The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by our nation.The earliest appearance I found on Google Books is from an April 1999 Congressional hearing; the witness who quoted those words said that he didn’t know who had originally coined them.
Within a couple of years, however, authors announced the author of that line: George Washington! Chicken Soup for the Veteran’s Soul, published by Jack Canfield and Mark David Hanson in 2001, credited the quote to the general and first President, and there it’s stuck.
Barack Obama, then a U.S. Senator, used the quotation in a speech to the American Legion on 15 July 2005. John McCain, then and now a U.S. Senator, carried a copy of it in his pocket during the 2008 Presidential campaign to quoted from. The Congressional Record shows that many other legislators and witnesses at hearings have repeated it before and since.
Writers from National Review Online asked editors of the Papers of George Washington where those words appeared in the first President’s writings. In February 2008 the website announced that Washington never said it.
The editor-in-chief of that project, Edward Lengel, listed the quotation among several other spurious quotations and myths in his book Inventing George Washington, noting both the N.R.O. posting and how the misquotation remained widespread.
The thought behind that line isn’t at all surprising. Though the words offer a useful argument for preserving or increasing veterans’ benefits, even people who oppose such actions or oppose wars wouldn’t argue with their logic. The fact that our culture has added Washington’s name to the statement shows how much we desire individual and historical authority.
Here’s a challenge for Boston 1775 readers: Can anyone find an appearance of this quotation (or one very much like it) printed before 1999? Any attribution to Washington before 2001? Any version written by or credited to another individual?