Not that you should know his name. It’s the age we live in, in which technology (video linkups, live images of drone footage, etc.) allows higher-ups to micromanage wars from far away. Hagenbeck’s boss, Gen. Tommy Franks, has essentially telecommuted every morning to Afghanistan from a base on the other side of the globe in Tampa, Fla. (Let’s see somebody make an Academy Award-winning movie out of that one.) Advocates of this kind of long-distance warfare might want to pick up the new biography of Gen. George Patton, by historian Stanley P. Hirshson, General Patton: A Soldier’s Life.
Patton lived by the advice of Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman, who observed in his autobiography, “Some men think that modern armies may be so regulated that a general can sit in an office and play on his several columns as on the keys of a piano. This is a fearful mistake.” And one that Patton rarely made. “He was usually found up at the front,” wrote The New York Times during World War II, “fanning himself with his helmet shell and swapping yarns with GIs. At the end of one hot, dusty day in France his face was covered with black French dust and his eyelids looked like the pollen-covered legs of a honey bee.”
In the preface of his book, Hirshson, who’s also written biographies of Mormon pioneer Brigham Young and Gen. Sherman, “takes issue” with previous works on Patton, which, he says, are filled with “incomplete research” that has led to “dubious interpretations.” That seems pretty self-important and unsportsmanlike. Except that Hirshson is right. His book is stuffed with uncovered letters, transcripts, and recollections. They combine to give readers a remarkable insider’s view of the action.
Patton was born in 1885, into what was essentially Californian aristocracy (yes, there was such a thing). He wasn’t a great student, but he was a hard worker. That, plus his family connections, got him into West Point. After graduating, he finished fifth in the 1912 Olympic pentathlon and had a stint under Gen. Pershing, fruitlessly pursuing the revolutionary Pancho Villa who had raided Columbus, N. M., through the Mexican north. After a few years as an officer, Patton was shipped to Europe to fight in World War I. There, he became fascinated by the potential of the new monsters roaming the battlefield–tanks–and was assigned to figure out how the things should be used.
As Patton rose through the ranks at the usual peacetime crawl, he used his experience of the bloody World War I stalemates to develop what became his signature tactic. The general put it in his characteristically succinct color: “Grab ’em by the nuts and kick ’em in the pants.” That is, Patton thought it was absurd to attack an enemy straight on. Rather, generals should take advantage of tanks and trucks to drive around the enemy and eventually encircle him, while often keeping them busy with a small frontal attack.
Patton used this plan time and again. That, combined with other attributes such as his relentless drive, eventually made him into arguably the best tactician in World War II. After the D-Day Allied invasion of France, Patton’s Third Army drove across Europe farther and faster than just about any other force in history.
Patton also had many faults. He was a publicity hound, a big mouth, a bigot, and remarkably anti-democratic. In the 1920s, he wrote to his wife that he hoped there would be a big war. That way, he said, he could become a top general and eventually “become President or dictator by ballot or force.”
Thinking like that often got Patton into trouble. Much of it has been recounted before, in the movie Patton and elsewhere. In one well-known incident, Patton was visiting a field hospital when he came across a soldier who didn’t appear to be wounded. When Patton asked what was wrong with him, the soldier responded, “It’s my nerves.” Patton blew up: “You cowardly bastard! You’re going right back to the front. Although that’s too good for you. You ought to be lined up against a wall and shot. Although that’s too good for you, too. I ought to shoot you myself, goddamn you!”
Patton then pulled out his (ivory-handled) gun, repeatedly slapped the soldier, and ordered doctors to get the GI out of the hospital. Hirshson adds that as Patton left, he shouted, “There’s no such thing as shell shock! It’s an invention of the Jews!” The slapping eventually made it into the press and caused such an outrage that
More importantly, Hirshson has uncovered little-examined evidence that Patton’s army committed various massacres during the invasion of Sicily in 1943, including the shooting of prisoners of war, as well as civilians who were looting soap from a local factory. Patton didn’t issue the orders, but he did give invective-filled speeches before the battle urging his troops to, as one officer remembered, “kill and to continue to kill.” Another officer recalled that Patton “said something about if enemy civilians remained in the area of a battle, we were to ruthlessly kill them and get them out of the way.”
Patton also had a penchant for wasting the lives of his own troops. Gen. Omar Bradley, a longtime friend, observed that Patton was a “megalomaniac” who once needlessly sacrificed some of his soldiers in order to beat the British general Bernard Law Montgomery to an objective and win a bet between the two of them.
Hirshson’s book has its faults, mostly little stuff, but they add up. He repeatedly mentions various players without reminding readers who they are. World War II was a big war, with thousands of characters, and I found myself lost amid a sea of brigadier generals, lieutenant colonels, colonels, majors, etc. Hirshson also has the same problem with army units and locations. It’s hard to keep track of it all. This could have been helped by a more generous use of well-marked maps, of which the book offers only a handful. He also tends to plod through the history, giving equal play to events small and large.
Those are quibbles. Patton is a valuable read, especially for those interested in how the military is changing these days. After all, the Army is in the midst of a huge makeover, trying to morph from a heavy anti-Soviet force into some-thing that’s more nimble. Such a fundamental transformation has happened only a few times before, most notably when the Army slowly, and stubbornly, mechanized. One of the generals at the center of that change? George Patton.