The Morphology of a Humorous Phrase: “We have met the enemy and he is us”

 

I was reminded of a chain of events in the development of a humorous phrase when I saw a rather poignant cartoon by Jim Morin last month.  It got me to thinking about how these phrases get started and how they change over time.  There is a book called Nice Guys Finish Seventh by Ralph Keyes that goes into the process more deeply, but this is my experience with one phrase.

Walt Kelly’s phrase, “We have met the enemy and he is us” derives from braggadocio during the War of 1812 in which commodore Oliver Hazard Perry reported, “We have met the enemy and they are ours” to William Henry Harrison after the Battle of Lake Erie.  That phrase stands with John Paul Jones’s “I have not yet begun to fight,” and Julius Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered) as one of the most famous battle reports in history.

Walt Kelly did not originate “We have met the enemy and he is us” in a cartoon strip.  It was first used on a poster to promote Earth Day in 1970.  Later, the artist put Porkypine and Pogo into a strip and attributed the phrase to Pogo as seen below.

Image

Because it is a pun on a very familiar quote, this phrase caught the collective imagination of Americans.  It is still used in public discourse to describe, for instance, the potential results of man-made global warming.  And cartoonist Jim Morin paraphrased it in a poignant drawing following the murders of servicemen at Ft. Hood in April of 2014.

Image

The phrase lives on, not by constant reuse in similar circumstances, but by clever rephrasing in divergent situations.  That is what has kept this phrase from becoming a cliché.  As it is artfully applied to different scenarios, it continues to tell us about ourselves—and the world around us.

 

 

66 responses

  1. Here is a color version of the picture:

    And another political cartoon take on the phrase:

  2. […] the day, Pogo had a take on it. As for the question of ”we,” Pogo had that figured out in 1970. ”We have met the enemy, and they is us,” his creator had him say, in reference to environmental pollution on an Earth Day poster published […]

  3. You say “Walt Kelly did not originate “We have met the enemy and he is us” in a cartoon strip. It was first used on a poster to promote Earth Day in 1970. Later, the artist put Porkypine and Pogo into a strip and attributed the phrase to Pogo as seen below.”
    In fact his daily strip on August 8th, 1970 also has Porky saying it. I don’t have a date for the strip you show, but clearly he was pretty happy with the phrase and didn’t mind repeating it. I will be happy to send you an image of the 8/8/70 strip if you are interested.
    By the way, Kelly is my favorite comic satirist, ever. No one but Will Rogers has ever matched his ability to make a wicked point and at the same time be “gentle” to the object of his wit.

    1. George:
      Thank you for the comment on Pogo in the “Morphology” blog. I always enjoy reading the points of view of other aficionados of the art form on my writing. I, too, enjoy reading Pogo and appreciate Walt Kelly’s humor. If you want to read more of my research on Kelly, I give him some ink in my masters thesis “More than Words: Rhetorical Devices in American Political Cartoons” by Lawrence R. Bush. In that essay I talk about his use of calligraphy to enhance his satire. I agree with you that Walt Kelly was very clever in the way he presented his political satire. The reason for his cleverness was that the “funnies” was not the place for political satire. Therefore, he disguised it as random animals doing things in a swamp. Any connection to the events in Washington were purely coincidental (like comments in Pat Oliphant’s cartoons by Punk the Penguin). Kelly’s work opened the door to more direct satire in “the funnies” by the authors of Doonesbury, Bloom County, Shoe, Candorville, and Non-Sequitur (to name a few). In addition, the humor of Will Rogers inspired political cartoonists in their drawings. See “Art of the Poison Pens” for one example.

      1. One of my favorite Walt Kelly jokes was: “How do you commit suicide in the Soviet Union?” Answer: “You get a loaf of bread, and lie down on the railroad tracks.” Question: “What do you need a loaf of bread for?” Answer: “Before a train comes along in the Soviet Union, you could starve to death.”

        It was a perfect skewering of the dysfunction of the USSR with black humor that only Kelly could make appealing to a young kid.

      2. Thank you for reading my blog. Walt Kelly had a bunch of “Kellyisms” that made light of difficult situations. That Trans-Siberian Railway never ran on time. Take two loaves of bread.

  4. MSgt R.L.Parker USMC Ret. | Reply

    … r.e., our American values of acceptance and generosity; we have met the enemy and it is not Islam, it is us … (no good deed goes unpunished)

    1. Sarge:

      Your comment is controversial, but deserves to be published. I was once told that when Freud was badmouthed by a peer, his reply was, “What did I ever do for him?” However, this story is apocryphal because I cannot find a source for it. It goes along with your parenthetical comment.

      1. Now I have a new word to look up…
        parenthetical sounds cool…. To just throw out there.

  5. Kelly actually first employed his spin on Perry’s famous quote in 1953, in the Foreword to his book The Pogo Papers. “Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blasts on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us.”

    1. I posted that too. I agree with you. It was a spin on a previous comment regarding the human condition.

      1. “Parenthetical” is a pretty heavy word. Don’t try to throw it too far.

  6. […] We have met the enemy and he is us Zionist Report […]

  7. That’s an interesting bit of research. However, the final, and best known version is also the most concise version which is very common in the coinage of new phrases.

    1. Since you seemed interested in the history of the phrase, and whether it originated in the strip or on a poster, I thought you might appreciate knowing Kelly’s first usage of it. That’s all.

      1. I may not have made myself clear. Yes, the research fascinates me. I did not go into that much depth. Had I found what you found, I would have put it into my blog then explained that many original phrases are pared down to the most concise wording before they become popular catch-phrases. Thank you for bringing me up to speed.

  8. In researching this phrase, I couldn’t help but notice the (apparently true) assertion here that Walt Kelly re-used the phrase in 1971, and the (apparently false) assertion that it could not originate with Kelly because it had been used on an Earth Day poster in 1970. Yes, it had been used on an Earth Day poster for April 22, 1970–by a humorist named Walt Kelly, according to my information. Others tried to tell you this above and have either been too delicate and thus misunderstood or else I don’t have the correct information, and don’t understand exactly what they’re getting at either, but here is my source:

    http://www.thisdayinquotes.com/2011/04/we-have-met-enemy-and-he-is-us.html

    1. In fact, there was a poster, published in 1970 by Pangolin Corporation, with a realistic drawing of a pig on its hind legs, dumping trash onto the ground from a bag, with the caption “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Pangolin called the poster “Political Pig.” I tried to paste an image here but it won’t take.

      1. Maybe someone will be able to find it and post it for you.

  9. […] to realize that things can get out of control quickly if people don’t exercise self-control. As Walt Kelly said in Pogo, “We have met the enemy and they are us.” The only way that nations, […]

    1. So, nations meet their enemies and find out they are us? How apt after the election of Donald Trump.

  10. […] paraphrase Walt Kelly’s famous comic strip character, Pogo, we have met the world’s worst nuclear threat, and it is […]

  11. Yeah, it’s still “us,” especially with Trump having the codes.

  12. You guys are driving me Krazy.I had a pogo cartoon on my dorm room wall(1966-1969) of pogo with a folded paper hat on his head brandishing a wooden sword saying” I’ve met the enemy and it is us”.(?).It was the center piece of a collage that covered all 4 walls and the ceiling.My “roomie” and I would sometimes greet each other with fake sword fight and repeating this quote.This clearly preceded 1970,that every one seems to agree was the first Pogo appearance of quote on the earth day poster.Help me put this to rest.Please,no 60’s jokes.

    1. Although I was not in college during the 1960s, I do remember those days (I was not old enough to do what it took to forget them). As for the famous quote, I have no record that Walt Kelly produced a cartoon with even the paraphrase you mention before the 1970s although it is possible that it has eluded me. I will keep my eyes open.

    2. Donald Adams, you are 100% correct. Pogo is standing on a hill above a battleground talking to the troops near him and made that statement. Walt Kelly absolutely drew that cartoon before the Earth Day knockoff.

      1. Charlotte Henderson

        I believe it’s correct that Walt Kelly’s Pogo said “… [the enemy] is us ” previous to 1970. Unfortunately, I can’t find the original use, but am still looking.

  13. There is a meme on the Internet, that was popular a few years ago in atheist circles, of Barry Goldwater, the conservative that ran for president against Lyndon Johnson in 1964 with a quote saying

    “Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.”

    I don’t see this meme too much any more. What I do see is more and more people on all sides of all issues refusing to compromise. Anger is growing and growing and our political leaders are as blind to it as anyone.

    Yet another meaning to the phrase: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

    1. Perhaps the meme can be corrected to “We have met the enemy and he is God.”

      1. But who is god?

        Larry Bush

    2. If Puritans get abortion repealed, you will see that concern a lot more often. There are folks who want to move the capital to Westboro Baptist Church.

  14. […] “We’ve met the enemy and he is us”. He is a minority of us as it turns out. But he is still in power and in control of our government. We need to throw him out. We need to keep the curtain drawn. We need to see him naked without the emperor’s clothing that has been fooling us. […]

  15. I think you lost me at seeing him naked. I propose one more morph of the phrase: “We have met the enemy and he is US President.”

    1. He may be just what the US needs. Trump has shaken us out of our reverie that things will just go along as they have and that both parties are equally bad. If Trump does not motivate America to vote for real change and respectability and demand responsibility in the administration, the US is in real trouble.

      Larry Bush

  16. […] Humor in America, The Morphology of a Humorous Phrase: “We have met the enemy and he is us” […]

  17. […] how best to respond to the notion that they are the enemy of the people recalls the ironic phrase often associated with Walt Kelly’s cartoon possum Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is […]

  18. Perhaps violent, extremist rhetoric is now the mainstream. Let’s hope it’s a phase and rhetoric can go back to being mundane.

    Larry Bush

  19. […] in the Hadza’s case, their own members aren’t orchestrating their destruction. But as the saying goes, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Culture is like muscle: Use it or lose it. The […]

  20. […] Dehumanizing the enemy is a central element of wartime state propaganda. But during Vietnam, the American media was, in an unprecedented and unrepeated way able to show the people back home the effects of American war-making on the people from the other side: one need only recall Eddie Adams’ photograph of the summary execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém or Nic Ut’s photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing a napalm attack. In a similar vein, Phred allowed Garry Trudeau to do something that was perhaps unique in the history of mainstream American newspaper comics: show a person from a nation and a people with whom America was at war as someone who was as complicated a human being as was “we” were. Phred made friends, loved his mom, her rice soup, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, got angry at human suffering, and was, like all of us to one extent or another, motivated by the desire to make a few bucks. To slightly re-purpose the words of Walt Kelley’s Pogo, when we met Phred,  “we met the enemy, and he was us.” […]

    1. Good point. Trudeau has his pen on the pulse of America.

  21. […] wit, in Pogo’s famous phrase – “we have met the enemy and he is […]

    1. We have met the enemy and he is our President?

  22. […] Walt Kelly has one of his main characters, Pogo, say “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” And, generally speaking, that’s true. The divisions between us may be inherent in the human […]

  23. […] unhappiest with the current situation tend to be the most vocal. I have quoted Pogo’s “We have met the enemy, and he is us” in my blogs previously. The real enemy, of course, is our own ignorance. Those who are […]

  24. […] the Okefeenokee possum named Pogo in the cartoon strip of that same name, once made an observation that holds true for the alleged swamp-drainers of the Trump administration: “We have met the […]

    1. Indeed. Many a political cartoonist has made that very point.

  25. […] The irony of attacks like the one in Christchurch, NZ is that they’re reflections of methods and tactics that had been used by Islamist terrorists, e.g. al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, and ISIS/ISIL/IS/Daesh/whatever-the-fuck-you-want-to-call-that-savage-brood (cached). These people have met their enemy … and they are it! […]

    1. I don’t know where you are from, but in the United States people are charged with crimes that they are suspected of committing not crimes someone of their religion may have committed. Your post suggests that all Muslims are inclined to commit acts of terror so they must all be exterminated. That makes as much sense as the government of New Zealand going after every white man in the country and charging each one with the murders at the mosques. Since one white man did it, all white men must be inclined to do it.
      We have met the enemy of peace and he is you.

  26. […] the revelation — arrived at by little Jason — that they’ve “met the enemy, and he is “Us” — is the twist here. They’re mute (save for the mother), grunting, grinning […]

  27. Fred Flintstone | Reply

    THE most famous battle report in history was when Gen. Napier cabled a single word to the War Office: “Peccavit”.

    1. Mr. Flintstone, I doubt “peccavit” is the most famous battle report in history, but I am allowing you this platform to make your case. That said, I don’t even believe Perry’s battle report is the most famous.

  28. I think that your claim of the first time Walt Kelly used the famous quote about seeing the enemy and he is us in 1970 just can’t be accurate. When I was a kid, my brothers and I would go to the movies on Saturdays by bus. Before returning home, we would kill time in the newstand. My oldest brother was an avid reader and would always buy some comics or a science fiction book. I also wanted to buy something, but I was still learning to read, so I looked for a comic book. We already had all the ones on display, so I looked through the low cost paperbacks, about 25 cents back then. I ended up with a compilation on Pogo. The pictures were small, but my eyes were young. About the only thing I could make any sense of was the two looking over a trench and seeing a parade of “soldiers” and the quote that I remember: “I has seen the enemy and he is us.” I didn’t understand the juxtaposition of the picture and the words and asked my brothers to explain it to me. I do clearly remember puzzling over this. It must have been around 1953 plus or minus a year. Google searches end with your posting, but I am sure that I saw it as a young kid, around 2nd or third grade.

    1. I have no way to disavow you of your memory, and may I say that it is apparently better than mine. However, if there is no record of it online, I can’t help you corroborate it. However, in the context of my essay, when he wrote it is less important than what he wrote. As we watch Donald Trump bait his adversaries, including Iran, The European Union, China, and most of Latin America, some of us recognize that we have met the enemy and he is our president.

      1. George Mondie

        The great beauty of Walt Kelly’s humor was that he could do satire without the usual “acid”. He also managed – most of the time – to make us realize that we are all subject to human failing by having his characters unselfconsciously guilty of the same faults they saw in someone else. The “We have seen the enemy….” quote, wherever he used it first, is a prime example of that. Injecting a politically partisan comment in this series of thoughts and recollections is out of place Mr. Bush.

      2. Yeah, it will have to be corroborated the old fashioned way. Thanks for your reply,

  29. Lawrence R. Bush | Reply

    Mr. Mondie, Walt Kelly was among the first comic strip artists to satirize public figures. His breakout commentary was on Joseph McCarthy and the HUAC hearings. Other comic strip artists such as Garry Trudeau credit Kelly with opening the door for them to draw even more overtly partisan cartoons than were seen in “Pogo.” “We have met the enemy and he is us” is absolutely a political statement calling out officials who lacked the courage to help clean up the environment (as Republicans continue to do now). As an analyst of political cartoons, it is incumbent on me to synthesize timeless statements of the past and relate them to the present situation. That you continue to research the quote after over 50 years, and that it is relevant to current events in 2019 are indicators of how timeless the quote is.

    1. George Mondie | Reply

      Mr. Bush:

      I’m afraid I do not see Walt Kelly the same way you do. Please provide me a way to send you some images of his work and I can explain why.

  30. Fascinating perspectives on the great quote which rings true so often…still doesn’t seem to be making an impact though on the folks who just focus on trump, their absolute hate for him and nothing else.

    Both political parties need to learn from Pogo’s quote of “We have met the enemy and he is us”. Instead of wondering and examining truly why trump was elected, too many people “have become their own worst enemies” by continuing to ignore why he was elected and learn from it.

    We become our own worst enemies when we become so emotional that it clouds our objective and critical thinking moving forward.

    The visceral rejection of Mrs. Clinton as a candidate by enough of the population for trump to win, was not a true function of Russian interference as much as it was her poor persona, lack of integrity, lack of smart campaigning and bad messaging…just to cite a few issues.

    Instead of looking at why trump truly garnered people’s votes and learning from it, people let their emotional hate of trump rule the day and cloud the picture by continuing on with the narrative that “we did not lose the election, it was taken from us”. To this day, there have been too many false narratives here that blinds those same people to look inwardly and learn. Calling the people who voted for trump “ignorant, non- college educated morons” doesn’t bring “us” closer together to true objective analysis…blind hate never does and it is getting worse. Having any true discourse today, brings on the risk of the social media sword of Damocles coming down on one’s head…or riots on college campuses to preclude free speech.

    People need to understand that trump’s election was indeed voters pressing “the nuclear option/roll the dice” for many…a wake up call for both republicans and democrats which they continue to ignore and will get him elected again.

    Sadly, when we don’t learn from our mistakes and ignore them, “We have met the enemy and he is us!”.

    1. Well said, Joe. I may be a bit guilty of this myself, but I am searching for answers. I do not vote exclusively Democratic and have voted Republican many times. However, Trump’s refusal to look at evidence that might refute his prejudices is a real problem, and those who support him in his ignorance are a problem as well. When the tide rolled in and was lapping at the Nixon White House during Watergate there were few Republicans willing to support the president. What has happened in the last 50 years to compromise integrity?

  31. Thanks, It is very hard in these days for people not to get emotional and be unbiased analysts Larry. We all need to stand back from the problems and examine their true roots for the good of our society and look more carefully at things the way they really are.

    We just no longer do critical thinking any more. Social media and technology’s anonymity create a toxic environment of mob mentalities that ruin people’s lives and encourage bullying.

    My fellow republicans (and democrats) still have to learn the core principles and issues that Trump put out there that struck people’s concerns in the election… none of which are being discussed in the Democratic debates right now.

    Simply put:

    A press that is biased and disingenuous
    Political correctness that is killing free speech
    National security and terrorism threats
    Illegal immigration and a crisis at the borders
    Government excess and regulations

    This is what resonated and he kept on message.

    Yes, people feel that Trump lacks any sort of grace and takes no prisoners. Many probably consider him a bully like Nixon, but need to learn from this regardless of their hatred. He doesn’t back down and takes the fight right back to people who are not used to this and are used to dealing it out. They are not used to being placed on the defensive and that’s what Trump does .

    Most republicans don’t get Trump’s formula about going right back at the press (or others) and not apologizing. When John Kaisich ran against Trump in the primaries and used the phrase “when women left the kitchen and moved into the workplace“, he was excoriated by the press for being politically incorrect and immediately backed down and profusely apologized. Trump would not have apologized, lectured people on the evils of political correctness and moved on. That appeals to a lot of people right or wrong. We live in a society where everyone is offended by everything and we can’t have a two way conversation any more…or freedom of speech.

    Kaisich is part of the problem that Trump gets and will get him elected again. Marco Rubio did not get it either when he took on Trump, he tried to do trump’s bitterroot stand up style. Rubio failed because Trump had the right messaging and Rubio did not.

    Sometimes people do listen to what you say and Trump has kept it simple. The democrats still have no coherent messaging and policies that currently will appeal to the mainstream electorate in a very good economy. The only thing that may beat Mr. Trump is he himself with tariff policies that will undo the aforementioned economy by creating uncertainty in a new world of trade and fragile supply chains.

    People often think that when I do analysis of trump like this (or the democrats and society in general) that I am an advocate for what is being done or said. I am not, I am just making observations. Most people though have stopped listening.

    There is a great line from an old song that said “most people hear what they wanna hear and disregard the rest”…how true!

    I don’t.

    JD

  32. You’re quoting “The Boxer.” Paul Simon is a personal favorite. Good points, however, Trump’s attacks on the press and minorities may have emboldened some people to commit acts of violence that they probably would not have without the permission of the president. Let’s face it, violence against Muslims and Hispanics has increased since he took office.
    There is evidence that some of the rodent infestation in Baltimore (that he has recently decried) is in apartment buildings that his son-in-law owns. While you say Trump doesn’t back down, I say he doesn’t take responsibility. Who does that appeal to? Apparently, a majority of the electoral college (though obviously not a majority of Americans).
    Opening foreign drug markets to Americans is a step in the right direction. That will get him some votes. I want to hear how Democrats respond to that.
    I would like to see another Republican challenge Trump in the primaries. Now that Americans have seen who he is, would he beat a moderate Republican?

  33. […] [title reference link] […]

  34. […] is just to say that as usual, Pogo was right: We have met the enemy and he is us. Or as someone once told me, if I point my index finger at […]

    1. Although I had not made that connection, I’m glad you “pointed” it out.

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