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10 Tiny Miscommunications With Massive Consequences

E. M. Caris

Miscommunication has been the source of many a blunder. Everyone remembers the goofy, yet wholly inappropriate, back-rub George Bush gave Angela Merkel. We laughed at his gormless innocence, and tried to forget that he had unfettered access to America’s nuclear arsenal. We snickered because silly little misunderstandings don’t have huge, world-changing consequences. Do they?

10A Confused Low-Level Drunk Ends The Cold War

Berlin was the temperature gauge of the Cold War—if you wanted to know how close the world was to committing suicide, you just looked to the divided city. And in 1989, things weren’t looking great for the communists. The Iron Curtain was crumbling. Due to a legal loophole, hordes of East Germans were able to flee into Hungary and cross into West Germany from there.

In response, the East German government decided to issue temporary permits through the Anti-Fascist Wall (no, really, that was their official name for the Berlin Wall) to appease any would-be defectors. Just to be clear, these were intended to be temporary visas for a later, unspecified date—they were really only lip service to placate the masses. However, they forgot to tell the guy who was to deliver the news on live television.

Gunter Schabowski was a low-level member of the politburo, with a drinking problem, who stumbled into the spotlight on November 9, 1989. He was chosen for the press conference because, as a relatively unknown figure, he carried no baggage. During the press conference, he was either very sleep-deprived or very hungover (or both) and gave a speech that Tom Brokaw described as “boring.” But then an Italian journalist asked when the new visas would go into effect. Gunter stammered and sweated before stuttering out, “immediately.” The room erupted into chaos, and Gunter only dug his grave deeper by saying that everyone who already had a passport qualified for the visa without needing to apply for a new one. Crowds flocked to the Wall, guards had no idea what to do because of conflicting orders, the barriers came down, the Cold War ended, and it was all because somebody didn’t properly brief a low-ranking drunk.

9Fat Man And Little Boy

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After victory in Europe, the Allied leaders (Truman, Churchill, Stalin, and Chiang Kai-Shek) called for Japan’s unconditional surrender at the Potsdam Conference. The Allies hoped they could avoid a land invasion of Japan and the slaughter that was bound to follow. Initially, the Japanese government said nothing while they considered their options. But when reporters hounded Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki for an answer he eventually uttered a single word, “mokusatsu.”

This choice of words is probably one of the most tragic decisions ever made. Depending on context, mokusatsu has several meanings. What the Prime minister meant was “no comment.” Unfortunately, the word was translated to the Allies as meaning “not worthy of comment; held in silent contempt.” The Allies, particularly America, were utterly sick and tired of Japan’s “kamikaze” spirit. They took the word as an insult of the highest order and a rejection of their demands for peaceful surrender. You can guess what happened next. Linguists have dubbed the incident “the world’s most tragic translation.”

8The Charge Of The Light Brigade

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The Charge of the Light Brigade was a ridiculous series of errors that highlighted everything that was wrong with the British aristocracy and army. At the time, officer positions were bought and sold for huge sums, a policy that ensured the people giving the orders had no idea what they were doing. For instance, Lord Raglan, commander of the British forces fighting the Russians in the Crimea, sent an order that read: “Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop horse artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate.”

Raglan intended for the cavalry to prevent the Russians from moving the guns from some British positions they had captured. The guns were cumbersome, and the Light Cavalry Brigade would have forced the Russians to either abandon them, or be cut down en masse. However, due to differing vantage points, the Light Brigade couldn’t actually see the guns Raglan was referring to. The cavalry commander, Lord Lucan, asked the messenger, Captain Nolan, (a capable soldier who had actually risen through the ranks on merit), which specific lines they were to attack and Nolan responded with a wide sweep of his arm, possibly to indicate the futility of the situation. Lucan took the gesture to mean that Raglan wanted a suicidal charge towards the main body of Russian guns, located at the end of a nearby valley.

Ideally, he could have discussed the orders with the Brigade’s commander, Lord Cardigan. Unfortunately, the two men hated each other and were not on speaking terms. Lucan, confused and unable to see the exact course of the battle, followed the muddy and vague orders and ordered Cardigan to lead a charge into the valley. The result was a slaughter. Nolan was one of the first to die, killed by an artillery shell as he charged out in front of the Brigade, possibly in an attempt to stop the attack. The charge was immortalized in a famous poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

7The Tragedy At Wounded Knee

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By 1890, many Native American tribes had been forced off their ancestral land and onto reservations. Dependent on government handouts of food and other supplies, which were often inadequate or slow to arrive, many were driven to despair. In Nevada, a Paiute named Wovoka had a vision in which the Europeans vanished, the buffalo returned, and the spirits of the ancestors returned to the Earth. To bring about this paradise, he promised, Native Americans had only to live righteous lives and perform a sacred ceremony known as the Ghost Dance. As the movement spread through the Midwest, the American government, convinced the peaceful Ghost Dance could be a sign of impending war, began to panic. In early December, Sitting Bull was shot dead by policemen on the Standing Rock Reservation.

Two weeks later, miscommunication at Wounded Knee led to one of the worst massacres in American history. Major Samuel M. Whitside and his troops had intercepted a band of Lakota Sioux trying to reach the Pine Ridge Reservation. Escorting them to Wounded Knee Creek, they demanded that the tribe hand over their weapons. Most complied, but one man, Black Coyote, was deaf and did not hear the order. When a trooper tried to take his rifle from him, he raised it above his head, protesting that it had been expensive.

A small scuffle ensued, during which a shot was fired into the air (by whom and why is unknown). Panicked, the soldiers took the shot as a sign to open fire on the now-unarmed tribe. Some Lakota managed to seize their weapons and return fire, but they were cut to pieces by field artillery on the surrounding hills. As the Lakota fled, cavalrymen gave chase—some bodies were found miles away from the initial site. Over 250 Lakota and 25 US soldiers are believed to have died. For the “bravery” the army showed, 20 Medals of Honor were awarded.

6The Battle Of Trenton

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If not for an enormous stroke of luck, the American Revolution might have turned out quite differently. In 1776, things looked disastrous for the patriots. Washington had lost almost 4,000 men in a disastrous attempt to hold the lower Hudson Valley and his remaining forces were ragged, cold, and starving. Aware that only a bold move could stave off total defeat, Washington decided to cross the Delaware and attack the small town of Trenton, where a large force of Hessians were garrisoned under the command of Johann Rall. But unbeknownst to Washington, his movements were being watched.

A loyalist farmer had seen the forces marching towards Trenton and rushed to warn the Germans. But when he arrived he found that most of the garrison were asleep and that Rall, who was deep in a game of either cards or checkers, had left orders not to be disturbed. Instead the farmer scrawled his warning in a note, which the guards agreed to take to Rall. Unfortunately for him, Rall, like many of his troops, could not speak English. Instead of sending for a translator right away, he blissfully tucked the note inside his coat and carried on with the game. The Americans descended and won a decisive victory. The note was found on Rall’s dead body.

5Dean Acheson Speaks Off The Cuff, Facilitates The Korean War

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In 1949, the Soviets detonated an atomic bomb, ending American atomic hegemony and beginning the Cold War in earnest. Both sides were eager to expand their spheres of influence, particularly in Asia, which was seen as still ripe for ideological picking. In January 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson delivered a speech at the National Press Club. During the speech, which was delivered informally and without notes, Acheson identified a line around the globe that America would defend with all its might. The only problem was that his description of the line left out Korea, despite the growing communist forces gathered in the North. The communist Koreans were said to have taken the speech as a “green light” that they could invade the South without American intervention. Emboldened, they did so shortly afterwards. Of course, as we all know, the US did intend to defend South Korea. The ensuing war lasted three years and left millions dead.

4A Single Verb Causes A War Between Italy And Ethiopia

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When Italy and Ethiopia signed the treaty of Wuchale in 1889, Europeans had been slicing up Africa for well over five decades. The conflict that followed could be the plot of a Coen Brothers film. The Ethiopian version of the treaty, dictated in Amharic, included a clause agreeing that the Ethiopian Emperor could use the Italian embassy to conduct his foreign affairs. But the Italian version of the document translated the Amharic permissive clause into a mandatory one. To them, the Emperor had agreed that he must use the Italian embassy.

The Italians were utterly delighted that the Ethiopians had seemingly decided to just give up and become a colony. However, as far as the Ethiopians were concerned, they were still completely independent. The result, when the mix-up became clear, was war. The Italians were certain they would be able to crush the Ethiopians, just as other colonial powers had done elsewhere in Africa. Unfortunately for them, the Ethiopian Emperor could field around 120,000 men, half of them with modern rifles, and had also purchased 50 modern Russian mountain guns that actually out-ranged the Italian artillery. As you can probably guess, the would-be colonizers had their clocks cleaned.

3The King’s Guard Is A Little Too Literal

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In 1162, Thomas Becket was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, the most prestigious religious office in England. Becket had been Royal Chancellor and a good friend of King Henry II and the king probably hoped that Becket would continue to serve him faithfully. However, Becket seems to have undergone a religious transformation and began to defend the Church in its disputes with royal authority. Devout, in a position of enormous power, and popular with the common peasantry, Becket soon became a huge thorn in the King’s side.

As you can imagine, Henry was none too happy with what he saw as his old chancellor’s betrayal. Two years after his appointment, Becket was arrested on trumped-up charges and eventually slipped away into exile. The dispute lasted for years, until 1170, when the two men worked out a tense compromise and Becket returned to England. There, he immediately infuriated Henry by excommunicating a bishop loyal to the king. Needing to vent, Henry stalked the halls of his palace, lamenting to no one in particular: “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric.” Unfortunately, a particularly dim group of knights took his ranting as a command. They immediately rode to Canterbury, where they brutally and very publicly murdered Becket in the middle of the day in the highest church in England. A near-civil war ensued, all because some misinterpreted shouting.

2Battle Of Karansebes

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One of the Austrian Empire’s biggest problems was its hugely diverse population. There were Hungarians, Slovaks, Czechs, Poles, and a whole host of other groups, each with their own language. This diversity made ruling difficult at times—a problem summed up by the, possibly apocryphal, stories told of the Battle of Karansebes, which read like a wackier Thomas Pynchon interlude.

It was September 1788 and the Austrians were at war with the Turks. A group of Austrian hussars had been dispatched to scout for Ottoman forces near the Timis river in modern-day Serbia. They found no Turks, but did come across a group of gypsies with booze to sell. The hussars, not about to pass up such a golden opportunity, bought a barrel of schnapps and proceeded to get very, very drunk. Some foot soldiers, hearing the sounds of revelry, crossed the bridge to join in—but the hussars were in no mood to share. A heated argument began and at some point a shot was fired.

And that’s when things devolved into chaos. The foot soldiers started yelling “Turchi! Turchi!” which means “Turks!” The drunk hussars fled in fear, as did some other foot soldiers who had heard the yelling and thought the threat was real. Their colonel tried to stop them, but he only spoke German, which his troops couldn’t understand. He yelled, “Halt! Halt!” but the frightened soldiers thought he was yelling “Allah! Allah!” Fighting broke out and quickly spread throughout the camp as the army disintegrated. Many troops simply fled in a blind panic. Two days later, the confused Turks finally arrived to find a field of corpses and no army.

1George Washington Pretends He Can Speak French, Starts A World War

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The Battle of Jumonville Glen reads like The Comedy of Errors as written by Quentin Tarantino. George Washington, then a young militiaman in the service of Britain, was sent to a fort near present-day Pittsburg that was held by French-Canadians. Washington succeeded in surprising a French force under the command of Joseph Coulon de Villiers de Jumonville, surrounding them in a small ravine. But then Jumonville was killed and nobody really knows why. Either Washington randomly ordered an attack, or somebody accidentally fired their weapon, creating chaos. Other sources claim that the two sides were negotiating when a Native American leader (reportedly Jumonville’s bastard) ritually killed the Frenchman with his tomahawk.

The real problems began after the French forces in the fort, led by Jumonville’s brother, found out about the incident. Washington, desperately trying to retreat to safety, became surrounded and agreed to surrender. The two sides had agreed terms, but the surrender document was written in French, which Washington was unable to read. Wanting an amicable resolution, he pretended he could read it and signed the treaty. Unbeknownst to him, Jumonville’s brother had included a statement to the effect that the British troops had “assassinated” a French ambassador. It was a huge insult to France, and it seemed to show great hubris on the Americans’ part, since they had brazenly admitted to the diplomatic “assassination” in writing. The foolish miscommunication started a global war.

I am a grad student studying French History, and I like to write in my free time.