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


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ten comments


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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.