government revenues for Peru came from guano harvested from the islands. Unable to sustain itself and with widespread unrest threatening the country, the Peruvian government collapsed. In December 1865, a new Peruvian regime declared war on Spain, determined to regain the islands so critical to its economy. The war evolved into mainly a naval conflict, with Spanish ships engaging Peruvian forts and land batteries.
Armed conflict ended in late 1866, when the Spanish fleet withdrew. The Chincha Islands and their valuable bird droppings remained disputed territory until 1879, when a treaty of peace between Spain and Peru was signed. In it, Spain recognized Peruvian independence for the first time. It had originally been declared in 1821. With full independence, Peru finally gained control of the bird droppings which fueled so much of the national economy.
5. The War of Jenkins’ Ear
Eight years before the war which bears his name began, British seaman Robert Jenkins commanded the merchant brig Rebecca. A Spanish ship, either a privateer or a vessel of the costa-garda, stopped Rebecca on the high seas in 1731, allegedly seeking contraband. They found none, but a Spanish officer took the opportunity to chastise the British by slicing off Jenkins’ left ear. According to one story, the unfortunate British captain was told to carry the ear “to his Majesty King George.” Jenkins arrived back in Britain in June and reported the incident in a deposition given to the Duke of Newcastle, Secretary of State for the Southern Department, which included the American and West Indian colonies.
At first little else happened, but as other tensions arose over Spanish behavior in the colonial possessions in the West Indies, the story was repeated in British newspapers and magazines. Jenkins’ ear became a foil for those arguing for military action against the Spanish. Though little evidence supports the belief the ear was displayed before Parliament or shown to the King, it became a symbol of Spanish high-handedness in the colonies.
By 1738 continued Spanish depredations against British ships led to public clamor for Parliament and the King to demand reparations from Spain. Jenkins’ Ear became a symbol of those demanding satisfaction. One area of debate concerned the border between Spanish Florida and British Georgia, across which Spaniards raided the British settlements. Finally, in 1739, the British Admiralty received directions to conduct raids against Spanish ships and settlements in the Americas and in the Indian Ocean. The ensuing period of conflict received the name of the War of Jenkins’ Ear in the mid-19th century, so named by British historian Thomas Carlyle.
4. The Opium Wars
For the last six decades in the United States, the government at all levels has conducted a war on drugs. In the 19th century the British government, through its Colonial Office, conducted a war for drugs. Specifically, it fought two wars with the Qing government of China for the right to sell opium to Chinese merchants. In the second of the two Opium Wars, France supported Great Britain militarily. The Qing government, concerned over the damage opium addiction caused the population, never stood a chance against the modern military might of the Western Powers.
Opium presented a highly lucrative commodity to the British East Indies Company, which cultivated it in India. Other sources of opium included Turkey, from which American and Dutch merchants smuggled it into China. The Qing government made the smoking of opium illegal, but merchants working with East Indies Company agents established opium dens, often as brothels, and bribed local officials to look the other way. In Great Britain, growing public disapproval of the opium trade did little to quell the growth during the 19th century.
The British forced concessions from the Chinese in the Treaty of Nanking (1842) which allowed for expansion of the opium trade. In the mid-1850s China again attempted to eradicate the opium trade and a second opium war imposed a military defeat on China, and a further expansion of the opium markets. In the treaties which ended both Opium Wars, China was forced by the victorious British to pay for the costs of the wars which preceded them, and accept an increase in opium traffic.
3. The War of the Golden Stool
The Ashanti Empire was a native region which co-existed with the British colonial administration in West Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The co-existence was fractious at best, and several wars and smaller conflicts occurred between the Ashanti people and the British and their colonial troops. British colonial administrators were aware of the political significance of the Golden Stool to the Ashanti, and administrator Fredrick Hodgson decided as the symbol of Ashanti power, it belonged in British hands.
Hodgson marched a small force to Kumasi, the seat of Ashanti rule, and delivered a speech in which he complained of being given a wooden chair. He demanded the Ashanti produce the “Golden Stool for me to sit upon.” While Hodgson was correct that the stool symbolized Ashanti power, he was either unaware, or did not care, that it also represented the religious soul of the Ashanti people. For a foreigner to sit upon it would be to defile it. The Ashanti rose against the British, in a bloody insurgency which killed about 1,000 British and colonial troops, and about 2,000 Ashanti and their allies.
The result of the war was the Ashanti retaining their self-rule, though as a protectorate of Great Britain. The Golden Stool remained in their hands, though in 1901 the British deported most of their ruling families and their supporters to the Seychelles. The stool remained in an out of hiding for two decades until discovered by workers in 1921. They removed the golden ornamentation, leaving just a wooden frame. Though they were arrested for the crime, British authorities succeeded in having them exiled, rather than punished under Ashanti custom.
2. The Vespers War and Massacre
In 1266 the French ousted the ruling family of Sicily, and established the Kingdom of Sicily under the rule of Charles I of Anjou. Charles frequently absented himself from his kingdom on one pretext or another, and French rule became oppressively harsh on the Sicilian natives. On Easter Monday, 1282, as Catholics mustered for evening prayer (Vespers), a Frenchmen attacked a Sicilian woman, though accounts of the attack’s nature and who the principals were vary greatly. Whoever they were, the act outraged the Sicilians.
Across the realm, Sicilians rose up against their French masters, and over 4,000 of the latter were massacred over the course of a month and a half. The Sicilians appealed to Peter, the King of Aragon, to help free them from the French, and protect them from retaliation. Peter accepted the throne of Sicily, though Charles refused to concede it, and returned from his planned crusade to re-establish his legitimacy as ruler of Sicily. In the end, the former Kingdom of Sicily divided. The portion located on the Italian boot became the Kingdom of Naples, and the island the Kingdom of Sicily. The war which began over the “harassment” of a Sicilian woman lasted 20 years, resolved little, and killed thousands.
1. The First World War
The assassination of the Austrian Crown Prince in 1914 led to what became World War I, not because of a desire for conquest, but because of the complex intertwined treaties across Europe. Several nations agreed to terms in which they pledged mutual defense of one another in the event of an attack. The German Empire allied itself with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which also had an alliance with Italy for mutual defense. France entered into an alliance with Tsarist Russia, despite the Tsar’s being a cousin of the German Kaiser.
The King of Great Britain was another cousin of the Kaiser, but Britain chose to align itself with France as well as pledge to defend Belgian neutrality. The interlocking alliances created a powder keg awaiting a match to its fuse. Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Serbia in 1914, Austro-Hungary made diplomatic demands on Serbia which the latter deemed unacceptable. Austro-Hungary mobilized its military, Russia did the same in support of Serbia, and France mobilized as well, honoring its treaty with Russia.
The German Reich mobilized in support of Austro-Hungary. When the Germans demanded the right to transit Belgium in order to attack France, Britain moved to support the Belgians. One by one the nations of Europe were dragged into a war which began over an assassination. Opportunistic Japan saw a means of achieving material gains through the seizure of German Pacific colonies, and allied itself with Great Britain. The British and Japanese Empires gained land in the war, the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires all collapsed. Worldwide, over 40 million military casualties and at least eight million civilian casualties occurred because of the colossal failure of international diplomacy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.