10 Most Famous Quotes in American Military History

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America has had its share of colorful military figures, but perhaps no one is more memorable for the blunt way he expressed himself than Gen. George S. Patton. Known during World War II as “America’s Fightingest General,” Patton had a penchant for profound quotes, like this: “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.” Profane, brilliant and flawed, Patton is part of a long line of American military commanders whose most famous words still resonate with us today.


10. “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Peter Arnett's quote of an anonymous military major during the Vietnam War remains controversial.

My Tho, South Vietnam, 1968

During the Viet Cong’s failed Tet Offensive in 1968, the town of Ben Tre became a focal point in America’s war in Vietnam.  In the aftermath of a fierce battle that left much of the town in ruins, correspondent Peter Arnett quoted an unnamed Army major uttering the infamous words. The statement seemed to contradict the American mission to help the South Vietnamese and became emblematic of what many considered to be a futile war strategy. Since Arnett never revealed his source, this quote remains somewhat controversial, but soldiers present that day have confirmed those words were used in some form. In fairness to the major, he may have been speaking specifically in terms of the common tactical situation on the ground in which Viet Cong infiltrated villages and used civilians as cover.


9. “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

David Farragut's famous torpedoes quote has inspired generations of fighters.

David Farragut (left) aboard the USS Hartford.

The American Civil War is most remembered for devastating land battles such as Gettysburg and Antietam, but there were a number of important naval engagements. When Admiral David Farragut uttered his famous declaration — as with several other quotes on this list, the actual wording varied slightly from the popular version — he was expressing contempt for the Confederate water mines placed in the approaches to Mobile Bay. His words have become a battle cry for Americans determined to brush danger aside to complete an important goal.


8. “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”

The Battle of Bunker Hill inspired a legendary quote from an American military leader.

Battle of Bunker Hill

When a commanding officer ordered his troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775 to hold their fire until the British came close, he was using common tactics of the day — massed musket fire at a close target — but he was also probably aware that many of his men were more comfortable with a plow or a hammer in their hands than a rifle. He also hoped to conserve precious ammunition. It is one of the most familiar lines of the Revolutionary War and reflects a steely determination to hold fast in the face of a seemingly superior foe. There is great debate about who actually coined the phrase, although Israel Putnam and William Prescott are the two most likely sources.


7. “I have not yet begun to fight!”

John Paul Jones' courageous quote still resonates today.

John Paul Jones

The British Navy was the undisputed ruler of the seas in the 18th century, but this did not stop a handful of American ships from stirring up trouble during the American Revolution. In September of 1779 Capt. John Paul Jones’ small fleet was raiding merchant ships off England’s coast when an enemy force attacked them. When taunted by a British captain to see if he would surrender, Jones’ response rallied his flagging sailors who pushed on to eventual victory. This line has become a war cry for Americans fighting their own private battles.


6. “It is well that war is so terrible — otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”

Robert E. Lee's quote about the terrible nature of war came less than halfway through the bloody Civil War.

Robert E. Lee photo by Matthew Brady

President Lincoln asked Robert E. Lee to take command of Union forces at the outbreak of the Civil War, but the general sided with Virginia and the Confederacy. Lee was under no illusions about how terribly destructive the war would be and still he felt he had no choice but to lead the Confederate cause on the battlefield. His statement about war, uttered at the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862, expresses a paradox warriors have long encountered — the juxtaposition of the excitement and grandeur of military forces with the horrible carnage of battle.


5. “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

Oliver Hazard Perry's famous comment about the enemy was scrawled on an envelope.

Oliver Hazard Perry stands in a lifeboat after losing his ship.

The Battle of Lake Erie was one of the most important engagements of the War of 1812 because Commander Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory gained control of the lake, forcing the British in the region to retreat into Canada. This simple statement seems to have the cadence of the spoken word, but Perry scrawled it on an envelope and sent it to his commanding officer — and future U.S. president — William Henry Harrison. These words have become something of a cliché as an understatement regarding an important triumph. If the quote sounds familiar, but vaguely different from your recollection, cartoonist Walt Kelly of Pogo fame transformed the quote into, “We have met the enemy, and he is us,” for an Earth Day poster in 1970. Kelly later used the phrase as the title of a book.


4. “War is hell.”

Gen. William T. Sherman's quote about war being hell struck some as ironic given his fierce reputation.

Gen. Sherman’s men destroy an Atlanta railroad during their March to the Sea.

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman included these three words in an address to graduates of the Michigan Military Academy in 1879, more than a decade after the end of the Civil War, but his memories had not been softened by the passage of time.  Countless books and papers have delved into the horrors of war, but no amount of intellectual discussion can capture the raw impact of the general’s words. Although he was completely sincere, some critics later took his words to be ironic given his infamously destructive “March to the Sea” campaign across Georgia.


3. “No Guts, No Glory.”

Major Gen. Frederick C. Blesse coined an iconic phrase with his book, No Guts, No Glory.

Major Gen. Frederick C. Blesse

Major Gen. Frederick C. Blesse may not be well known by the general public, but in U.S. Air Force circles he remains something of a legend. With extensive combat experience and a pile of medals and awards, his place in U.S. Air Force history was already assured in 1955 when he wrote a fighter tactics manual called No Guts, No Glory. It is considered the Bible of air-to-air combat and has been used by a number of air forces around the world. “No Pain, No Gain” is a less dramatic, but more familiar variation of the phrase, which refers to the need for hard work in the gym.


2. “I shall return.”

Gen. MacArthur vowed to return to the Philippines, and he kept his word.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur (center, sunglasses) makes his famous return to the Philippines.

With his trademark pipe and sunglasses, Gen. Douglas MacArthur may be the most recognized American military figure other than George Washington. A brilliant commander and a controversial figure, his career ended on a sour note when he was relieved from command during the Korean War. But more than a decade earlier he faced trying times with the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. He was ordered to evacuate the ravaged islands, but his promise to the Philippine people, “I shall return,” gave hope to the conquered civilians and brutalized prisoners of war who he would help liberate a few years later. True to his larger-than-life persona, when MacArthur returned to the islands, he announced, “People of the Philippines: I have returned.”


1. “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

Nathan Hale's statement before being hung as a spy embodies the ultimate in courage and sacrifice.

Nathan Hale statue, Chicago

Almost 250 years after the American Revolution, Capt. Nathan Hale’s name remains synonymous with selfless service and patriotism. He is said to have uttered this famous farewell before the British hanged him for spying in 1776. His calm bravery in the face of death is the epitome of honor and self-sacrifice and embodies one of the most memorable lines from President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “They gave the last full measure of devotion.”


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Written by

Mike Phelps earned a B.A. in history from the University of Connecticut and an M.A. in military history from Norwich University. He published a book about the War on Terror called A Short History of the Long War.