« The Return of...Quote… | Home | Shout Out to Ed Darac… »

The Fury of the "Quotes Behaving Badly"

(To read the entire “Quotes Behaving Badly” series, click here.)

While basking on my deck in Hawaii on my honeymoon, I read the local Dining magazine for ideas of where to eat, and happened upon an article on Hawaiian honey. How important is honey to Hawaii and man? Let’s ask theoretical-physicist-turned-ecobiologist Albert Einstein, “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

If you read Monday’s post, you probably know where this is going. Einstein never said that. If you need something to sound smart, why not slap Einstein's name on it? In the spirit of Einstein, we return today with more examples of “quotes behaving badly”, On Violence reader edition.

1. Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other alternatives. - Winston Churchill

We got this gem from Karaka Pend, and after doing some research, I think she’s right. This quote is often cited, but never in context. I’d like there to be a new rule for quotes: cite when or where the original quote came from.

2. No plan survives first contact with the enemy. - Moltke the Elder

From Christopher: “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.”

Well said. We would add that you can find this quote as part of Murphy’s Laws, for whatever that’s worth.

3. 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! - Erwin Rommel

Another one from Christopher: “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.”

4. The nation which draws too broad a distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools. - Thucydides

Starbuck got hit by this one over at Kings of War. Sir William Francis Butler was the actual speaker.

5. Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is. - TE Lawrence

Head over to Wings Over Iraq for the full take down of this quote.

6. The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality. - Eric C

The power of quotes. Earlier this week, trying to identify and tag a #quotebehavingbadly on twitter, I accidentally got the above quote retweeted and retweeted. I was just trying to make a point that, on MLK day, a lot of people were mis-identifying the quote. Instead, it made its way around the Internet again, thanks to me.

Check out quote #2 from the original “Quotes Behaving Badly” post to read a similar counter-argument against this idea.

7. Wars not make one great. - Yoda

(Watch it here.)

From Matty P, “Not only is it bad sentence structure, it was said by a puppet.” Matty P is referring to actual newspaper editorials citing this quote. Like this one.

six comments

Yoda reminds of Jesus in the way that they are much more confrontational and contradictory than you remember. Look at this clip. Yoda just goes through someone else’s stuff.

Stay away from my stuff Yoda!

With all of these misattributed quotes perhaps a feature article on the most misquoted person who lived… Confucious?

Yes it’s terrible sentence structure but it’s still Yoda! And he should know, I mean, he was at the forefront of the Clone Wars and saw the Republic fall…

Speaking of SF and the “Heinlein” quote from the original Quotes behaving badly, you could certainly do a post all around quotes from military SF. Even a discussion of military SF would be very interesting. I don’t know how much of the genre you read, but off the top of my head you have Heinlein, Steakley, the Vorkosigan Saga, many of the Star Wars universe books and a whole lot more I’m forgetting. Even an all Star Wars universe QBB, especially as appropriated in the books and comics, would work wonderfully, if incredibly geekily:

“Since the Rebel uprising, neutrality is an act of insolence! A punishable act.” -Admiral Piett

“No change comes without conflict” -Kyp Durron

“I’m sorry for the deaths of the innocent. But the innocent die in wars, Leia Organa, and your side should not have started this one.” -Boba Fett

“If you cannot afford to lose, you should not play the game” -Prince Xizor

“We don’t have to win, we only have to fight” -Mace Windu

“I think, therefore I am. I destroy, therefore I endure.” -IG-88A

“Everyone dies. It is the final and only ever lasting justice. Evil exists; it is intelligence in the service of entropy. When the side of a mountain slides to kill a village, this is not evil, for evil requires intent. Should a sentient being cause that landslide, there is evil; and requires justice as a consequence, so that civilization can exist. There is no greater good than justice; and only if law serves justice is it a good law. It is said correctly that law exists not for the just but for the unjust, for the just carry the law in their hearts, and do not need to call it from afar. I bow to no one and give service only for cause.” -The Journeyman Jaster Mereel aka Boba Fett

That last one is from a story in Tales of the Bounty Hunters, my favorite book in the Star Wars universe. Sadly it’s no longer canon, since the release of Episodes I-III. I always liked that version of Fett’s back story better.

Wow where to start. To be clear, I haven’t read much of the Mil Sci Fi canon. That said, I devoured Star Wars sci fi as a kid and familiar with most of your quotes. I will add that I too loved Tales of the Bounty Hunters and the other two Tales as well, just great short stories. (My favorite trilogy is the Jedi Academy Trilogy.)

That said I don’t like Yoda. Two quotes behaving badly condemn Yoda. First, in a time of great moral crisis he did nothing. Second, the only thing necessary for evil to exist is for good men to do nothing, or be like Yoda and hide in Dagobah. Yoda=Coward.

Second comment. The whole physicist acting like a biologist must really irk biologists. Global warming and evolution have both been criticized by scientists outside their fields.

@Harrison- Great point about Confucius. I think luckily he doesn’t inform the debate as much. But totally right.


I don’t have to be a roofer to know when there’s a hole above my bedroom there water will leak in when it rains.

Quote #2 is often used in contexts where a superior officer speaks either to a peer or subordinate to squash ingenuity in favor of their current strategy.


General A: We’ll move this front in from the west… and follow it with a surge.
General B: Wouldn’t it be more prudent to split the first front into two and move them in from both sides?
Colonel: I think that’s an excellent idea—it would be more cost effective and provide more cover for the second surge.
General A: Woah, woah, gentlemen. Either way, no plan survives first contact with the enemy.

Moltke made the quote to defend multiple contingency plans, NOT to discourage them. It’s a common mistake to believe that Moltke thought war plans were of no use. One might think so through such a simple interpretation of the “No battle plan…” quote, but if you study the descriptions of his war plans against Austria and France, Moltke was very detailed and took into account THOUSANDS of variables.

Also, the stated source for quote #3 is yet another misquote, and ironic because the original person to make that quote (in a much simpler and unpoliticized manner) was the same Prussian Field Marshall that made quote #2.

The probable reason it never transferred over to English is the same one that bastardized the quote about enemy encounters in the first place: people are lazy. (Double irony.)

The original quote in German is this:

“Ist jemand faul und dumm, dann wird nichts aus ihm. Ist jemand dumm und fleißig, dann muß man ihn von allen wichtigen Aufgaben fernhalten. Ist jemand faul und klug, dann ist er geeignet für die höchsten Positionen.”

Roughly translated, it means:

“If someone is lazy and stupid, then expect nothing from him. If someone is stupid and industrious, then employ him with important tasks. But if someone is lazy and clever, then they’re suitable for the highest positions.”

So as you can see, nothing about diligence, nothing about “clever and industrious” (Moltke calls those that Hammerstein-Equord deems ‘suited for General Staff’ as ‘stupid and industrious’), and nothing about the lazy and stupid.

Moltke was very anti-war, after all. And as you can see, though he was extremely discriminating, intellectual discrimination was never his cup of tea. P_P

Despite searching high and low in both German and English for a print source, I’ve come up short. So unfortunately, I have no other source than the internet. But since Moltke was a German speaking military officer born between 3/4 to a full century before Hammerstein-Equord & Rommel; PLUS the fact that he died well before 1933; AND that the German quote is practically littering the internet (Google the same German quote and have Google translate the page hits for you)… by way of inductive reasoning, I’d say the plausibility of the quote coming from Moltke is strong.

So I guess the question that leaves me with is what the relation between U.S. military historians and these misquotes are exactly. I think that Hammerstein-Equord may have indeed repeated what Moltke said originally, and that he may have even been quoted in his expanded & more political version… but how come those (most likely Germans) documenting it never bothered to cite Moltke, the original source?

And why didn’t the Americans, who apparently loved to quote Moltke (the ubiquitous “No battle plan…” and “Strategy is a system of expedients” quotes), do enough homework to find the original “lazy” quote, and thereby supersede the Hammerstein-Equord version?

If not for laziness itself, I think the answer to the second question might have something to do with the reason they reduced the original “No battle plan…” quote—because the quote is less often used to promote Moltke’s contingency phobia (and conversely his “planning-mania“—of which he coined the quote to defend), and more often used to promote centralized (as opposed to decentralized) execution and to suppress ingenuity from without the executive offices.

As any retired military person knows, centralized control AND execution (a principle that runs directly counter to the doctrinal principle of war emphasizing decentralized execution) has become increasingly popular since the worldwide intelligence networks established throughout and after the second world war.

Of course, such reasons would never be stated concretely—much less make it into doctrine.

I suspect that by digging further into Moltke’s history, it was discovered that he was actually a reflective proponent of peace — a historical profile that didn’t quite serve the U.S.‘s war-promoting needs… that is, at the time the quote was bastardized and trickled into every leadership brief and doctrine.

It was probably also better to attribute the “laziness” quote to Hammerstein-Equord’s version because it included an updated outlook that served recruiting needs for staff positions (by calling them clever and industrious instead of stupid, as Moltke puts it), because of its admonishment of the “stupid and lazy” (which Moltke never refers to), and because it was more popular to study (and romanticize) Nazi officers at the time, as the U.S. DOW/DOD has a history of demonizing their enemies before engaging them… and romanticizing them after they’re “defeated”. See the American-Indian Wars, Nazi Germany, and the exaltation of Japanese Kamikazes after WWII for examples. =/

So as you can see, even generally accepted academic history is capable of being shamefully reduced to folklore. P_P