Some people see war as a glorious and terrible struggle over important issues. Some see it as a bloody breakdown of rationality. But everyone saw these ten wars as huge wastes of time. Learn about tantrums over pork, and battles that were over after a single shot.
By 1859, a British farming company and about twenty American settlers had already spent nearly fifteen years being very angry with each other. Each belonged to a nation that claimed San Juan Island - an island off the coast of what was either northern America or southern Canada, depending on who was being asked. According to Lyman Cutlar, who shot a dirty British pig trashing his garden, the island belonged to America.
Incensed by the killing, the British threatened to put the Americans off their island. The settlers turned to the US military, which landed sixty-four soldiers on the island. The British responded with three warships and a group of marines. The Americans called in four hundred more soldiers. The camped-out Americans planned attacks to carry out should the British military set foot on the ground, but couldn't fight the British on the sea. The British, from the safety of their ships, fired on the cliffs of the island but couldn't do any damage unless they invaded.
Eventually, word of the situation reached Washington, where British and American officials agreed that the death of a British man was a serious matter, then had it gently broken to them that Cutlar's use of the word "pig" was not metaphorical. The two sides were fighting over an actual dead pig that had belonged to the British company. Guess how long the conflict lasted after that. If you guessed "twelve goddamn years" you'd be right. It took six weeks even to argue the British down to one warship, and for that to happen a group of British marines had to establish camp on the island. They remained in "Camp English" for over a decade. Eventually, San Juan went to America, but "The Pig War" is still a legend on the island.
Khalid bin Barghash seized power in Zanzibar after his uncle, the former sultan, died in 1896. Britain had supported the pro-British former sultan and was not enthusiastic about Barghash assuming the title. He was not as pro-British as they would like, especially after they started shelling his palace and sinking his armed yacht in the Anglo-Zanzibar war. (To be fair, he did have his personal security fighting back when they shelled him.) No one is entirely sure how long the war lasted, because it never occurred to anyone to time a war with a stop watch. It was between 38 and 45 minutes. After that, Barghash fled to the German consulate, where people arranged for him to live in exile in German East Africa (which is now Burundi and Rwanda).
Life in exile wasn't good enough for the British. When the sultan they subsequently installed in Zanzibar died in 1902, they wanted to make sure Barghash wouldn't try his old tricks again, and demanded Germany hand him over. For the next fourteen years, Barghash's life consisted of secretly fleeing the pursuing British. In 1916, they caught up to him and imprisoned him on various islands for various amounts of time. By the 1920s, they realized they were giving the Napoleon treatment to a guy whose greatest act of war against the British empire was basically just locking the door to his own house, and let him go back to East Africa.
This one straddles the line between history and legend. It would be too trifling to be believable, if it weren't for all the other wars on this list. Supposedly two Arab tribes had a dispute about who killed a she-camel. This dispute became rancorous until the two tribes, the Taghlib and the Bakr, went to war with each other. The war perpetuated itself, casualties and vendettas piling up on both sides. It was forty years before the tribes could make peace again. The Basus War was has since become a common reference - a way to warn people not to let powerful hatred loose over something trivial.
How much is true? There probably was a war in 494 AD, when all this happened. The war lasting forty years is probably an embellishment. Forty years seems to be a popular duration for legendary wars. Another tale from approximately the same time period tells of two tribes that went to war for forty years because they couldn't agree on which tribe had won a horse race.
In 1958, Iceland declared that it had exclusive rights to ocean twelve miles off of its coastline - a significant increase from the four miles it had claimed the rights to before. That was fine by most of the world, but not so fine by Britain. For a while "The Cod War" resembled a zany comedy. Captains would fight by throwing codfish at each other and jamming radios. Then the navy joined the fight. The crews of Icelandic patrol ships attempted to board British vessels. British crews fought off the boarders with hatchets and hammers. Later they fought them off with actual naval ships. The ICGV Ægir collided with a British anti-submarine frigate during a fight over a British fishing ship. An Icelandic ship fired on a British fishing boat and forced it out of Icelandic waters, before being chased back by multiple British ships.
Before the war was over, 37 ships of the British navy were harassing six Icelandic navy ships, and around 100 Icelandic coast guard vessels. Seven thousand British sailors were deployed in the waters around Iceland. Though the amount of fish that the British got from Iceland's waters was substantial, it was worth nowhere near the military cost or the international mockery. Still, it took three years for Britain to agree to Iceland's demands
Let's say you are the king of France, and a pastry chef complains to you that ten years ago, in Mexico City, some Mexican officers wrecked his pastry shop. What do you do? For some reason, King Louis-Philippe decided to not go with the only rational option, which is "nothing whatsoever." Instead, he went to Mexico and demanded 600,000 pesos in damages. When Mexico refused, he captured the Mexican navy and blockaded the ports.
Now let's say you're the Republic of Texas, and France has just blockaded Mexico over a shop full of eclairs. What do you do? Again, people resisted the only rational option - nothing - and helped with the blockade. They also patrolled to keep Mexican smugglers from bringing dangerous substances into their country - dangerous substances like flour. (Seriously, the biggest victory over smugglers prevented them from bringing flour into the country.) At that point, the conflict seemed like a weird parody of war dreamed up entirely by hungry bakers, and the British intervened. (Imagine the craziness of a war that makes 19th century Britain seem level-headed about war.) Amazingly, France got what it wanted. Mexico agreed to fork over 600,000 pesos. The catch? Mexico had already been indebted to France - for more than 600,000 pesos.
Ever read a science fiction novel set in a world where corporations rule the world, and people have to miserably endure armed wars between Coke and Pepsi? That already happened. In the early 1800s, two companies were rivals in the lucrative fur trade in the Americas. The Hudson's Bay Company got an early lead, but the North West Company began gaining officially-granted territory and market share. (They gave the war its name by trading in pemmican - powdered buffalo meat mixed with buffalo fat and sold in leather bags. Tastes were different in those days.)
To be fair, the war wasn't just between the companies. In 1811, the Red River Colony was established, set up by the Earl of Selkirk. Wanting to live through the winter, the colonists issued a decree that companies could not take meats and furs out of the area until they had established a farm that could provide them with food. Both companies found that idea upsetting. And then multiple governments stepped into the fray, trying to establish who had control over what territory. Still, even when the colonists and the governments stepped out of the situation, the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company blockaded, raided, and raised armies against each other. Their war raged on and on. How did it stop? The companies noticed their profits were slipping and merged.
Most of the wars on this list started over trivial issues, or were pie-in-the-sky dreams that could never have worked out. What makes the Kettle War so humiliating is it not only could have achieved something major, it should have. Victory should have been easy, quick, and substantial for the stronger party. And yet, somehow, the war was tiny and achieved nothing. In 1784, The Netherlands was divided. The Northern Netherlands had the advantage, in that it had control over the sea, and control over major rivers connecting the Lower Countries to the sea. Except the "Lower Countries" was a nickname for the Austrian Netherlands, which was backed by the not-inconsiderable power of Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor.
Joseph II sent out a group of ships to retake one of the main rivers and end the power of the Northern Netherlands. The group of ships was small, but was headed by Le Louis, a magnificent new flagship. No one on the Austrian side expected to meet any resistance. When the Austrian ships arrived, they met a small group of ships, led by The Dolfijn. The Dolfijn fired one shot. It hit no one. It did, however, hit a kettle of soup on Le Louis. Le Louis surrendered. With the loss of the flagship, the entire mission failed. Before Joseph II or the Northern Netherlands could organize another attack, other nations took notice and the political situation became too complicated to continue.
In 1739, Robert Jenkins had a very bad day. Between them, the British and the Spanish managed to turn that bad day into one of the most famously pointless wars in history. Jenkins was the captain of a British trading ship in a Spanish port. Without warning, Spanish authorities boarded his boat, and grabbed his cargo. They were doing this to British vessels everywhere, but for some reason, they concluded that Jenkins' "cargo" included his ear. They cut it off.
The ear found its way back to Britain, where a hawkish member of parliament decided to take it out and shake it in everyones' faces during a debate. That was a good way to get a war declared but it was not a strategy that would get a war won, and that soon became apparent to everybody. British troops were felled by disease in Colombia, they were driven back from Venezuela, and they were defeated in the Caribbean. They managed to capture one important town, but only held it for three weeks. The only reason the British didn't lose the war was the Spanish were equally unsuccessful at all of their military endeavors. In the end, no territory changed hands, and no new balance of power had been cemented. Two powers had just spent a lot of money killing a lot of people over a dried ear.
Some of you might know the fact that Denmark and Huéscar, a municipality in Spain, were at war for 172 years. It's a common piece of trivia. What's not commonly told is the weird, complicated situation that led up to the war. In 1796 Napoleon and Charles IV of Spain signed a treaty declaring they would back each other up in fights against the British. In 1807, Spain decided to show a little support by sending troops to Denmark. Why? Because Denmark was an ally of France and its people were worried that the British would declare war on them while they were weakened by a war with Sweden. In 1808, there was an uprising in Spain, and Charles IV abdicated. This left 13,000 nervous Spaniards in Denmark, surrounded by a large number of equally-nervous Danes, who still had an alliance with a group of not-so-nervous Frenchmen.
Napoleon split the Spanish troops into small groups, dispersed them all over Denmark, and made them swear loyalty oaths to France. No part of Spain took this well, but Huéscar took it worst of all. Huéscar declared war on Spain, but couldn't muster enough troops or supplies to do anything. Eventually, the world moved on, until, in 1981, a historian found out that part of one country declared war against another country for its actions in league with a third country while it was at war with a fourth country, all out of fear of a fifth country, which had no idea that any of this was going on in the first place.
In 1945, everyone in America was pretty mad at the city of Town Line. The small New York town had become a media sensation when a local reporter noticed a very old story which referenced the fact that Town Line had, as a town, voted to secede from the Union at the start of the Civil War. As unpopular as that had made the town in 1861, in 1945 it made the town twice as unpopular.
Most of the details of this war are lost to history. Town Line itself seems to have been the war in miniature. It was a town of only 300 people. Eligible voters eventually voted 80 to 45 for secession. Twenty people fought for the Union. Five for the Confederacy. A few families wanted nothing to do to the war and fled to Canada. Since neither the Union nor the Confederacy officially acknowledged the town's stance, the town's "war" against the United States continued. In 1945, the town was deluged with cards and letters from a furious nation that had just gotten out of a world war and wasn't putting up with one American town's symbolic belligerency. Town Line even got a letter from President Truman. In January 1946, the town voted 90 to 23, to rejoin the Union. (As if the event weren't surreal enough, Cesar Romero was there to count the ballots.) As of 2011, its firefighter uniforms still had the Confederate insignia and Town Line declared itself "the last Confederacy." Which is not something I'd be bragging about if I were in Town Line.
[Via The Pig War, Huescar Against Denmark, Secessionist Hamlet Takes Stroll Down Memory Lane, The Pastry War, The Anglo-Zanzibar War: Shortest Conflict in History, A History of Arabia, A Serious Joke, In Destiny's Hands, Pemmican Empire.]