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Posted on Mar 28, 2013 in Books and Movies

The Military Quotation Book – Book Review

By Chris Heatherly

The Military Quotation Book; Revised for the 21st Century. Book review. Edited by James Charlton. Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. 176 pages. $17.99

What does an author say to prospective readers in a review about a book on military quotes? At its essence, The Military Quotation Book is just that—a well-researched collection of over 1,100 sayings and thoughts attributed to famous, and some not so famous, personalities. Quotes are arranged in a diverse number of topics ranging from air bombardment to freedom to speed in war to guerilla warfare. Sadly, there is no index or glossary to assist readers searching for particular speakers or subjects. Several quotes inspire, others strive for humor, and some cause us to reflect on the cost, brutality and horrors of warfare. Presidents and dictators, historians and strategists, poets and playwrights, admirals and generals, civil rights leaders and Hollywood actors all grace the pages of The Military Quotation Book.


This is Mr. Charlton’s third edition of The Military Quotation Book, with the previous two hitting the bookstores in 1990 and 2002. The third edition includes thoughts on recent global events over the last decade, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or gays openly serving in the military. Additionally, Charlton wisely adds new and less known voices to those traditional favorites (Thucydides, Sun Tzu, Napoleon, Patton, Eisenhower, Rommel or J.F.C. Fuller) found in similar works. Readers will encounter the contemporary voices of President George W. Bush, generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, Colonel Paul Yingling and even the late Pope John Paul II. Additionally, Charlton includes a number of lines from fictional sources such as the classic film Dr. Strangelove or: I How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and the more recent (and hugely popular) ITV television series Downton Abbey. More than a few of the quotes seem strangely out of place—most notably John Belushi’s error-filled but inspirational speech as Bluto from Animal House—leaving the reader to ponder as to the true purpose of their inclusion. Are they here to make us laugh, to think, or simply as filler material?

I see a hidden danger in books like Charlton’s work, albeit an unintended one. Virtually every quote stands alone, with no information beyond the speaker’s name to provide context of when or where it was said. Only rarely does Charlton include even the scantest background detail. In fairness, this is true of quotation books in general and always has been, but I believe that today it is more critical than ever to provide context. Our world is fixated on sound bites, tweets, hashtags and pithy shorthand phrasing—ROFLMAO. We want information NOW, and preferably in a short, easily understood format. Why read a book when you can watch the movie? Why investigate and do research yourself, when you can easily look it up on Wikipedia? Serious applied scholarship, particularly of military history, is a dying art. National studies of American students continually demonstrate this point: Americans, particularly American youth, are ignorant of history, period. The lack of historical understanding amongst Americans is a serious concern. Of greater alarm is that less than 1% of the US population currently serves in the military and less than 10% of Americans are veterans. When Call of Duty games and paintball become the basis for combat experience, there will be a serious lack of understanding of what war actually entails. You do not have to be a military veteran or professional historian to appreciate The Military Quotation Book, but it is imperative to know the context of its content. Knowing Sun Tzu said, “When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard,” is interesting. Knowing why Sun Tzu said those words is critical to understanding their meaning or putting them to proper use in battle. Publishers of quotations books, please take note.

This is not to say Charlton’s work is without value. Quite the opposite is true. The quotes serve as an excellent starting point for those interested in learning more about a particular person or aspect of military history. This is especially true of some of the more obscure figures of history, many of which I researched while reading the book and writing this review. Teachers, writers, poets, speechwriters, or plain lovers of history will enjoy reading The Military Quotation Book. I suspect the book will enjoy enough success to merit a fourth edition … say in about 10 years? I cannot help but wonder what new voices will arise in that time.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the United States Army. Major Christopher J. Heatherly enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1994 and earned his commission via Officer Candidate School in 1997. He has held a variety of assignments in special operations, Special Forces, armored, and cavalry units. His operational experience includes deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, South Korea, Kuwait, Mali, and Nigeria. He holds master’s degrees from the University of Oklahoma and the School of Advanced Military Studies.