Assignment: Sourcing a Quote

So this is not a photo assignment (reverse image search will get you nowhere!). But here’s a photo anyway, for aesthetic reasons:


It’s a quote from current U.S. Defense Secretary General Mattis emblazoned on a coffee mug:

“I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading you with tears in my eyes: if you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all.”

So the question are:

  • Did he say this?
  • Who heard him say this?
  • When and where did he say it?
  • What publication was the original reporting source for this quote?

So let me say a few things about tracking down quotes (and about novice behavior when tracking down quotes). What a novice will do is this: they’ll do a web search like this for [[Mattis “i come in peace”]]:


And they’ll find a good solid publication that sources the quote:


And maybe that’s enough for daily use, but it’s not what we need here for this assignments. Quotes are some of the most bungled information on the planet. Back about ten years ago, in fact, I showed how a Washington Post story complaining about the web getting quotes wrong actually had it reversed — the web was right and the Post was wrong. (Incidentally, reviewing that post I find that it articulates pretty much what I am pushing today about web literacy — I’d forgotten how long I’d been beating this drum).

My advice for getting quotes right is the same as for everything else. Your two choices are:

  • Get as close as you can to the time and place of the quote. The original reporting, or the first reporting of the reporting. For the most part, the further you get from a quote the more it changes.
  • Alternatively, get a not just solid, but rock-solid source (such as Quote Investigator, a reputable monthly like The Atlantic, or a scholarly/major book publisher) that you know does the hard work of tracking a quote to an original source.

In case you haven’t noticed, these two options map to two of our moves:

  1. Check for previous work, and
  2. Go upstream

Anyway, go to it. Get as far upstream as you can, or to a source you consider to be rock-solid.


3 thoughts on “Assignment: Sourcing a Quote

  1. I could trace this quote to the book “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq” by Thomas E. Ricks. It was then published online in an excerpt of the book in the Armed Forces Journal website. In the book, Ricks writes that Mattis “recalled telling” Iraqi military leaders this after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ricks does not use formal footnotes, and does not attribute the quote in his index.

    • This is what I got as well. The quote, at best, is not something Mattis was observed saying,but rather a casual retelling of what he had expressed at that time by Mattis himself.

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