Timeless Maxims of War

If you’ve been in the military longer than a day, you are bound to have heard your fair share of quotes about war that leaders like to drag out to show their book-learnin’. If I had nickel for the times I’ve heard that war is merely a continuation of politics by other means, I’d have at least fifteen cents. We get it, war is hell, war is terrible and we shouldn’t grow too fond of it, only the dead have seen the end of war, blah, blah, blah. But what about those timeless nuggets of wisdom that never fade from usage or relevancy? Odds are, they are more commonly known to junior enlisted than to residents at the Command and General Staff College. Here are some of the best.

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“I can’t believe I let the Decurion fool me into this…I’m holding a head.” (Courtesy National Geographic)

1. Never Volunteer for Anything

There’s no source for this one, but I suspect it came from some poor Roman legionary who was looking forward to a night of revelry with his buddies and an amphora of wine they had stolen from a Gaulish village, who had the misfortune to volunteer for a working party. The kid had no idea that “working party” in the Legions meant, “Build a stockade around the whole legion’s perimeter, complete with a moat.” Service members of all armies have taken this to heart, resulting in the phenomenon of…

2. Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Seriously, if you think I am wrong, take a look around your platoon bays, offices, or motor pools. Somehow, all the junior enlisted are nowhere to be seen. DARPA should really study the habits of junior enlisted when coming up with their next cloaking device and camouflage technology. One of the main reasons that the Romans established a non-commissioned officer corps was to have people around who knew all the good hiding places.

3. Piss When You Can

This tidbit comes to you by way of the great general, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. When a young officer approached him in fear and trembling and asked him what his best advice on warfare was, the Duke thought for a second and then replied, “Piss when you can.” And boy was he right. As anyone who has sat in the back of a HMMWV or MRAP for sixteen hours – or who has sat through four straight hours of PowerPoint briefings – can tell you, you need to be strategic with your liquid intake in proportion to the next time you can get to a bathroom or woodline. Or have a good supply of plastic bottles with you.

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Arthur Wellesley, happy that he utilized the latrine earlier. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

4. Don’t Stand if You Can Sit, Don’t Sit if You Can Lie Down

Oddly enough, this one came to me from one of my drill sergeants at Fort Benning, years back. His point was that as an infantryman, you never know when you will be off your feet again. So make the most of the time you have and take a load off. File also with, “Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em.”

5. Incoming Fire Has the Right of Way

I believe it was Pericles who first said this, as an addendum to his famous oration. Sadly, it was not captured by historians. But it remains true to this day, despite millions of efforts to prove it wrong. World War I was the last time when whole nations tried to convince themselves that this immutable law of war was null and void. And look where that got them.

6. There’s No Such Thing as Too Much Ammunition

Seriously, anyone who says they have too much ammo is clearly outside of their right mind. Or they are the brigade S-4 and are too lazy to order it.

7. There are No Thieves in the Army, Just People Trying to Get Their Stuff Back

Some of my favorite non-commissioned officers are those who are great at getting their stuff back, often in a much cleaner condition than it was originally in. “Requisitioning” equipment is an art form in certain units.

And lastly, the big lie…

8. If it ain’t Rainin’, we ain’t Trainin’

Baron von Steuben probably came up with this during the American Revolution, listening to American soldiers complain about the weather. I believe the original quote was, “Wenn es nicht regnet, sind wir nicht Ausbildung.” Or something like that. It has since been co-opted by sergeants major, who use it as their catch-phrase while visiting the field for half an hour before going back into their warm truck to have some coffee and look at pictures of their grass.

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Baron von Steuben, pondering the exigencies of weather and war (Image via National Park Service)


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5 thoughts on “Timeless Maxims of War

  1. The Clausewitz quote is a serious but common mis-translation. It is NOT “War is politics BY other means.” It’s “War is politics WITH THE ADDITION OF other means.” An altogether different thing.

    Liked by 1 person

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