Ambrose Bierce? Paul Rodriguez? Jon Stewart? Mark Twain? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Many people are unable to find countries and major cities on a map. A comical remark about this cartographical ignorance has been attributed to both Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain. Here are four versions:
- War is God’s way of teaching us geography
- War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.
- God created war so that Americans would learn geography
- Wars are a rather expensive way to teach geography.
I searched in Bierce’s “The Devil’s Dictionary” and Twain’s novels and was unable to find the saying. No one seems to have concrete information about the source. Comic Jon Stewart is sometimes credited. Would you be willing to trace this statement?
Quote Investigator: QI and other researchers have located no substantive evidence that Ambrose Bierce or Mark Twain spoke or wrote this quip. The expression is part of a family of remarks and jokes that has been evolving since the 1800s.
In 1879 the periodical “Rose-Belford’s Canadian Monthly” printed a table listing numerous ports in Central and South America. The article claimed that readers would learn new geographical facts while following stories about warfare. The tone of this precursor observation was not humorous. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
The following list of ports of call between Panama and Valparaiso contains the name of every important point on the coast, and gives the relative positions of many places which, if the war continues, will become familiar, for whatever evil war brings in its train, it has value in teaching us geography.
Remarks of this type appeared in publications in Canada, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. By the 1920s instances with a clearly sardonic tone were in circulation. In 1987 the comedian Paul Rodriguez told a joke during a Comic Relief concert that closely matched the one given by the questioner. Detailed examples with cites are presented further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1879 August, Rose-Belford’s Canadian Monthly and National Review, Volume 3, The Seat of the War in South America by J. Douglas Jr. (late of Quebec), Start Page 113, Quote Page 119, Rose-Belford Publishing Company. Toronto, Canada. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 240 and 338, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- Website: The Big Apple, Article title: “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography”, Date on website: December 05, 2012, Website description: Etymological dictionary with more than 10,000 entries. (Accessed barrypopik.com on May 19, 2014) ↩