War Is Heck: Cursing Generals, Laconic Commanders, and the Swabian Greeting Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

War Is Heck: Cursing Generals, Laconic Commanders, and the Swabian Greeting

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A cartoon of von Berlichingen.

During times of great moment, human beings need to find an outlet to express the significance of the event. Neil Armstrong agonised all the way to the Moon about what he would say as he stepped onto the Sea of Tranquility. Lincoln's  oration at Gettysburg was well-considered, and will never be forgotten. But what if the momentous occurrence happens suddenly, and you have no speech prepared? What if you are stressed and overcome by emotion? You might, like the radio announcer witnessing the Hindenburg disaster, fall to babbling helpless inanities. What about war? In the heat of battle or the tense situation of truce negotiation, a seasoned general might find himself responding in a way that goes down in the record books – a way that is totally understandable to his soldiers, and even to his enemies, but which may look unfortunate in the history books.

Not to put too fine a point on it, he may cuss.

Do Soldiers Cuss?

Do soldiers, male or female, swear, utter profanities, take the Lord's name in vain, get scatological in their vocabulary? In short, do they cuss? Of course they do. Cursing relieves the feelings and at times expresses the otherwise unexpressible. Baron von Steuben, the Prussian-born trainer of George Washington's Continental Army, was reputedly frustrated by his inability to communicate with his troops, only some of whom spoke German. Steuben is said to have cursed for about five minutes in his own language, provoking laughter, then turned to his aide-de-camp and requested (in French), 'Now, you swear at them in English.'

Why does this surprise some of us? Maybe because we have been conditioned by playwrights and film-makers to believe that our heroes express themselves heroically. For a very long time, films about the Second World War contained much violence, but little cursing. The children of the Greatest Generation could have been excused for growing up with the idea that Dad defeated Hitler while exclaiming, 'Aw, gee, shucks! We missed that durn bunker!'

The 1977 war film A Bridge Too Far was a revelation. When Elliott Gould took that cigar out of his mouth, stared balefully at the bridge, and uttered a terse expletive, our historical perspective was changed. In fact, that film had to fight for its PG rating – the ratings people were alarmed by all the bad language during wartime. The language in that film was not exaggerated: many of the original participants in Operation Market Garden were on hand as advisors, and at least one former general caused a script change.

Cursing's a modern phenomenon, right? Due entirely to the decline in morals of the industrial age? Surely the generals of ancient times expressed themselves in nobler terms? Well, let's see.

In Umbra Igitur Pugnabimus1

Swear words aside, the habit soldiers have of taunting the opposite side is well-attested in antiquity. According to Herodotus' account of the Battle of Thermopylae, when the Persians demanded that they lay down their arms, the Spartan leader Leonidas said, 'Come and get them.' That sort of wisecrack is called 'laconic', meaning 'terse'. The word 'laconic' comes from Laconia, the region where Sparta is located. Leonidas came from a long line of terse people.

In addition to being laconic, Spartans could be witty. When told the Persians' arrows would fall so thick that they blotted out the sun, the Spartans are said to have replied, 'In umbra igitur pugnabimus' – at least, that's Cicero's Latin translation. It means, 'So we'll fight in the shade.'

Philip of Macedon fared no better when it came to getting words out of Spartans. While the Athenian Demosthenes delivered speech after speech against the warlord – these speeches are called 'phillipics' – the Spartans were as terse as ever. When Philip sent a message saying that if he took Laconia, he would raze Sparta to the ground, they replied with one word: 'If'.

That kind of snappy comeback seems to please the military mind. The phrase μολον λαβε, Greek for 'come and take them', is the motto on the emblem of the Greek First Army Corps.

The 'Götz Quotation'

German speakers will sometimes refer to a certain contemptuous phrase as the 'Götz Quotation'. Götz von Berlichingen (1480-1562), also known as Götz of the Iron Hand (because he had a prosthesis) was a German knight and mercenary of great renown. He had a play written about him by no less a man of letters than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

According to Goethe, von Berlichingen was holed up in a castle when his enemies demanded surrender. What he invited them to do was to kiss a certain part of his anatomy. This expression can also be called the 'Swabian greeting'.

Götz was a man ahead of his time in many ways. His prosthetic device, which is on display at Jagsthausen Castle, actually functioned. Mark Twain claimed to have slept in a hotel room which had once housed the great leader, and seen the hook on the wall where Götz hung the hand at night.

So yes, at least in the 16th Century, war got vulgar. What about the Enlightenment? Nobody cursed then, surely?

Cambronne at Waterloo

By 1814, a lot more people could read than in the days of Leonidas or Götz. More attention was being paid to one's reputation in print. People probably expected their leaders to express themselves in uplifting terms – which might explain why the following story is disputed.

General Pierre Cambronne (1770-1842) of Napoleon's army was forced to surrender at Waterloo. He was wounded, we don't blame him. But what did he say when he was captured? Well, it depends on who's telling the story: French journalists, Victor Hugo, or the British.

  • A French journalist by the name of Rougemont said the general exclaimed heroically, 'La garde meurt et ne se rend pas!' Which in English is, 'The Guard dies and does not surrender!' This was likely to go down well in Paris.
  • Other sources claimed what he said was, 'Merde!' (It's French for 'Oh, crap.') Victor Hugo preferred this version, and used it in Les Miserables.
  • Letters to the Times claimed that the general was captured before he could complete any utterances, whether profound or profane.

The merde version stuck, probably due to its pithiness, and there's a French verb, cambronniser, meaning, 'to say merde'. Is this as bad as the Swabian greeting? We leave it to the reader to decide.


Back to World War II. It was December of 1944. By and large, Allied troops had the Germans on the run in Europe. Then the Wehrmacht launched a counteroffensive in the Ardennes region which became known as the Battle of the Bulge. A large number of Allied troops were surrounded, and the situation looked hopeless for them. German General Heinrich Freiherr [Baron] von Lüttwitz (1896-1969) sent an eloquent and compassionate letter offering surrender terms, which read in part:

The fortune of war is changing. ..
There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.
If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hours term.
All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the well-known American humanity.

General Anthony Clement McAuliffe (1898-1975), acting commander of the US troops at Bastogne, read this letter, crumpled it in his hand, threw it in a wastepaper basket, and muttered laconically, 'Aw, nuts.'

There is something we have to know about General McAuliffe. This West Point graduate must have been the only general in the US Army who did not swear. His aide attested that euphemisms like 'nuts' were part of his normal vocabulary. In other words: he probably did say, 'Aw, gee, shucks! We missed that durn bunker!'

After mulling over how to word an answer to General von Lüttwitz's ultimatum, McAuliffe's staff decided to reply as follows:

To the German Commander.
The American Commander

Von Lüttwitz was understandably puzzled. It was explained to him that 'Nuts!' was a polite way of saying, 'Go to hell.' In other words, it was the Swabian greeting, only in a gentler form. The Germans didn't shell the US forces, though they sent in the Luftwaffe. McAuliffe held out until reinforcements arrived, and was decorated for his valorous action (if not his vocabulary). It was a great historical event. The central square in Bastogne, Belgium, adorned with a Sherman tank, is named Place Général McAuliffe in honour of the man who confused the Wehrmacht.

What Have We Learned?

So, do soldiers cuss? Yes, definitely. Do generals cuss? Some of them do. Some of them admit it, too, although others try to protect their reputations after the fact. Surprisingly, perhaps, given the stress of war, some – like General McAuliffe – do not. Not ever. Not even when the Wehrmacht is breathing down their necks.

In the unfolding drama of history, many words have inspired us. Most of them are words we would like our schoolchildren to remember. Some, however, will get your mouth washed out with soap.

Unless, of course, you're a general.

1This Latin phrase means, 'So we will fight in the shade.' Now go read the rest of the story.

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