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Pretext for War
aka: Excuse For War
He messed with the HRE - Casus Belli.
Shattered Stability - Casus Belli.
(Russia, Denmark, France - This is a call to arms!)
(England stood no chance - This is a call to arms!)
But we couldn´t be happier now that he attacked
The leaders of Viridia and Tyria want to go to war. Not for a silly reason
, but due to anything from good old fashioned jingoism, greed, political/economic/religious differences, or a simple historical grudge. However, they can't just out and out declare war, that would be uncivilized!
And more importantly, it would make them look bad to the international community, which isn't good politics. So instead they will wait for or manufacture a Pretext For War out of whatever should come their way.
Did a Tyrian pig farmer lose a pig when it wandered into Viridia? This Means War!
Maybe a Viridian girl disappeared near the Tyrian border? Tyrian slavers must want to capture Viridian women
since theirs are so ugly! A favorite is for Star-Crossed Lovers
from both sides (preferably royalty) to elope, causing both sides to assume the other kidnapped their heir.
One interesting and ironic
variant is when hardline elements from both sides will collaborate to stage a high profile assassination or other incident to kickstart a war, proving just how well they work together to achieve their goals despite hating each other's guts
. This one is especially common when one or both nations have a Reasonable Authority Figure
as a head of state, since it can force their hand to war, or if they're the assassination target, get them out of the picture and
make them an unwitting martyr. False Flag Operation
is one of the classical moves too, and almost a Twentieth Century theme song.
Point is, an incident any two sane heads of state would quietly defuse is treated as a Rant Inducing Slight
in order to start the war. In these cases, heroes typically have to uncover the plot in order to Prevent The War
A technical term for this is the latin term Casus Belli
, or case for war.
Since wars of aggression
have technically been banned, you'll find that these are a lot more common today than they were previously, since both sides are at pains to show that the other side started it. As a result, the history of many a 20th-century war reads like a really, really dark Idiot Fawlty Towers Plot
See also War for Fun and Profit
open/close all folders
- Tintin The Broken Ear. A Corrupt Corporate Executive encourages Tintin (then working as the aide to a Banana Republic's dictator) to declare war on a neighbouring country. Tintin point-blank refuses, so the executive frames him and he's forced to flee the country in a staff car. The car is fired upon by the border guards and the incident is then used as an excuse for war.
- Before that, in Tintin The Blue Lotus, there was a thinly disguised replay of the Mukden Incident used as a pretext for additional Japanese intervention in China.
- The Marx Brothers' Duck Soup. Essentially just bankruptcy and personal slights.
- Some of which were hypothetical slights that didn't actually happen, at that.
- The plot behind The Princess Bride.
- Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country featured a combined conspiracy by both Starfleet officers and Klingon military leaders to try to veer both nations onto the path to war by having each side's Reasonable Authority Figure assassinated by agents from the other side. Given how the Federation was definitely in the stronger economic and military position at the time, many fans have since hypothesized that the respective Klingons were goaded into "dying on their feet rather than living on their knees" by Section 31 machinations.
- The novel "Sarek" indicates that the the actual masterminds behind this plot were the Romulans, who in the movie had seemed to just be bit players.
- Star Wars has many thanks to the machinations of Chancellor Palpatine. In The Phantom Menace, he directs the Trade Federation to invade Naboo over a trivial dispute, and in Attack of the Clones he deploys the clone army secretly created by his apprentice Count Dooku to Geonosis, sparking the Clone Wars.
- When Guy de Lusignan becomes King of Jerusalem in Kingdom of Heaven, he releases Reynald in order for him to do something to start a war with Saladin. In an earlier scene Saladin's adviser had remarked that Guy becoming king meant Saladin didn't have to find one himself since the man was stupid enough to start a war he couldn't win.
- In The Man Who Knew Too Little, members of the British and Russian intelligence services are collaborating together for a bombing that would take out the top table of a British/Russian peace conference. The British spymaster is seen longing for the new funding, equipment, and poisons that renewed tensions would bring. When the hero unwittingly starts getting in the way, the Russian spymaster complains, "If we cannot trust each other, how can we bring back Cold War together?"
- The Discworld book Jingo is named for jingoism. The excuse for war is a worthless island that's risen from the bottom of the sea after a volcanic event. A strategically vitally located island with plenty of mysterious ruins on it, admittedly, but still, fairly worthless compared to what war would mean.
- As one character pointed out, the island being strategically located only mattered if there was a war, and the only reason they were fighting was because of the damn island. A more politically acceptable excuse to go to war and seize the island (the attempted assassination of a diplomat) had to be manufactured as a result. Fortunately, Sam Vimes wasn't fooled for a minute and set out to put a stop to it before things got out of hand. Carrot ended up arresting two entire armies for, among other things, Conspiracy to Commit a Breach of the Peace and buying enough time for Vetinari to swing a large number of trade concessions in return for ceding the island to the other side... about half an hour before it sinks again.
- In Small Gods, Vorbis arranges for one of his own church's missionaries to be murdered on his way back from Ephebe, then blames the Ephebians for killing the man and "counterattacks" with an army he'd sent out to cross the desert before the missionary had even visited their city.
- In Interesting Times, Lord Hong is giving extensive support to highly ineffective "revolutionaries" to create a pretext for him to launch a potent counter-revolution
- The manufacture of such a pretext is a major plot point in both the film and book versions of The Princess Bride.
- Crest of the Stars has a complex one. First is the destruction of the Gosroth with United Mankind insisting on setting up a joint investigation committee, with the suggestion that tensions are running high after the Abh annex the Hyde System. Ultimately subverted in that it is revealed that UM has been planning the whole thing for decades and on the Abh side Empress Ramaj sees right through it and refuses to play their games. She basically says "If you want a war then I will give you a war."
- Mocked in the Star Trek: The Next Generation novel I, Q. The Q Continuum has a mortal enemy, the M Continuum. The Ms decided they wanted to go to war with the Qs. Why? Because there is something about them that pisses them off (their exact words). The Q Continuum requested a more eloquent reason. So one of the Ms insulted the mother of one of the Qs. This horrific affront (despite the fact that this Q, like all other Qs, didn't have a mother) could only be answered by a full scale war.
- In the third Dresden Files book, Grave Peril, this turns out to be the cause of most of the problems of the books: the Red Court was ready to launch a war against the White Council, and just needed a good excuse to do so, so they manipulate Harry into breaking Sacred Hospitality. Harry sees that he's being maneuvered into the trap and knows what the consequences will be, but since the alternatives would be the death of him and several innocents, along with the unmaking of a Holy Sword, he does it anyway.
- Only part of the Court wanted to go to war. The people behind the incidents of the novel wanted to make Harry suffer, figuring he wasn't crazy enough to trigger a full-on war... which he was. The more level-headed members tried to broker peace later because the war started before all their preparations were complete, preventing a quick victory for the Court.
- Discussed in the Tom Clancy novel The Bear and the Dragon. China is considering initiating a war of aggression against Russia, and Russian observation planes are staying well within Russian air space, but examining the Chinese preparations. The Chinese war minister recommends shooting down one of the spy planes and stating that it had violated Chinese air space, and then using that as casus belli for the war. This is never mentioned again, mostly because, thanks to a well-placed spy, China's opponents know exactly what they're doing.
- In the Star Wars Expanded Universe, the Chiss are only allowed to go to war if provoked (i.e. the other guy has to shoot first), so developing a pretext for preemptive strikes becomes a veritable art form for the Chiss Expansionary Defense Force. The CEDF wanted to take out the marauding Vagaari for decades but were never directly attacked, so in Survivors Quest they trick the Vagaari into attacking a Chiss diplomat (and the Skywalkers), then into hitting a major CEDF base.
Live Action TV
- The Silurian captured by the humans in the Doctor Who two-parter "The Hungry Earth"/"Cold Blood" hopes to be killed and tries to get killed, just to start the war.
- And several seasons earlier, the Slitheen try to start World War III so they can sell the radioactive remains of the planet as fuel.
- This is lampshaded several times in the mini-series Attila (2001). Flavius Aetius presents the young Attila's chief with one of his men who has been tortured as a pretext for taking on a rival tribe. Attila accuses Flavius of having inflicted the torture marks himself as they've been done post-mortem. Later after the chief dies, Flavius warns Attila that he needs a pretext before returning home to take on a rival, so Attila accuses him of murdering the previous ruler. After Attila creates the Hunnic Empire, he uses as earlier offer of marriage by the sister of the Roman Emperor to invade their territory.
- When the Romulans in Star Trek: The Next Generation aren't trying to destabilize other superpowers, they're trying to lure the Federation into making some blunder that would justify them making a first strike. They actually got pretty close with Picard and a traitor they were stringing along, but Picard hedged his bets and brought some Klingon backup, so they decided it wasn't worth the risk.
- Rome between Caesar and Pompey in Season One, and Marc Antony and Octavian in Season Two. Both cases involve Civil War, so it's important that those seeking war not be seen to incite it, as war against fellow Romans is more difficult to justify than war against foreigners.
- In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, it says that the history of warfare is divided into three phases: retribution, anticipation, and diplomacy.
- Retribution: “I’m going to kill you because you killed my brother.”
- Anticipation: “I’m going to kill you because I killed your brother.”
- Diplomacy: “I’m going to kill my brother and then kill you on the pretext that your brother did it.”
- There was also the incident where two very tiny alien races were on the brink of war due to a Your Mom joke, but what really pushed both parties over the edge was a random comment made by Arthur Dent that traveled through space and time.
- In Knickerbocker Holiday, Stuyvesant, Glorious Leader of New Amsterdam, believing that national greatness lies more in guns than butter, suggests that war with Connecticut could be imminent because, he alleges, the Connecticutans have had the cheek to build a fort on the Connecticut River.
- Used in Modern Warfare 2, where Vladimir Makarov, a major Russian extremist terrorist, perpetuates a massacre in an airport in the middle of Moscow while Private Joeseph Allen, an American CIA agent, is planted in his inner circle. However, Makarov knows about Allen, and the Private is killed and dumped in the airport, and his body used as a pretext by the war-happy Ultranationalists to give them an excuse to invade the United States. The fact that as of Modern Warfare 3 Makarov appears to be covertly in control of the entire Russian military helped sell this.
- This trope is actually active on both the Russian and American sides in different ways. The Russians have been looking for an excuse to go to war with America for years, and are just waiting for a catalyst. Even if the US was completely uninvolved, there's a fairly decent chance they would have blamed the CIA anyway. Indeed, they may have done just that. A well known internationally wanted terrorist is seen, plain as day, strolling into an airport with a machinegun. Even though Allen's corpse is left there, the only thing that would identify him as a CIA agent (or even an American for that matter) is information being fed to the Russian government by a terrorist organization or the game's villian (who are both less than reputable). On the American side, Allen is there for the sole purpose of BEING the catalyst, and his mission was made from the start.
- In Europa Universalis you can manufacture claims on another country as a pretext for war using the 'obscure documents' Casus Belli. And in Vicky and Europa occasional border incidents like the pig one occur
- In Dragon Age II, The Church controls all mages and has them guarded at all time by Templars, who will hunt any mage who tries to flee and kill those who show any signs of becoming vulnerable to demonic possession. Since demons offer powers that help a lot in escaping the templars, this actually happens quite frequently. With the templars taking less risks and even sympathising with those who try to escape being treated as being vulnerable to possession, things are constantly getting more dire for mages, but more moderate factions are always intervening to prevent a complete purge of all mages. In a desperate, though brilliant, move the mage Anders provides a reason for the templars to start a purge immediately without preparation, in the hope that it will unite the mages to fight for their lives, while there is still a chance they can win. He does that by blowing up the local main church with all its priests and publically admiting to the Templars that he did it.
- Galactic Civilizations 2 has a random event where people from one civ automatically assassinate a very high-ranking politician of another civ, forcing war between the two.
- Civilization V Ghandi's declaration often involves a couple of troops going "rogue" and attacking your border unprovoked and he just received it. All he could do is simply send kindly worded letters to "withdraw".
- Star Control II reveals that the human-VUX First Contact failed not because the human captain off-handedly called his opposite number ugly, figuring the translators weren't working yet, but because the VUX find humans too ugly to let live. They simply used the "insult" as a pretext to prepare for war. They were conquered by the Ur-Quan and absorbed as Battle Thralls, which only worked in their favor.
- One arc of Escape From Terra revolves around the United World trying to incite an incident on Ceres that they can use as a pretext for a second invasion attempt (first time they claimed Ceres was rebelling, the natives made it clear Ceres was never part of the UW in the first place). First a few covert ops soldiers go in and try to start a bar fight, but due to the Zero-Aggression Principle most Cereans follow that doesn't work. Then those guys buy a hotel and a small platoon of troops move in, but the locals just accommodate them. And as a last ditch the commissar took a twelve-year old girl hostage and told a prominent local to shoot one of her men disguised as a tourist or the girl would die. The Cereans instead brought out strippers to distract everyone until they rescued the kid, and the soldiers turned on their political officer.
- Imperium Nova has a feud system. When one House engages in actions against another House such as withholding taxes, insulting dynasty members, espionage (and are caught), or attacking facilities; the offended House gains feud points that can be spent attacking the offender. If a House attacks another House, on a planet under Imperial Jurisdiction, without feud the Emperor declares them a Renegade, which allows every other House to attack them with impunity.
- In Dragons: Riders of Berk, Dagur the Deranged visits Berk, having heard a rumor that they have taken to training dragons. It is heavily implied that Dagur wants to use that fact as an excuse for the Berserker tribe to wage war on Berk.
- That pig thing, in the trope discription? It was real. It wasn't much of a war though: "The pig was the only casualty of the war, making the conflict otherwise bloodless." from The Other Wiki.
- The War of Jenkins' Ear. The British had managed to get themselves exclusive rights to trade slaves in the Spanish colonies in America, but at the cost of Spanish crews being allowed to board British ships and search their cargo. Relations became rather strained, and then a one-eared merchant captain by the name of Jenkins showed up in Parliament with a severed ear and a story of Spanish brutality that sparked the above war. It is doubtful as to whether the ear exhibited in Parliament was actually Jenkins' lost ear, as historians today and his contemporaries believe that he lost his ear in a bar fight years before.
- World War I. The assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was just an excuse for destroying Serbia. Which sounds a bit unreasonable until you realise that the very existence of Serbia (an independent nation of ethnic Serbs whose most important foreign policy goal was to unite all the lands inhabited by Southern Slavs into Yugoslavia, which they envisioned as as a Greater Serbia) terrified the German/Hungarian elites that ruled the mindbogglingly multi-ethnic Austria-Hungary. Right from the start they thought that, with Germany backing them all the way, Russia would back down rather than risk war with them and Germany at the same time, just like six years earlier over the formal annexation of (Habsburg-occupied, technically Ottoman) Bosnia.
- For reference, the main ethnic groups in Austria-Hungary were, roughly by population: Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians, Croats, Slovaks, Serbs, Slovenes, and Italians. Plus a lot of Jews, most of whom spoke German/Yiddish or Hungarian.
- Furthermore, right from the start the German High Command's universally accepted plan of action was the Schlieffen plan, which involved invading France through Belgium and taking it out of the equation (timetable: six weeks) before the Russians could mobilize and roll over Germany and Austria. So when Russia mobilized its armies Germany delivered an ultimatum to France as a pretext for war, demanding its neutrality despite being an ally of Russia and asking it to temporarily surrender fortresses integral to France's defenses (Verdun and Toul) along their shared border within 24 hours. The French were only too happy to refuse with indignation; the Revanchism movement, a movement seeking revenge for France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the re-annexation of the province of Elsaß-Lothringen (Alsace-Lorraine) was a force not to be denied.
- In other words, the true causes were jingoism, militarism, alliances, imperialism, and nationalism.
- Or to make a long story short, a bunch of people wanted some stuff and threatened to go to war if they didn't get it, but mostly wanted a war. Some other people didn't want to give it to them but kind of wanted a war too. One thing led to another and there was a war, which everyone thought would be over in about three months (with their side victorious, of course). And then it snowballed into a really, really big war. Then about six months later, they all thought to themselves, "Why the hell did we do that?" But by then, they were committed.
- The Mainila incident, which the Soviet Union used as a pretext for invading Finland during the Winter War. It has been established that there is no way the Finns could have been responsible, as none of their artillery was in range at the time. See False Flag Operation.
- A few months later, the Soviets started claiming that the Baltic states captured and are torturing some of their soldiers. Remembering Finland, all three countries agreed to join USSR. No attempt to find the captive soldiers followed.
- Similarly, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which an American ship on patrol claimed to have been attacked by Vietnamese gunboats, serving as a pretext for The Vietnam War; but the reports may have been fabricated to gain popular support for escalating military operations in Southeast Asia.
- It's a little more complicated. There were actually two "Gulf of Tonkin" incidents, separated by around 48 hours. The first incident took in disputed waters, claimed by North Vietnam as its territorial waters but by the US as international waters, conveniently not too far from an area where a South Vietnamese covert operation against the North was taking place. (North Vietnam claimed that US warships were supporting it, while US has denied it.) During this incident, which was very real, North Vietnamese patrol boats took the worst of it, while US warships suffered nothing more than a few dents. The second incident took place in the middle of night, roughly 40 hours later, in undisputed international waters. Sailors onboard US warships (which were involved in the first incident) thought that they were under attack by North Vietnamese and spent most of the night shooting at something...or nothing. Military intelligence officials who received the report thought the whole thing was a mistake by confused sailors and no actual attack took place—which has been confirmed by every investigation thereafter by military, government, academics, etc. But Johnson administration decided to ignore the intelligence report and assert that the second attack was real to justify escalating conflict.
- To make a trifecta, the sinking of USS Maine in Havana Harbor provided America with the perfect excuse to start the Spanish-American War and take over Cuba and Spain's Pacific possessions. Investigations since then seem to be split on whether it was a deliberate act of war by the Spanish, a False Flag Operation by Cuban rebels, or a genuine accident caused by a fire in a coal bunker.
- It didn't help that the American press was actively encouraging war with Spain by citing (false) Spanish atrocities. Why? To increase their sales figures.
- Another False Flag Operation was the Mukden Incident of 18 September, 1931, in which the Japanese officers faked an explosive attack on the South Manchurian railroad to spark off the Manchurian Crisis.
- The revolution that led to the Republic of Colombia becoming independent was supposedly triggered by "El Florero de Llorente" (the vase of Llorente), which was a trick by the supporters of the independence to upset a Spanish merchant and incite the crowd against the Spanish people. This led to a popular expression used when you need a excuse to start a fight.
- The Gleiwitz Incident was used as a pretext for Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939. An SS commando in Polish uniforms attacked a radio station near the Polish border and broadcast anti-German propaganda. They even dressed a prisoner in Polish uniform and shot him to add authenticity.
- The Football War had a football match as part of its pretext.
- Lampshaded in the Great Louisiana Maneuvers of 1941. These were held to prepare the US Army for the widely expected entry into World War II and in a way marked the beginning of the United States as a superpower. Two trumped up factions called the Red Army and the Blue Army were set to test their prowess against each other. To begin the contest it was decided that they represented two nations fighting for control over the Mississippi River.
- There's a conspiracy theory that 9/11 was a False Flag Operation by the Bush administration in order to provide a pretext for invading Iraq. Leaving aside the part where the whole thing started life as a work of fiction, the correct response for someone too bored to counter with hard data is to invoke the names of Occam and Hanlon.
- False Flag Operation aside, there is compelling evidence to suggest that 9/11 was used to justify a first-strike in Iraq for reasons varying from personal to financial.
- The Crimean War started thanks to a dispute between Catholic and Orthodox clergymen in Bethlehem (present-day Israel, then part of the Ottoman Empire), over the keys to the Church of the Nativity. This led to the awkward situation of Catholic France and Anglican Britain siding with Muslim Turkey against Orthodox Russia over a religious argument.