10 Famous Military Quotations That Were Wrong

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A Brief History

On November 21, 1967, the American commander of US forces in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, made the assertion, “I am absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing.”  He was wrong.  Really, really, wrong.  As many times as we have heard stirring, prophetic, or highly insightful military related quotes, sometimes military people or politicians make a profound statement about martial events or devices and they turn out to be wrong.  Previously we discussed “10 Famous Military Quotations” and “10 More Famous Military Quotations.”  Today we discuss military related quotes that were wrong, at least in our estimation.  Feel free to contradict our analysis of any of the quotes and to nominate other military quotes you think should belong on this list.

Questions for Students (and others): Do you believe in unilateral disarmament?  (Why or why not.)  Have you heard these military quotes before?  Have you heard any quotes regarding military subjects in the past couple years that you think will one day join this list of being wrong?

Digging Deeper

 

1. “I am absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing.” William Westmoreland, 1967.

General William Westmoreland, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army.

The Vietnam War was a conflict characterized by mismanagement by American politicians and high ranking military authorities that did not understand the endurance of the Vietnamese people, nor the dynamic of politics with the South Vietnamese not particularly attached to their own corrupt government.  Despite constant assurances to the American public and lower ranking military men, Westmoreland and those others were dreadfully wrong about communist resilience and commitment.  The Tet Offensive of 1968 showed the world a massive effort by North Vietnam to step up the war when Americans thought the war would be winding down.  Despite an enormous American victory on the battlefield, it was the American will to fight that was destroyed and from that point on the goal of the American politicians was to find a way out of the war rather than to win it.

2. “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance!” Major General John Sedgwick, 1864.

Sedgwick in the 1860s

This particular military genius did not get his men killed with his arrogance, but he did get himself killed.  While chastising he men for cringing and crouching to avoid enemy fire from Confederate sharpshooters armed with Whitworth rifles at Battle of Spotsylvania Court House on May 9, 1864, Sedgewick, a Union officer, made his infamous quote and was promptly shot and killed by a hexagonal Confederate bullet fired from about 1000 yards away.  Sedgwick was shot right through his coconut and fell dead instantly, ending whatever follow on sentence he may have added.  Sedgwick was one of only two Union Major Generals killed in combat during the American Civil War.

3.“Don’t give up the ship!” Captain James Lawrence, 1813.

Captain James Lawrence, United States Navy

During the War of 1812 Lawrence was in command of the frigate USS Chesapeake when the ship sailed from Boston to do battle with the HMS Shannon, also a frigate.  Lawrence had been fatally wounded when he uttered his immortal line, and for good measure added, “Fight her till she sinks!”  Not only did his crew not fight until their ship sank, they ended up giving up the ship when the 2 vessels came to together and the British successfully boarded the American ship and captured it and the crew and the captain, who died 3 days later.

4. “The bomber will always get through.” Stanley Baldwin, 1932.

Baldwin in the 1920s

When Baldwin made his assertion that it was futile to prepare defenses against bomber aircraft in 1932, he was the “Lord President of the Council” of the United Kingdom, having twice previously served as Prime Minister so his words carried some weight.  In fact, he again became Prime Minister and served as such from 1935 to 1937.  An extended quote from a speech about the subject of disarmament, which he came to embrace, follows:

“I think it is well also for the man in the street to realise that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through, The only defence is in offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves…If the conscience of the young men should ever come to feel, with regard to this one instrument [bombing] that it is evil and should go, the thing will be done; but if they do not feel like that – well, as I say, the future is in their hands. But when the next war comes, and European civilisation is wiped out, as it will be, and by no force more than that force, then do not let them lay blame on the old men. Let them remember that they, principally, or they alone, are responsible for the terrors that have fallen upon the earth”

 Baldwin, as a convert to the “What if we had a war and nobody came” school of disarmament thought, also said, “the time has now come to an end when Great Britain can proceed with unilateral disarmament”.  He was wrong, as events soon proved when Adolf Hitler led Germany and the world into the inferno of World War II.  Nations that sought peace through neutrality instead of strength (such as the Low Countries) were soon gobbled up, as Britain would have been if Britain had disarmed.  (See #10 below.)  Oddly enough, plenty of airpower proponents also made similar quotes about bombers always getting through, and those people were wrong as often times the bombers either did not get through or barely got through with unacceptable losses.

5. “Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.” Marshal Ferdinand Foch, 1911.

Marshal Foch in 1921

This particular military genius also said, “Aviation is good for sport, but for the Army it is useless!”  Foch was the Supreme Allied Commander during World War I and one of France’s primary military strategists.  If he could be this wrong about aircraft in war, what else could he be wrong about?  Apparently plenty!  Both sides of World War I were characterized by generals that just did not “get it,” and the blunders they made over and over cost millions of lives.  In defense of Foch, he was not alone in failing to realize the importance of airpower to military combat as many of the old fuddy duddy generals and admirals have often had a hard time coming to embrace new technology.

6. “To throw bombs from an airplane will do as much damage as throwing bags of flour. It will be my pleasure to stand on the bridge of any ship while it is attacked by airplanes.” Newton Baker, 1921.

Newton D. Baker, former Secretary of War.

People often misjudged the future impact of airpower on warfare in the early days of aviation, perhaps not able to understand the progress and evolution of airplanes as with almost any technology would keep improving and expanding.  When American aviation guru and prophet General Billy Mitchell sought to sell the idea that airplanes were the future of warfare and that airpower could defeat even major warships, Baker as Secretary of War from 1916 to 1921 seemed to think he new better than career military men about war and military technology.  He was wrong.  A former mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, Baker was a lawyer, physically wimpy, and had been rejected for service in the Army during the Spanish-American War.  Yet he knew better!  The following passage sums up Baker’s lack of insight into the military:

“A civilian’s civilian, Baker saw the military as a necessity, but he had no awe of people in uniform, no romantic feelings toward them, and no dreams of glory…. On the day President Woodrow Wilson announced Baker’s appointment as secretary of war, he admitted his ignorance of military matters. “I am an innocent,” he told reporters, “I do not know anything about this job.” But he had a sharp, analytical mind and considerable skill at administration.” (Tate, James. The Army and its Air Corps: Army Policy Toward Aviation 1919-1941. Air University Press, 1998)

The context of Baker’s ridiculous assessment of airplane vs. ship bombing came when Mitchell sought to demonstrate how his bombers could sink German warships that had been impounded after World War I, even a battleship (The Ostfriesland).  The US Navy tried to undermine Mitchell by “sinking” one of their own obsolete battleships by dropping sandbags on the ship and blowing it up with explosives previously placed on the vessel!  This ruse was uncovered, and Baker, along with naval authorities, sought to undermine Mitchell’s demonstration of land based airpower by strictly controlling the conditions under which he could bomb the German ships.  This is when Baker made his idiotic boast, and he was wrong!  Mitchell’s Martin bombers sunk the captured German ships with gigantic (for the time)2000 pound bombs after smaller bombs had failed to complete the sinking.  As later proven time and again during World War II, airplanes could sink even the mightiest of ships.

7.“Even if a submarine should work by a miracle, it will never be used. No country in this world would ever use such a vicious and petty form of warfare!” Admiral William Henderson, 1914.

A German postcard depicting the U-boat SM U-20 sinking RMS Lusitania

This British Admiral got proven wrong in a hurry, when World War I started that same year of 1914 and German submarines became a highly dangerous menace to Allied shipping.  Since when have people declined to use “vicious and petty” forms of warfare?  When they have, it was only because of fear of retaliation.  As a continental power, Germany did not fear Allied submarine warfare, hence the massive and masterful use of subs against Allied ships.  Not only was he wrong about the enemies of Britain, but the Royal Navy has also had a long history of effective use of submarines in warfare, including the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano in 1982 during the Falklands War, accounting for more than half of all Argentine Navy deaths during that conflict.

8. “I always wanted to get the Purple Heart. This was much easier.” Candidate Donald Trump, 2016.

President Donald Trump poses for his official portrait at The White House, in Washington, D.C., on Friday, October 6, 2017. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

A US military veteran that was enamored of Donald Trump the Presidential Candidate who had repeatedly waxed poetic about the American military and the importance of American military power saw fit to give Trump a gift of the Purple Heart Medal the veteran (Lt. Col. Louis Dorfman) had been awarded for wounds suffered in Iraq.  Trumps ham fisted statement acknowledging the gift infuriated many Americans, especially veterans and Purple Heart recipients.  Trump himself was a Vietnam War draft dodger that got multiple deferments from service for dubious reasons.  Besides, who in their right mind “always wanted to get the Purple Heart”????

9. “It could last six days, six weeks.  I doubt six months.” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, 2003.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld. DoD photo by Scott Davis, U.S. Army. (Released).

Prior to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld sought to calm concerns of politicians and citizens that we could be entering a protracted “Vietnam-like” war.  Rumsfeld cavalierly dismissed such concerns and pooh-poohed any thought of such a protracted war.  The Bush administration stance was that the American troops would be treated like liberators and the war would be swift and definitive.  Oh boy were they wrong!  We are still there, and the place has become a beehive of terrorist activity.

10. “What if we had a war and nobody came?” 1960’s Hippie.

Young people near the Woodstock festival in August 1969

People can be so damn simple minded!  We heard the above quotation over and over from Vietnam War protesters in the 1960’s into the early 1970’s and we finally listened, leaving South Vietnam on its own without US military forces and what happened?  The communist North Vietnamese came and took over South Vietnam.  Pacifists may have a moral point, but the reality is that if you are not prepared for war your enemies will prepare and will come to take your stuff.  Apparently this dynamic is human nature, as much as philosophers would like to think differently.  As the United States stubbornly tried to stay out of World War I and then World War II, the reality if we had continued to keep to ourselves is that the “bad guys” would have won and we would have ended up facing them on our own.  The same logic applies to unilaterally disarming from having nuclear weapons.  When the US was the only nuclear armed country, real humans got nuked.  Since the USSR got nukes in 1949, no humans have been nuked, and we haven’t had any really big wars.  Nice, goodhearted people get attacked and taken advantage of by evil people all the time.  Just keeping it real…

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Askoy, Mete. NAPOLEON QUOTES ON VICTORY, LEADERSHIP AND THE ART OF WAR. Independently published, 2018.

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Quote Octopus. Military Famous Quotations. Amazon Digital Services, 2015.

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The featured image in this article, a photograph by American photographer Yoichi Okamoto (1915–1985) of General Westmoreland with Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House, November 1967, is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 192557.  This file was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the National Archives and Records Administration as part of a cooperation project. The National Archives and Records Administration provides images depicting American and global history which are public domain or licensed under a free license.  This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.