The Falkland Islands
Anybody who's seen Wag the Dog knows that the best way to distract the public from incompetent leadership is with a war. That was the philosophy that General Leopoldo Galtieri of Argentina took in 1982. His military junta had left Argentina in economic crisis and the people were ready to rebel. So he decided to bring everyone together by attacking, of all countries, Britain. He decided that it was time to occupy the Falkland Islands, a rocky crop of islands off the Argentine coast that, depending on who you asked, belonged to either the Argentines or the British. The islands had once provided a strategic spot for naval bases for various European countries, but Argentina had always figured the islands belonged to them after they declared independence in 1816. The British, meanwhile, took them back in 1833 and never relinquished control. The issue even came up in the UN in 1945, but it was never resolved, leaving the territory in ambiguous hands. However, the Argentines always felt a good deal of pride about their "control" of the islands (which, by this point, had little value), even stating it in the National Constitution.
Playing off these feelings, the Galtieri junta hired a group of scrap metal workers to raise an Argentine flag on the island of South Georgia. This led to a military invasion on April 2, ready for a quick takeover and subsequent celebratory parade. The Argentines had a fatal error in their plan, though; they never expected the British to actually care. But care they did, to the tune of a full-scale counter-force. The resulting battles left more than 900 soldiers dead, 649 of them Argentine. The fiasco of the "Dirty War" led to the military government being pushed out of Argentina. Meanwhile, the British celebration over the victory helped Margaret Thatcher get reelected in 1983 and partially inspired Pink Floyd's album The Final Cut.
Hans Island is a barren island so small a person could run across it in a few minutes, if there were any people on it to do the running. But it's become the center of a bitter dispute over ownership of land in the Arctic. Situated in the Kennedy Strait, it was a sticking point in 1972 negotiations over maritime boundaries between Canada and Denmark, so both countries decided to just forget about it. Then, in 1983, as the two countries were again discussing land in the Arctic, a Canadian newspaper reported that a Canadian petroleum company was doing research on Hans Island unbeknownst to both governments. This reportedly prompted the Danish minister to helicopter over to Hans Island, where he left a bottle of cognac and a flag that said "Welcome to the Danish Island."
The issue was pretty much buried until 2004, when a Canadian newspaper printed an article about Canada's plan to control all land in the North, with a brief mention of Danish warships being sent to Hans Island. The Canadians seized on this, blaming the government for not having a large enough military budget and not doing enough to control the Arctic waters. Canada sent a military expedition through the waters around Hans, prompting the Danes to assert that Hans Island was theirs and only theirs. The conflict has taken on more of a cultural role, prompting a series of dueling ads on Google and a lampoon Hans Island Liberation Front. Most recently, satellite imaging allowed the governments to map out the border, when they found that Hans was split right down the middle between the two countries.
A Strip of Mud in Oxfordshire, England
When Ian Fleming penned the first James Bond novel, he had no idea the very land he sat on would later be the center of one of Britain's most expensive land disputes. He probably just complained about the mud. The whole conflict started decades later, when Victor Bingham, who lived in Kiln Cottage, started chopping down trees on a 5-foot wide strip of land bordering the Fleming family's Nettlebed Estate. The Flemings claimed the trees were on their land and got a court injunction to stop Bingham. But Bingham wasn't just any neighbor- he was a member of the noble Lucan line, famous for the disappearance of Lord Lucan. In his aristocratic pride, he continued chopping down the trees, prompting the Fleming family to bring the issue to court. Finally, in 2005, a judge ruled in favor of the Flemings, ending a case that had legal fees totaling $24 thousand. Bingham vows that he'll continue fighting, though, saying that any profits he makes from selling Kiln Cottage will finance his appeal.
The Gran Chaco is a dry region between Bolivia and Paraguay where the temperatures are hot, the people are few and the insects are diseased. But for Paraguay, the land represented the last chance for glory. Even though the region was technically under Bolivian control, Paraguay saw fit to use it to grow crops. Then, the discovery of oil in the Andes prompted many to assume there was oil in the Gran Chaco, so Bolivian president Daniel Salamanca sent in troops in 1932 to take back the region. He hadn't anticipated how determined the Paraguayans would be, though. They fought a brutal guerrilla war, whipping up national support for the war and getting military help from Argentina. Bolivia, meanwhile, sent a half-interested army of indigenous settlers who were more interested in not dying of malaria than in protecting the desert. Three years later, a ceasefire was reached, giving Paraguay control of most of the region. Meanwhile, about 100,000 soldiers had been killed and both countries were put in economic turmoil. And as if that weren't bad enough, it turns out there wasn't oil in the region after all.