The Cinematic Guide to War


War is a very frequent occurrence in movies and present in many genres including action, science fiction, history,  fantasy, westerns, adventure, and others. I may not be a military genius, but since I studied history in college, I can say I have a better idea of battle strategy than perhaps the average person. Yet, whether I may have a better understanding than people who play video games is another matter. Still, I know a dumb mistake in war when I see one but there are plenty of people in Hollywood who portray otherwise careless tacticians into tactical masterminds (yet, given they may be considered thus in the context of their times). Also, real wars don’t happen like they do in the movies. Still, you have plenty of moments in war movies in which one side wins the battle on tactics and strategy that would otherwise slaughter them or cause a retreat and plenty of things you either see or don’t see in war that don’t conform to facts. So here is a list of battle strategies and tactics you find a lot in movies which may let the hero succeed but will get a lot of real life soldiers killed or aren’t consistent with real war at all.

1. A great move against your enemy is hiding in a giant wooden wheeled animal that you present to your foe as a token of your surrender before launching a surprise attack behind enemy lines when nobody’s looking. (To be fair, this is how the Greeks won the Trojan War in The Iliad but still, I don’t think the Trojan Horse strategy could really work in real life. I mean if my enemy presented me with a giant wooden horse, I think I’d be very suspicious and so would anyone else with any sense of rationality, especially if you’ve heard Homer’s story.)

2. A tense battle can be won with the light cavalry charging in the middle of enemy lines. (Charge of the Light Brigade, anyone? Still, if you want to charge with cavalry, you’re better off using a heavy cavalry since their attacks have the power, reach, or sheer momentum to penetrate enemy that those of light cavalry lack. Besides, light cavalry are only used for flanking. The disastrous loss of life is what makes the Charge of the Light Brigade so memorable {that and the poem by Tennyson} and why people may not even know anything about the Charge of the Heavy Brigade was successful in the Battle of Balaklava.)

3. The side with the better weapons technology usually wins. (Weapons technology isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be, though it does help considerably. However, just because your side may have the latest in military technology, doesn’t mean victory in battle. For instance, you may have guns but if your side is significantly outnumbered, your guns won’t help you. Look at Custer at little Bighorn. Besides, Europeans may have had more technologically advanced weaponry than the Indians, but they probably wouldn’t have been able to colonize so easily if it weren’t for the European diseases they brought with them. For God’s sake, Europeans used muskets while many Indian tribes used bows and arrows.)

4. Friendly fire hardly ever happens during combat. (Friendly fire happens all the time during combat, especially in battles you can’t distinguish those on your side or your enemies as well as involving gunpowder. Sure it’s dumb mistake but it happens all the time regardless of historical period. Of course, you also got “fragging” which is known as friendly fire done on purpose and yes, it can be distinguishable from plain friendly fire.)

5. The side with superior numbers wins. (Usually, yes, but numbers aren’t always everything especially when you consider tactics and strategy involved. Guerrilla warfare can be especially handy strategy when faced with superior numbers as long as your side is on defense. Still, wars have been won by sides with smaller troop counts.)

6. Fighting out of formation and dueling soldiers unsupported aren’t dumb battle mistakes if you’re not using weapons with repeating ammunition. (You see this happen all the time in movies. Look, unless your civilization is in the Bronze Age or fights with weapons with repeating ammo, fighting out of formation and dueling soldiers unsupported is usually not a good idea or serves as a sign that something has gone totally wrong. Any ancient Greek or Roman would tell you this. Not to mention, the Spartans were adamant about their soldiers having their shields with them at all times, even in death so they would certainly have fought in formation. But you wouldn’t know that from 300.)

7. Medieval wars were usually fought with flaming arrows. (Well, using flaming arrows isn’t really a bad idea but they weren’t as often used as medieval movies claim it to be. I mean before you can set the arrows on fire, you had to wrap them in a flaming material first which may make them heavier, reduce their range, and inhibit its ability to penetrate the enemy’s skin. Also, may pose as a fire hazard. So flaming arrows wouldn’t be a handy way to kill someone and medieval soldiers didn’t use them to do so. Yet, whenever they did use flaming arrows, it was usually to frighten the enemy, letting archers know how to adjust their shots, and setting targets on fire.)

8. If you’re playing offense in a medieval battle, always assault the castle first. (Not a good idea. In the medieval world of warcraft, storming a castle was usually done as a last resort, and even then, it usually resulted in a bloodbath to the invaders and would probably not be successful. Not to mention, storming the castle through the front door spelled instant slaughter for invaders {if they did enter the castle, it would usually be through the toilets which wouldn’t be safe either}. Most medieval armies just surrounded the castle and put it under siege cutting it from all avenues of reinforcement until the residents surrender. And even in the most successful of circumstances, these could take years.You could easily see why many royals and nobles built these things.)

9. Castles are usually easy pickings whenever the resident adult males are away. (If you think you could easily take castles in which the resident nobles occupying it are women and children, think again. Women of noble or royal birth in the Middle Ages had sufficient knowledge of warfare and combat training for defending their turf while their men were away. Also, many tradesmen of the era had their wives helping them in their craft so women armorer is possible. So the medieval notion of damsel in distress was probably a myth unless she’s trapped in a castle and being besieged by a force significantly outnumbering her. In that case, you might want to bring reinforcements.)

10. Open field, Napoleonic-style infantry battles will always work even with advanced weapons technology. (Part of the reason why the North had tremendous success later in the American Civil War with generals like Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan is that they deliberately ignored them while many Confederate generals didn’t. Still, regardless of battle tactics, the American Civil War is still the bloodiest one fought on American soil. And this was when Napoleonic-style open field infantry battles were the prevailing military strategy of the day. Also, this was tried at the beginning of World War I. Didn’t work. Sorry, Napoleon, but your military strategy formulas are now obsolete.)

11. Modern warfare can be fought with soldiers only carrying small arms. (No right thinking general wouldn’t even think of sending his or her army into battle without aerial or artillery support. No one would wage a war with just small arms unless they simply have nothing else).

12. Firing as much ammo as possible in the face of anti-armor or anti-air attacks is the best option, especially when firing against a single, agile target. (In the twenty-first century, a simple guided missile will do and so will any time period since its invention. In any setting with gun-wielding soldiers before the invention of the Colt pistol or repeating rifles, this is a waste of ammo.)

13. Don’t fire unless you see the whites of their eyes, even if your guns can shoot beyond visual range. (If you have a weapon that can shoot beyond visual range in a combat zone, use it. Also, if your country has weapons that aren’t beyond visual range, simply don’t fight unless at defense.)

14. It should be seen as common courtesy for the henchmen take on the hero one by one for no clearly explained reason or let the main villain take care of him or her. (Henchmen would achieve much more success if they would just gang up and attack the hero all at once, except if he or she is a wizard.)

15. Only cowardly officers retreat their forces and only cowardly soldiers run away from battle. (On many occasions, leaving a combat zone tends to make perfect sense, especially if everyone around you is getting killed. Also, when it comes to retreats, they usually mean that the officer usually cares about the lives of his or her soldiers than about the outcome of the battle especially if it’s a no-win situation. And they call that cowardice?)

16. Air and space battles are conducted like a Battleship game. (Actually are conducted in three dimensional settings with airplanes willing to hit each other at odd angles. Two dimensional air and space battles are usually portray because they are much easier to show.)

17. When making an attack, it’s always best to wait until the last minute to make a maneuver. (If you’re facing the enemy or an opponent and this isn’t a turn based strategy game, attack now because the enemy certainly will.)

18. Always put your general at your front lines. (As long as him or her fighting is a major part of your strategy or how war in your culture is waged.)

19. Best trained soldiers are those who have been through programs that actively kill, injure, or psychologically destabilize recruits. This is especially helpful if you have a sadistic drill sergeant and a scientist with a drug or technology to keep them alive. (Sorry, but though soldier training programs may be harsh by most civilian standards, they are specifically designed to break down recruits and turn them into competent disciplined soldiers. Hurling them with unnecessary abuse to the point of death, injury, or insanity does not make effective soldiers and is usually avoided. Else, cue to the Monty Python Kamikaze Scotsman sketch where practically every recruit kills himself to complete training. Also, Sparta trained their soldiers this way and their methods eventually came back to bite the Greek city-state in the end.)

20. Always count two to three seconds before throwing a grenade after pulling the needle. (Since grenade fuse could never be precise after you pull the grenade just throw it somewhere where it is least likely to cause injury or else, you may get your hand blown off if you count to two or three seconds. Better yet, make you know where you want to throw a grenade before you pull the needle.)

21. Specialized soldiers are always the best soldiers. (It’s better that you have soldiers who can use almost any weapon or operate any vehicle within the branch.)

22. Collateral damage is nothing you should be concerned about. (Oh, yes, it should be an issue because if you’re fighting in another country, any collateral damage from attacks won’t make the locals happy with you. Also, might even hurt people in your own force.)

23. Strafing is often a simple procedure with hitting ground targets. (Sorry, but it depends on the target, aircraft type, the pilot’s experience, defenses, and other targets. That’s why using military drones is controversial practice.)

24. Battles are fought with no attempt to flank or distract the enemy with covering fire. (Sorry, but real wars just don’t work that way.)

25. Sub-to-sub warfare usually ends when one submarine sinks the other while submerged. (In the long history of submarines, this has only happened once and during World War II when a British sub sunk an German U-Boat. Of course, this only a confirmed case. Most sub-to-sub warfare sinkings usually happened during surface attacks. Submerged submarines have been more likely been taken to a watery grave by either the Bermuda Triangle or sea monsters than by another submerged submarine.)

26. A skilled sniper, gunman, ragtag force, or smaller military force can wipe out a much larger one. (Yes, but to a point but eventually the smaller force will usually end up slaughtered or fighting to the last man. As for those not in a military garrison, best use guerrilla warfare and assault rifles like in Third World nations.)

27. Most war veterans don’t have hearing problems. (Hearing problems are more prevalent among war veterans than any other demographic since many of them were among very loud noises all the time mostly from gunfire.)

28. At a time of war, being a soldier in the Elite and Special Forces usually have the more glamorous jobs. (Glamorous, yes, but let me tell you, if you’re in the military on active duty and care about your life, you’re better off being an average soldier. Face it, being a military Elite has a price, especially at a time of war.)

29. In battle, it’s common for both sides to start in formation and rush at each other at the same time upon collision where any semblance of formation or military discipline vanishes with warriors engaging each other individually. (Formation and military discipline exists to prevent such scenario from happening. If it does, it’s usually a symptom of a force that’s poorly led or disciplined in the first place. Otherwise, such scene results in mass killing and more frequent friendly fire.)

30. If you can’t be seen, you can’t get shot. (In combat professions, concealment and cover are two different things. Concealment doesn’t necessarily mean you’re immune to bullets, it just means your much difficult to hit because you’re less likely to be seen. Also, cover doesn’t make you invisible.)

31. A smaller force with less armor can take a force much larger armored than itself. (Sorry, Zack Snyder, but 300 guys in speedos can’t possibly be willing to kill a force well over twice its size and would’ve been practically obliterated much, much earlier, even if they were totally ripped. Besides, even Spartans knew this and came into battle with full armor.)

32. When it seems that the good guys may not survive, a friendly military force will magically show up. (Sometimes this may happen and sometimes not depending on who you see as the good guy.)

33. Arrow wounds don’t cause serious injuries and are relatively easy to remove. (Actually it depends on what kind of armor you’re wearing whether it be metal or a long silk cape. Still, we have to consider the fact that bows and arrows were the primary range weapons for most civilizations until as late as the 17th century. So yes, an arrow wound can certainly kill you. And if you barely have any armor on you, then being shot by one may make it difficult for you to do anything. This might be because of agonizing pain or your body going into shock. Nevertheless, most of the time removing the arrow is much harder than it looks but simply pulling the shaft out may just leave the arrowhead inside the wound {since shafts and arrowheads weren’t as firmly attached as Hollywood makes them out to be}. Archers would just simply snap the shaft {which is harder than movies make it look since arrow shafts were made from the hardest woods available}, widen the wound either with the knife or wiggling it around. Also, arrow wounds had a strong tendency to be badly infected. Thus, an arrow wound was almost never just a flesh wound.)


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