Never Go to War Over a Missing Ear

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu writes, “No leader should put his troops into the field merely to gratify his own spleen; no leader should fight a battle simply out of pique.”

Because Man is such an aggressive and competitive creature, war has been around forever and doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. Sometimes, wars are fought to protect family, homes and country from invasion by aggressive neighbors or to overthrow an oppressive regime. Or they are fought because some people feel their way of living is best and everyone should be forced enjoy the same lifestyle. Then there are the psychopathic, power hungry ego-maniacs who feel that everyone should bow down to them. Literally.

Man is warlike. It’s in his genes. Sometimes, wars are justified, but many wars turn out to be an unjustified waste of money, resources, and lives. They cause death and destruction that could easily have been avoided with better communication, understanding, or just plain common sense. Here are a few examples.

The War of the Golden Stool

The Ashanti were a native tribe that lived in the Gold Coast, part of the present day African country of Ghana. The Ashanti had a gold stool which was their king’s throne. They also believed the stool contained the spirit of the Ashanti nation and the souls of the living, the dead, and those yet to be born. In 1896, the British ruled the Gold Coast and exiled the Ashanti king. Four years later, in March, 1900, Sir Frederick Hodgson, British Governor of the Gold Coast, entered the capital of the Ashanti empire and demanded the gold stool be turned over to him in the name of Queen Victoria. The Ashanti were not amused. They went home, armed themselves, and proceeded to nearly wipe out a British column dispatched to find the sacred stool. The British survivors made their way back to their fort and were under siege for the next 3 months by 12,000 really pissed-off natives. In July, 1900, the British finally lifted the siege with a force of several thousand men. They also burned a large number of villages, stole land, butchered thousands of natives, and annexed the Ashanti Empire. The Ashanti lost 2000 warriors and countless civilians. In the end, the Ashantis still felt they were victorious because Queen Victoria never got to sit on gold stool.

The War of Jenkins’ Ear

In 1739, tensions were rising pretty rapidly between the British and the Spanish. A British sea captain, Robert Jenkins, was called before Parliament to discuss an incident which had happened eight years earlier. Jenkins’ ship had been boarded by the Spanish Navy who him accused of piracy. As punishment, they cut off one of his ears. When Jenkins described the episode to Parliament, the war-mongers in the chamber claimed it was an affront to the Empire which needed to be addressed and used it as ammunition to launch a war. For the next two years, the two countries’ navies battled each other mostly in the Caribbean and off the coast of South America. Both sides were backed by their respective European allies and the events of the War of Jenkins’ Ear eventually evolved into the War of Austrian Succession, killing an estimated 500,000 people. That conflict led to the Seven Years War, the first war fought on a global basis, which caused one and a quarter millions deaths and elevated Britain to a world power. It’s not known whether Jenkins ever got his ear or his earring back.

The Pig War

The Americans and the British shared the San Juan Islands which were sandwiched between British Columbia and the state of Washington. In the 1850’s, the British-owned Hudson Bay Company set up a huge sheep ranch on the islands. Around that same time, a couple dozen American settlers arrived, planning to set up farms on the islands. Things started off tense and went downhill from there. On June 15, 1859, Lyman Cutlar, one of the farmers, discovered a pig rooting through his garden and shot it. The pig belonged to Charles Griffin, a Hudson Bay employee. As tempers flared, Cutlar offered Griffin $10 for the pig. Griffin refused and wanted $100. Cutlar refused. The British attempted to arrest Cutlar who asked for and received backing from the US military. The US Army sent 66 US soldiers. The British retaliated by sending a couple warships. By August, the US force had grown to 461 men and 14 cannons facing 5 British warships and over 2000 British troops. The British had been ordered to attack and force all the Americans off the islands which could have led to an all-out war between the two countries. Commanders on both sides refused to obey orders so a conflict was avoided. By September, 1859, both sides agreed to disagree and went on to peaceably cohabit the island. And share bacon sandwiches.

The Flagstaff War

The British, who occupied New Zealand, decided in 1840 to erect a flag pole in the town of Kororareka. The town was a non-descript settlement of bars, brothels, and all manner of separating miners and their money. After the British garrison raised the Union Jack on the new flag pole, a local native chief named Hone Heke led a group of his people to chop down the pole. The British built a second flag pole which was instantly chopped down as well. Persistent as they were, the British built a third flagpole which met the same fate as the first two. Upon building the fourth flagpole, they assigned a guard and reinforced the pole with iron. During this time, the British parliament decided that it wasn’t right for indigenous peoples to disrespect an invader’s flag, so they sent missionaries to convert the locals into proper Christians and British subjects. On March 11, 1845, Hone Heke and his band of anti-flagpole fighters attacked the town, quickly wiping out the British garrison and chopping down the staff for the fourth time. It took ten months for the British to overcome the flag pole molesters and bring peace back to the brothels, bars, and gambling halls of Kororareka, but they must have learned their lesson. They never erected a flagpole in the town again.

The Battle of Karansebes

On September 17, 1788, Austria was at war with the Ottoman Empire. An Austrian army, 100,000 strong, set up camp around the town of Karansebes in present day Romania. A troop of Hussar cavalry, scouting for Turkish troops, came across a group of gypsies selling schnapps and proceeded to get totally wasted. Eventually, a group of Austrian infantrymen happened upon the partying horsemen and wanted to share. Refusing, the Hussars set up makeshift fortifications around their campfires to protect their liquid loot. Tempers rose, somebody fired a shot, and all hell broke loose. The infantry started shouting “Turks, Turks” which caused the cavalry to run away, thinking the Ottoman army was right behind them. The infantry, seeing the hussars running away, got spooked and also began a general retreat. In addition to Austrians and Germans, the Austrian Army at that time was made up of Italians, Serbs, Croats, and a number of other nationalities who couldn’t communicate with each other. As the cavalry fled back through the camp, other soldiers also thought it was a Turkish attack and started to run away. When the German officers started screaming, “Halt! Halt!,” soldiers who didn’t understand German thought the officers were shouting “Allah! Allah!” and started shooting at them. In the general confusion, a corps commander mistook the commotion for a Turkish attack and ordered an artillery strike – on his own troops. Joseph II, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, was in the field with his troops when the incident occurred. In the chaos of the retreat, he was actually knocked off his horse and into a stream. When the Ottomans finally arrived two days later, they found 10,000 dead and wounded Austrian troops and took Karansebes without a shot.

So the next time the talking heads and war-mongers start spouting words of war, we really need to double check and make sure it’s not just because their prized petunias were pillaged by a neighbor’s pig.