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Quotes Behaving Badly: 9 Quotes That Are Wrong, Dishonest, Mis-attributed or Idiotic

(To read the entires "Quotes Behaving Badly" series, check out the posts below:

The Return of...Quotes Behaving Badly

The Fury of the "Quotes Behaving Badly"

Quotes Behaving Badly IV: The Quotes Strike Back

Escape from the Mountain of Bad Attribution: Quotes Behaving Badly V

Quotes Behaving Badly: Anti-War.com Edition

Why We Still Hate Quotes Behaving Badly


"A witty saying proves nothing." - Voltaire 

 You've heard it before. A heated discussion flares up on a forum or comment thread, and someone quotes Plato or Ghandi or Clausewitz to prove a point. So you look it up online, and find out the person was full of it.

Since michael C and I started On Violence one day and a year ago, we've encountered this syphilitic rhetorical device dozens of times. (This probably applies to all areas of debate, but I've only experienced it in the milblog/foreign affairs community debate.) At its core, it is a logical fallacy: just because Einstein or Churchill said something doesn't mean it's true

The quotes that follow are the worst of the worst, the most annoying, irritating and upsetting. (A note on structure: we've cited the following quotes the way they were originally incorrectly repeated.)

Without further ado, here is the list:

1. "Only the dead have seen the end of war" - Plato

Remember this quote from Black Hawk Down? Or Call of Duty? Or on the wall of the Imperial War Museum in London? Well, Plato never said it. George Santayana did. But no one knows who he is.

You can blame Gen. MacArthur for making it famous in a speech at West Point. My take is the same as the author of the previous link: if a quote of a famous person doesn't cite the text, take the quote with a grain of salt.

2. "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." - Edmund Burke

If the philosophical father of conservatism and classical liberalism said it, it must be true. Unfortunately, Edmund Burke never said this, but that hasn't stopped this quote from becoming a rallying cry. Wikiquote has nearly 70 versions of this sentiment.  It seems like the only thing necessary for a quote to go viral is for people never to double check it. In fairness to everyone requoting it, it is probably a paraphrase of this actual Burke quote, "When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle." But that just won't fit on a bumper sticker.

Oh, and to that guy saying, "Well, I still like the sentiment" you're wrong. It's banal and, in the hands of demagogues, has probably caused more death than it's saved.

3. "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf." - George Orwell

Aside from using the ear-breaking adverb peaceably, Orwell never said this! (I hate it when Michael C uses exclamation points in his posts, but I'm so angry I just used one.) He said something similar, but as part of a larger essay. He set forth an intellectual challenge to pacifists, not a declarative statement supporting Soldiers.

4. "Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst." - Heinlein

You might remember this quote from this comment thread.  The long-winded commenter Charles quotes Robert Heinlein as if it proves his argument. But we're sick of people quoting Heinlein when they should be quoting "Starship Troopers" (as the MLA thinks you should ). Re-read my post "War is the Opposite of Civilization" I love that quote, but I'll always cite the novel or the character who said it, before I cite the author who wrote it.

(In an aside: when did Heinlein rise to the level of Plato, Churchill and Lincoln? Just because Heinlein said something doesn't make it true.)

The problem is that an author cannot take ownership for the dialogue of the characters he creates. If two characters debate, does the author then believe both sides of a debate? And would the author have to support the views and opinions super villains, serial killers, dictators, and even child molesters. And you would never want to quote a child molester...

5. "Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner." - Blood Meridian, a novel by Cormac McCarthy.

Imagine my surprise when I found this quote in Criag Mullaney's The Unforgiving Minute, written as an inspirational quote on the back of a wall at West Point. It is from Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, one of the greatest novels of the last century. Mullaney seems very well read, and properly identified this quote's source. The problem is that it is spoken by a serial child rapist/murderer, who child rapes/murders dozens of children through the course of the book.

Quotes from novels are mostly spoken by characters from novels. In the case of this quote, the speaker cannot be divorced from the sentiment. A serial murderer may believe that war is eternal, but he is also a psychopath, not the type of person we usually go to for philosophical advice. This is why no one quotes Hitler or Manson to support their arguments.

6. "I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence... I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonor." -- Ghandi

Eric C discovered this text book example of quoting someone out of context on this comment thread on FP.com. The full quote (emphasis mine) is actually: "I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence....I would rather have India resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should, in a cowardly manner, become or remain a helpless witness to her own dishonour. But I believe that non-violence is infinitely superior to violence..."

Compared to the second quote, the first quote reads like a bad joke. The next sentence Ghandi says changes the entire passage. According to Ghandi, non-violence isn't slightly better than violence, it is "infinitely" better. To imply Ghandi endorses violence is foolish.

7. “Out of every hundred men, ten shouldn’t be there, eighty are are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.” - Heraclitus

Aside from my disagreements with the sentiments and applicability of this quote, as I've discussed before, I've never been able to verify the accuracy of this quote. Neither has wikiquote. If you know of what book this can be found in, please pass it along.

8. "Any peace is better than any war" - Plato, or Benjamin Franklin, or who knows who else...

Don't think it is just pro-military guys who use quotes disingenously; peaceniks are just as bad. Hat tip to Andy Rooney, who first heard this quote in the forties and wryly remarks that it's been attributed to both Plato and Benjamin Franklin.

9. "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug." - Chris Hedges in War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning

Aside from Hedge's book being the only one I know where the thesis is in the title, it has a really interesting next sentence: "It is peddled by myth makers -historians, war correspondents, filmmakers, novelists and the state." An ironic next line because this quote was used as an epigraph to a film--The Hurt Locker--that endorsed the myth that war is a drug.

Also, Hedges' writing couldn't be more anti-war. War is a drug, and that's a bad thing. Whereas the first quote tentatively endorses war, or at least excuses it, the second sentence makes it clearly verboten.

Help us stomp out these quotes from the larger military culture. At the least, pause the next time you hear someone quoting Patton and question their source. Google it, or look it up on wikiquote. I also expect that a lot of military professionals will be upset with this post because at least half of these quotes are so entrenched in the military's consciousness, that removing them will cause at least a dozen field grades and general officers brain hemorrhaging.

Oh, and that quote from the beginning? Voltaire didn't say it, a character from Le Dîner du Comte de Boulainvilliers did. So much for using quotes to support your argument.

ten comments

The Heilein quotes really get me. Starship Troopers is a fantastic novel to launch discussions about leadership, training, morals, ethics and political philosophy. But to launch the discussion, not as a text for philosophy. At the end of the day, he isn’t a philosopher writing non-fiction, he is a novelist.

This reminds me of one of your earlier posts on context. Personally, I love quotes, and I think it’s interesting to see that so many aren’t even attributed to the correct person. I haven’t had the chance to look them up so I never really thought that they would be misquoted like that.
I also thought it was funny how you pointed out that no one quotes Hitler to prove their point, mainly because I, in fact, do. (No, I am not AB, or a skinhead of any sort, nor do I support Hitler or Nazism in any form.) Why shouldn’t you quote one of the most influential men in History? If anything, I think Hitler quotes are some of the most powerful due to the connotation that goes along with them.
But, of course, I think that quotes are like paintings or photographs. Much of the meaning is in the eye of the beholder.

There’s also the never fully sourced Churchill quote that remains a perennial favorite of those making wry remarks about the US: “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other alternatives.” Perhaps not on violence, but certainly relating to war.

There is something to be said, I think, for the repetition of a sentiment—I don’t think we would get half as many misattributed quotes, or out-of-context quotes (by far the worse of all, in this author’s opinion) if the idea behind such quotes wasn’t so appealing or apropos. But there is equally something to relish in the dismantling of mistruths about such quotes’ origins; and a reminder that one should always have an idea of where a thought repeated came from, to truly support an argument.

I would defend, somewhat, the fiction author’s ability to convey a thought from the mouths of villainous characters. The meaning is still articulated, if not divorced from its context, and while that context can offer depth and shade to the meaning of the line, the line itself can stand on its own, to a degree. Heinlein may voice the words through a bad guy, but they are still his words to dissect.

1) “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

The actual quote, normally unattributed, that this simplistic drivel, used by every idiot who wouldn’t know how to unfold an entrenching tool but deigns to opine on affairs military, is much more complex and specific and not as definitive. The source is Moltke the Elder. Most people, even military folks, wouldn’t know him from a Molson Lager.

“…no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.” You can find it in the book, Moltke On the Art of War by Daniel Hughes on page 92.

2) “I divide my officers into four classes; the clever, the lazy, the industrious, and the stupid. Most often two of these qualities come together. The officers who are clever and industrious are fitted for the highest staff appointments. Those who are stupid and lazy make up around 90% of every army in the world, and they can be used for routine work. The man who is clever and lazy however is for the very highest command; he has the temperament and nerves to deal with all situations. But whoever is stupid and industrious is a menace and must be removed immediately!”

This quote is frequently, and incorrectly attributed to Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel. The actual source is Generaloberst Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, writing in 1933. An interesting guy to say the least. His wikipedia entry is quite good.

@ Walrus – Your response gets to the heart of the matter, that if you attribute a quote to Hitler, people won’t value it. My problem is that the speaker should not impact the truth of sentiment nearly as much as people let it. Einstein said dumb things at times, Hitler smart things at times.

@ Karaka – I think they are still an author’s words to dissect, but they are a characters words first and foremost. I’m writing a post in which I’ll Quote O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, but I’ll be quoting the character. It’s a weird place when art and philosophy mix.

@Christopher – Your second quote explains why Quotes are mis-attributed. Everyone knows Rommel, no one know van Hammerstein-Equord.

I agree with Michael. Starship Troopers was a fantastic book. I saw someone quote the line about what the city fathers of Hiroshima would say about violence never solving anything. They attributed the sentiment to Heinlein. This is amusing, first because it’s said by a character, and second because I’m pretty sure the dialogue wasn’t in the book, but in the movie loosely based on the book.

Though I disagree with the analysis that the Edmund Burke quote has been used to hurt more people than it’s helped (perhaps you’re referring to the sentiment of righteous violence?) I’m shocked to find out that #2 isn’t an actual quote. It was one of my favorites and I guess I took it for granted.

Love the Voltaire gag as a conclusion. Very clever. I’m just wondering how to cite these quotes now. “Only the dead have seen the end of war” – Common misattributed aphorism.

Christopher, thanks for the new additions. Eric C and I might update this post again, and those are some good ones.

Walrus, you are right that some people do source Hitler. He said plenty of things. I guess the point is, you will never see a politician cite Hitler at a rally or speech, but they will definitely quote Reagen or Churchill or Roosevelt or JFK.

Matty P, let’s just go with Common misattributed aphorism

At http://onviolence.com/?e=225

Regarding – “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” you wrote:

“Oh, and to that guy saying, “Well, I still like the sentiment” you’re wrong. It’s banal and, in the hands of demagogues, has probably caused more death than it’s saved.”

Regardless of the origin, I believe the saying is true, and I am not wrong to like it.

@Bill- I see what you mean when you say the statement is true. The British King-evil-would have one if good men-colonists-had done nothing. Countless examples abound of the statement being true.

That being said, every “evil” side probably said the same thing in prosecuting their side of the war. What we really mean is that a cliche like the one above should never replace plenty of introspection and good analysis and soul searching, especially when it comes to war.

The problem is choosing what is evil. The word I probably should have used was self-righteous.

I mean, racists who lynch blacks or homophobes who protest soldier’s funerals think they are “doing something”

This quote sounds good, but it is often an excuse for demagoguery.