The Essence of War in 1,100 Quotes

“To be at war, no matter where one is serving, is to sense palpably the possibility of death; if not to you, then to a friend or relative.” That’s how author James Charlton begins the third edition The Military Quotation Book (St. Martin’s Press), which contains more than 1,100 memorable observations culled from an eclectic range of authors, philosophers, generals, politicians, and dictators. 

Image: Thomas Dunne Books

Charlton has written half a dozen other compendiums of quotes. This one contains a few golden oldies. There’s former Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles’ famous admonishment that “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail,” which is so demonstrably untrue that one wonders if Dulles said it as a joke. 

There are more than a few colorful quips from America’s warrior giants, like Gen. George Patton: “Strategy if finding a sonofabitch whom you rank and telling him to take a place, and relieving him if he doesn’t.” And Abraham Lincoln, who could take a dim view of his commanders: “General McClellan is an admirable Engineer, but he seems to have a special talent for the stationary engine.” 

Charlton traverses the field of pop culture, as well, as when he quotes Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger: “They have a saying in Chicago: ‘Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time is enemy action.'” 

More than a few quotes seem especially instructive today. 

“War is capitalism with the gloves off.” —Tom Stoppard 

“Wars are not paid for in wartime, the bill comes later.” —Benjamin Franklin 

“To fight for a reason and in a calculating spirit is something your true warrior despises.” —George Santayana 

“You will kill ten of our men and we will kill one of yours, and in the end it will be you who tire of it.” —Ho Chi Minh 

“It is a very dangerous thing to organize the patriotism of a nation if you are not sincere.” —Ernest Hemingway 

“The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.” —John Foster Dulles