Patton: Old Blood and Guts
The warrior soul
By John W. Nelson
In The Soul of Battle (1999), one of Victor Davis Hanson's many trenchant meditations on the Western way of war, George S. Patton shares center stage with William Tecumseh Sherman and the fourth-century Theban Epaminondas. Believing as he did that he was reincarnated from the warriors of old, Patton would undoubtedly have approved of this scholarly affiliation, no less since Hanson casts him among equals: generals as daring as they were inspirational, leaders of "epic marches for freedom," and – as the subtitle of his book proclaims – liberators who vanquished the tyrannies of their day. Remarkable not only for their military prowess, all three men were further distinguished by their erudition and sense of history. As a mere teenager, Patton had praised Epaminondas as "one of the greatest Greeks who ever lived, without ambition, with great genius, great goodness, and great patriotism." Without too much qualification, it's a description that could apply to Patton himself.
Trevor Royle, one of Patton's latest biographers, joins Hanson in holding the Third Army's most famous commander in such high regard. Lest anyone accuse him of hagiography – a particularly egregious sin among ponderous intellectuals and academics for whom men like Patton remain embarrassing anachronisms rather than guardians of freedom –, Royle establishes from the outset that "Old Blood and Guts" has always had his fair share of detractors owing primarily (and justly) to what Eisenhower once referred to as "unfortunate personal traits." Brash, profane, and quick to anger, Patton all too often found himself the object of attention for his mercurial temper than for his military exploits.
To many of his colleagues, Royle relates, Patton frequently came across as a "vainglorious bully and an extrovert showman." Even close friends were not exempt from humiliation. Carlo D'Este's definitive 1995 biography, Patton: A Genius for War (from which Royle draws heavily), recounts an incident in Tunisia when Patton paid a visit to the 1st Division to see Roosevelt and his long-time friend Terry Allen. Notorious for his contempt for defensive maneuvers and fixed positions, Patton was dismayed to discover that slit trenches had been dug around Allen's command post. Allen explained to his indignant friend that they were there to provide shelter from aircraft attacks. Patton responded by asking which one was his. When Allen pointed it out, Patton promptly strode over and pissed in it. From a distance of sixty years, one could be excused for finding this evidence of an outrageously acerbic wit (a concession I'm predisposed to make since I laughed myself when I first heard the story), but D'Este assures us that both Roosevelt's and Allen's bodyguard would have shot Patton on the spot had the order been given.
The event for which Patton is most well known ended up endangering his career rather than his life. While visiting wounded soldiers at U.S. field hospitals in Sicily – a regular practice that often moved him to tears –, Patton became enraged on two separate occasions at the sight of a soldier with no apparent injuries. Told that the men were suffering from combat fatigue, he slapped both soldiers with his gloves, threatened to pistol-whip the second one, and told the senior medical officer and all present: "I won't have those cowardly bastards hanging around our hospitals. We'll probably have to shoot them some time anyway, or we'll raise a breed of morons."
The verbal abuse was not out of character for Patton. Striking a soldier was. It was also a court-martial offense, and Eisenhower would have had every right to dismiss him immediately. Luckily for Patton, Ike knew that his skills would be needed in the offensives to come and demanded only that he issue a formal apology to the soldiers. It was not a difficult punishment. Patton had voluntarily apologized to other soldiers in the past for no more than swearing at them, and in this case he was fully aware that he had acted like "a damned fool." He still believed that both privates had been shirking their duty and just needed something to put some fight back into them; it was merely his corrective that was ill chosen. "The problem with Patton," as Royle delicately sums it up, "was that he did not always recognize the fine line which divides the disciplinarian from the bully."
To listen to Patton's critics, the man whom the German generals feared above all others was nothing more than a bombastic and reckless braggart interested only in his own self-aggrandizement. But even the coarsest of men are rarely so one-dimensional, and the real Patton was far more complicated than that as Royle does a good job of revealing. (It's worth noting here that most critiques of Patton center around his unpredictable personality since his constancy on the battlefield speaks for itself. Andy Rooney is seldom more entertaining than when he's elevating Omar Bradley's military acumen and accomplishments over Patton's. One could appeal to the facts, but the best rejoinder belongs to Hanson: No one ever says, "I rolled with Bradley.")
In a testament to both the complexity of his character and the merits of his service, the field of Patton biography has grown crowded over the years. In addition to the work of Carlo D'Este, Martin Blumenson's Patton: The Man Behind the Legend (1985) and Stanley P. Hirshson's General Patton: A Soldier's Life (2002) have, with varying degrees of sympathy, given us detailed and up-to-date portraits of Patton. The question naturally arises: What does a new biography have to offer?
Royle's study does not seek to eclipse the exhaustively researched biographies that have come before it. A modest volume of just over 200 pages (including maps and photos), it succeeds at what it sets out to do: provide a lucid and concise overview of the life and career of the most eccentric and most revered of Allied commanders. Part of the Great Commanders series, Royle's Patton serves as an excellent entry point into its subject. Thoughtful and well-written, it chronicles Patton's life from his school days at VMI and West Point to his slow and painful death due to injuries received in a car accident in Germany in December of 1945 the very day before he was to return to the States (a far cry from his romantic wish to catch the last bullet of the war.) As Major-General Julian Thompson notes in the Foreword, Royle also does his part to rectify the persistent misinformation surrounding Patton's standing among his contemporaries by exposing the "lacklustre Bradley" and exploding "the myth of Montgomery's jealousy of Patton, so dear to American hearts to the present day."
As one would expect in a work of this nature, Royle maintains a steady balance between the public and the private. The persona of Old Blood and Guts, the indefatigable general who lived for battle and fought alongside the men under his command, is presented against judiciously chosen excerpts from letters and journals in order to convey the "mass of contradictions" that was also Patton; the same swaggering vulgarian who challenged enemy fire and triumphantly urinated in the Rhine was the man who wrote poetry, studied the Bible, and wrestled with frequent bouts of fear and self-doubt. Today's therapeutic society would have other terms for him (and he for it), but Patton was, in the words of George C. Scott, "an individual in the deepest sense of the word." (It was this individualism which Scott admired most and brought to life in the performance that earned him an Oscar in 1970 for Best Actor – an award which he declined out of respect for the man he portrayed so well.)
Mythic figures like Patton never capture our imagination more than during times of war, particularly when contemporary sensibilities render them in such stark contrast. Can there be any doubt what Patton would have thought of the emphasis on winning hearts and minds instead of just winning? Of talk about pausing a bombing campaign during an enemy's religious holidays? Or of our recent agonizing over the permissible extent of physical coercion and the peculiar wish to codify it for our adversaries to see? If those questions require an answer, one need look no further than the following diary entry written at the close of the war in Africa:
However Patton may have liked to present himself, he was anything but simple. Those who wish to venture behind the "war mask" and see for themselves will find Royle's work to be a worthy guide.
John W. Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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