No Bastard Ever Won a War by Dying for His Country

George Patton? T. W. H. Crosland? Edmund Kozalla? Apocryphal?

patton08Dear Quote Investigator: General George S. Patton made the most incisive remark about war that I have ever heard. He was rallying Allied troops who were attempting to defeat the Axis Powers during World War II. His assertion about the two-edged sword of patriotism was cloaked in grim humor:

No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making some other poor dumb bastard die for his country.

I am not certain of the exact wording. Interestingly, some claim that this comment was not spoken by the general and actually originated with the 1970 movie “Patton”. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The earliest published evidence known to QI appeared in the 1958 book “War and Peace in the Space Age” by Lt. General James M. Gavin. The author stated that he and other military personnel heard an address by Patton shortly before leaving Africa in 1943. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

George Patton’s last words to us before we left Africa came home with meaning: “No dumb bastard ever won a war by going out and dying for his country. He won it by making some other dumb bastard die for his country.”

The speech was not publicized contemporaneously because of war time restrictions on information and because it contained language that was considered coarse for the era. Patton delivered many speeches during the war and some of the soldiers who heard his words recounted them in the following years. Unsurprisingly, the precise phrasing of the quotation under examination varied in these accounts.

An interesting precursor to the statement was in circulation during World War I, and similar remarks were printed in newspapers by 1942. Detailed information is further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1883 “The United Service: A Monthly Review of Military and Naval Affairs” printed a passage that shared some points of similarity with the words ascribed to Patton. The attitude was sardonic, but the distinction between the opposing sides in war was not emphasized: 2

The muster-roll of the dead may be a monument of governmental incapacity as well as a certificate of patriotism and courage. It is always glorious for the other man to die for his country,—at least the survivor says so; but the fact that his life has been needlessly thrown away is calculated to throw some doubt on the subject. A civilized nation cannot afford to throw away a single life.

In 1917 a collection titled “War Poems” was published with the author name “X”. Later “X” was revealed to be the British author and journalist Thomas William Hodgson Crosland. The poem “Dying for Your Country” contained a precursor in the last two lines of the fourth stanza. The proffered advice was comparable to Patton’s: 3

So, Johnny, keep your barrel bright,
And go where you are told to go,
And when you meet, by day or night,
Our friend the enemy, lay him low;
And you must neither boast nor quake,
Though big guns roar and whizz-bangs whizz—
Don’t die for your dear country’s sake,
But let the other chap die for his.

In 1918 the trade publication “The Gas Age” printed the following guidance from an unidentified “old fellow”: 4

An old fellow spoke thus to a recruit going to the front who said he was ready to die for his country: “Son, we want the other fellow to die for his country and you come back.”

In August 1942 the mass-circulation “Reader’s Digest” printed a short passage ascribed to David Goldberg in the “Chicago Sun”. The same words were printed in early August in the “Evening World-Herald” of Omaha, Nebraska under the title “Get This Straight”: 5 6

A noncommissioned officer wrote this in an essay: “It is commonly supposed that the first duty of a good soldier is to die for his country. This is a mistake. The first duty of a soldier is to make his enemies die for theirs.”

In late August 1942 a columnist in the “Pittsburgh Post-Gazette” of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania relayed a quip in which a pilot described his survival-oriented goal. The setting was the Stage Door Canteen which was located in New York: 7

Irving Hoffman is telling about the doting dame who stopped an RAF pilot at the Stage Door Canteen the other night and gushed: “I think it’s perfectly wonderful to think that you go into the air to die for your country.” Shot back the English flier: “Like heck I do, ma’am, I go up to make some other chap die for his.”

In October 1942 “The News-Herald” of Franklin, Pennsylvania printed a remark from a letter sent from a member of the U.S. military: 8

The first duty of a sailor is not to die for his country but to make the enemies die for theirs. Edmund Kozalla, of the U.S. Navy writes to a friend on The News-Herald staff. He said that the people at home should buy bonds to the limit to give Blue Jackets more ships and guns.

In 1943 and 1944 George S. Patton delivered speeches to soldiers that contained the remark. Citations describing his words appear further below in chronological order based on the date of publication.

In 1944 “The Joke Tellers Joke Book” edited by Frederick Meier included a jest similar to the one above about an RAF pilot. An admiring woman approached the flyer in a New York canteen: 9

“I am so proud to be able to speak to you. You, who dash up into the air with all the bravery of the knights of old to fight and die for your country.”

The Britisher looked down at her and corrected her, “I’m afraid you have been misinformed. The motivating reason for my going up into the air in my Spitfire is to make the other chap die for his country.”

In 1953 Leon Uris released the best-selling novel “Battle Cry” about his experiences as a Marine in the Pacific theater during World War II. He included a version of the saying: 10

“This is the bible from now on,” the corporal said, holding up The Marine’s Handbook, “The other one may save your soul, but this one is going to save your ass. We want you alive! Let the other son of a bitch die for his country, we want you alive!”

In 1958 Lt. General James M. Gavin published “War and Peace in the Space Age” and included a comment that he remembered from an address delivered by Patton. This excerpt was also given at the beginning of this article: 11

George Patton’s last words to us before we left Africa came home with meaning: “No dumb bastard ever won a war by going out and dying for his country. He won it by making some other dumb bastard die for his country.”

In 1965 James M. Gavin published an article in “The Atlantic” magazine about his wartime experiences. The article began with a description of events that occurred on July 13, 1943. Gavin then used a flashback to recount a “send-off talk about a week earlier” that was delivered by George S. Patton: 12

Speaking to all of us late one afternoon as we assembled in North African sunset, he said, “Now, I want you to remember that no son of a bitch ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb son of a bitch die for his country.”

Note that Gavin presented two different versions in 1958 and 1965. For example, “bastard” was changed to “son of a bitch”; hence, it was unlikely that Gavin wrote down the line spoken by Patton. Instead, he was relying on his imperfect memory.

In 1970 the movie “Patton” was released with a screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North. The actor George C. Scott in the role of Patton spoke the following as indicated in “The Movie Quote Book”: 13

Be seated. Now, I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.

In 2004 “Where the Birds Never Sing: The True Story of the 92nd Signal Battalion and the Liberation of Dachau” was published. The book described the wartime experiences of Joe Sacco and was written by his son Jack Sacco. The author stated that General Patton spoke to a group of troops that included his father on June 5, 1944 near Oxford, England preparing for the invasion of the European mainland: 14

I want you to remember that no poor bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb son-of-a-bitching bastard die for his country. Remember that.

In conclusion, QI believes that George S. Patton did employ this line in more than one speech in 1943 and 1944. Precursors were already in circulation before Patton rallied Allied troops. The exact phrasing of the statement was variable, and Patton may have expressed the remark in different ways at different times.

Image Notes: War cemetery in Luxembourg. Author: TCY. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Photo of George S. Patton from the Military Personnel Records Center via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Professor Jonathan Lighter who located the key 1958 citation and initiated a mailing list discussion on this topic. Special thanks to the other discussants especially Fred R. Shapiro who included this quotation in “The Yale Book of Quotations”.)

Update History: On May 11, 2015 the 1942 “Reader’s Digest” citation was added.

Notes:

  1. 1958, War and Peace in the Space Age by Lt. General James M. Gavin (James Maurice Gavin), Quote Page 64, Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1883 December, The United Service: A Monthly Review of Military and Naval Affairs, Volume 9, Standing Armies a Necessity of Civilization by Captain James Chester, Third Artillery, Start Page 658, Quote Page 664, Published by L. R. Hamersly & Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1917, War Poems by X (Thomas William Hodgson Crosland), Poem: Dying for Your Country, Stanza 4, Quote Page 43, Doubleday, Page & Company, Garden City, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1918 June 15, The Gas Age, Volume 41, American Gas Association Organized, Start Page 545, Banquet Address by Edward J. Cattell, Quote Page 550, Published by Progressive Age Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1942 August, Reader’s Digest, Volume 41, (Filler item), Quote Page 42, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1942 August 3, Evening World-Herald (Omaha World Herald), Get This Straight, (Acknowledgement to David Goldberg in Chicago Sun), Quote Page 16, Column 5, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1942 August 28, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Hollywood by Hugh Dixon, GN Page 23, Column 5, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Google News archive)
  8. 1942 October 29, The News-Herald, Writes Inspiring Letter, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Franklin, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1944 Copyright, The Joke Tellers Joke Book, Arranged and Edited by Frederick Meier, Quote Page 38, (Reprint edition dated 1945), Circle Books: The Blakiston Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans of 1945 reprint)
  10. 1953 Copyright, Battle Cry by Leon Uris, Quote Page 35, Published by Bantam New York. (Putnam edition published April 1953; Bantam edition published October 1954; 38th printing November 1968) (Verified with scans in 38th printing)
  11. 1958, War and Peace in the Space Age by Lt. General James M. Gavin (James Maurice Gavin), Quote Page 64, Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  12. 1965 February, Atlantic, Volume 215, “Two Fighting Generals: Patton and MacArthur” by James M. Gavin, Start Page 55, Quote Page 55, Column 1 and 2, Published by The Atlantic Monthly Company at The Rumford Press, Concord, New Hampshire. (Verified on paper)
  13. 1980, The Movie Quote Book, Compiled by Harry Haun, Section: War, Quote Page 356, Column 2, Lippincott & Crowell, New York. (Verified on paper)
  14. 2004, Where the Birds Never Sing: The True Story of the 92nd Signal Battalion and the Liberation of Dachau by Jack Sacco, Page 142, HarperCollins, New York. (Verified on paper)