"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.
"A witty saying proves nothing." - Voltaire