09 May 2010

Misquote Madness

Recently, there's been debate over at Kings of War over a quote often attributed to the Greek historian Thucydides:

"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".

Both Captain Hyphen and I have mistakenly attributed this quote to Thucydides in recent posts. So has Congress. Fortunately, a KoW regular known as "Christopher" has corrected us, correctly noting that the quote comes from British author Sir William Francis Butler in  "Charles George Gordon". (You can see the quote in its original form on page 85 of the Google Books version)

It's also worth noting that the gang at On Violence has done us a great service, collecting some of the most notable military misquotes in one central location. Yet they're missing one notorious "quote behaving badly"; though it's not so much a misquote as it is a quote that's often taken out of context.

Most budding counterinsurgents are familiar with this line from T.E. Lawrence:

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.
As Lt. Col. Robert Bateman rightly notes, the quote has been grossly misapplied and poorly understood in recent years, particularly with regards to Iraq.  Journalist Robert Woodward describes General George Casey's misapplication of the Lawrence principle in his 2008 book "The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008".

Casey had long concluded that one big problem with the war was the president himself. He later told a colleague in private that he had the impression that Bush reflected the "radical wing of the Republican Party that kept saying 'Lill the bastards! Kill the bastards! And you'll succeed." Since the beginning, the president had viewed the war in conventional terms, repeatedly asking how many of the various enemies had been captured or killed.

The real battle, Casey believed, was to preapre the Iraqis to protect and govern themselves. He often paraphrased British Lieutenant Colonel T.E. Lawrence, the early-20th-century innovative godfather of irregular warfare, known as Lawrence of Arabia: "Better they do it imperfectly with their own hands than you do it perfectly with your own". In Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence had written, "For it is their war and their country, and your time here is limited".
Not only is the quote incomplete and somewhat inaccurate, but it also cites the wrong source. The quote doesn't come from Lawrence's masterpiece, "Seven Pillars of Wisdom", but rather, from a list of twenty-seven recommendations to British advisors involved in the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918. As Lt. Col. Bateman notes, Seven Pillars is a much longer work.

(I particularly agree with Lt. Col. Bateman's assessment that, although the book is beautifully written, it nevertheless contains mind-numbing detail on the consistency of the rocks and geological strata located in the deserts of modern-day Jordan.  No wonder Lawrence of Arabia is nearly four hours long).

Many also "cherry-pick" the quotation out of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3-24), although the manual's authors did make an effort to place the quote in its proper context (See p. 39-40 of the PDF file or page 1-27 of the print version):
However, a key word in Lawrence’s advice is “tolerably.” If the host nation cannot perform tolerably, counterinsurgents supporting it may have to act. Experience, knowledge of the [area of operations], and cultural sensitivity are essential to deciding when such action is necessary.
During the early portions of the Iraq War, Iraqi security forces were not performing tolerably; they were actually contributing to the increase in sectarian violence. The Iraq Army often contained extremist Shia elements, and were part of the problem, not the solution. In this case, the US eventually took an active role in purging extremists from security forces, after months of letting the Iraqi Army try to correct their behavior "with their own hands". 
Lawrence's quote also alludes to the inherent difficulties for a third-party power in counterinsurgency. Despite the technological advances in the US military, local security forces are often better prepared to hunt insurgents in their own communities.  After all, they often know the insurgents far better than we do.

Focus: What other military-related quotations do you see taken out of context? Hop on over to On Violence and join the discussion.



3 comments:

Christopher said...

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.

Also posted at ON VIOLENCE.

Eric C said...

Man, those are two great misquotes. That Thucydides quote is brutal.

We'll probably have to start collecting for a second list...

fastsurgeon said...

This problem also occurs in medical literature. People misquote historic medical studies and references. The problem worsens as authors then link to the incorrect information, exacerbating the problem.

FaST Surgeon