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Quotes Behaving Badly IV: The Quotes Strike Back

(Check out our past post, "Quotes Behaving Badly" here and here.) - See more at: http://onviolence.com/?e=355#sthash.8MzQANTa.dpuf

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

A couple of months ago, Michael C was sitting in a meeting with UCLA Anderson’s veteran club discussing their new t-shirts. Someone had the great idea to put a quote on the back. They even pitched a quote by Churchill:

“A society which confuses its soldiers and scholars will find its thinking done by cowards and its fighting by fools.”

He began to think, “Haven’t I heard that somewhere before...”

After a quick google search to debunk the quote, he found a link to...us. Sure enough, we‘d already debunked that quote in our third edition of “Quotes Behaving Badly”.

During the first year of On Violence, we kept finding quotes that were wrong, misattributed or inaccurate. So we kept a list and then wrote “Quotes Behaving Badly”. About a year later, we unleashed two more editions of “Quotes Behaving Badly”. Then the well ran dry. Not by lack of effort, believe us. If we come across a quote, we investigate it. Turns out, the military community and anti-war activists only have a limited number of go-to quotes to repeat ad nauseum.

But good news, after two years of collection, we’ve found some more. Without further ado, more quotes behaving badly (Again, we quote them as they appear, not by who actually said them.):

“A nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its laws made by cowards and its wars fought by fools.” - Thucydides

When we first debunked this quote, we only wrote a sentence, but it deserves way more criticism than that. First, as we wrote before, it is falsely attributed to Thucydides when it actually comes from Sir William Francis Butler.

Second, it is still a misquote! The actual quote reads, "The nation that will insist on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards." Most “quotes behaving badly” distill complicated thoughts into simplistic drivel. For instance, the above quote presents the definite future tense “will have” versus the real quote’s conditional tense “is liable to find”.

Third, as an intellectual point, is this true? The skills and attributes which define scholars often conflict with great warriors, and vice versa. Beyond just simplifying complex quotes, most quotes simplify complex issues. For instance, would this quote still work? “A nation that makes a great distinction between its professional athletes and its warriors will have its games played by cowards and its wars fought by the unathletic.”

“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” - Ghandi

Lucky for us, after we started debunking “Quotes Behaving Badly”, so did Garson O’Toole on his website Quote Investigator. He debunks this oft repeated quote here. In short:

“...an important biographer of Gandhi, Louis Fischer, used a version of the expression when he wrote about Gandhi’s approach to conflict. However, Fischer did not attribute the saying to Gandhi in his description of the leader’s life. Instead, Fischer used the expression himself as part of his explanation of Gandhi’s philosophy.”

"The best minds are not in government. If any were, business would hire them away." - Ronald Reagan

Three problems with this one. First, good luck finding attribution for this. We looked and couldn’t find a citation for where and when Reagan said it. This doesn’t mean that Reagan didn’t actually say this neat little quip; it just means that we--and the editors at Wikipedia--can’t find him saying it. (It’s not like Reagan lived in an era when reporters wrote down everything he said.)

Second, not only does Reagan think our military is incompetent, as I showed in “Ronald Reagan Hated Our Communist Military”, he also thinks they’re dumb. Quick logic: the military is part of the government. The best minds are not in government. Ergo, the best minds are not in the military. Way to support the troops, President Reagan. (But again, Reagan most likely didn’t say this.)

Finally, we originally found this quote when conservative moderate pundit David Brooks, on the PBS Newshour, debunked it:

“Ronald Reagan said a lot of things, some of which were wise. And one of the really dumb things have said is that the best minds are not in government. If any were, business would hire them away. Well, David Petraeus and a lot of other people in civilian and military really great minds and great public servants.”   

Well put, David Brooks.

"He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would fully suffice...Heroism at command, senseless brutality, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is...It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder." - Einstein

Actually, Einstein did say this. But that doesn’t make it true. To quote us from “Haters Want to Hate or...If You Haven’t Been to Afghanistan Then F*** You Hippy and Get Off My Internets!”:

“Fools can say wise things; wise men can say foolish things. People forget this, which is why so many smart sentiments...get attributed to smarter, more famous people. It’s why Einstein, Plato, Franklin, and Ghandi have dozens of quotes attributed to them, and George Santanaya does not.”

Look at it this way: if we changed the speaker, would that affect how you feel about the quote? Absolutely. Now, most pro-military types will, understandably, reject the above quote regardless of the speaker. But moderates, pacifists, far-leftists will see it and be like, “Well, Einstein was a genius. He knows what he’s talking about.”

So let’s run the new On Violence patented, “George Santanaya-quote test”. Santanaya was the victim of probably the most famous war quote theft when people ascribed his quote, “Only the dead have seen the end of war” to Plato. So ask yourself, if instead of quoting Einstein, Plato or Napoleon, you replace the speaker with “George Santanaya”, would you still use the quote?

If not, don’t use it. By the way, this quote absolutely fails this test.

three comments

I take great pleasure on picturing Michael C in a vets club meeting.

Back when I was in a veterans club, a Marine veteran had a military shirt on. It had the outline of Iraq on the front and some marine logos. On the back it said, “While you were chillin, we were killin.’


Yeah, I might write this up for another blog, but I have noticed in both my internship and at Anderson that the military is equivalent to “patriotism”. Our logo in the AMA is red, white and blue and we always use flags. The company I intern for does the same thing. It just seems slightly strange to me.


Well if you ever decided to start a new series on veterans at school, I’ve got a million post ideas for that.