The Man Who Would Be Hero

THE PATTON PAPERS, 1885-1940 by Martin BlumensonHoughton Mifflin, $15.00
For many it is difficult to acknowledge authentic military genius—and there is such a thing—without a patronizing smile. The very existence of brilliant generals seems an unacceptable reminder of our failures to stop hating and fighting one another. The political systems and ambitions of nations in which men esteemed the profession of arms their highest calling are now largely despised or discredited. Moreover, we have been fighting a war for seven years which has disclosed no apparent prodigies of generalship on our side except perhaps the dour pertinacity, reminiscent of U.S. Grant’s, of the current commander in Vietnam. Yet forgetting almost everything about the nature of our present war, men continue to reassure themselves that a really first-class soldier (say, Moshe Dayan), a man of vision and flair, might have cleaned things up in a hurry.
It is not likely. But for a country conditioned by its experience in World War II to expect inspired generalship and innovative tactical and strategic thinking in its army, such an idea is not so unreasonable. For this country produced in the early 1940s a galaxy of gifted and brilliantly successful generals. They “went forward and gave us victory,” they did it with palpable speed, and their cause was just.
Among them four stood out. And of these four there are two whom most of us can admire without reservation, because we see in them what we hope are our own virtues and convictions magnified and triumphant.
There is, first, Eisenhower, at whom many of the academic cognoscenti now sneer. He seems, like Emerson’s Lincoln, a quite native, aboriginal man: a soldier in whom decency and compassion were lodged alongside enormous managerial talents and great personal charm. No hangups, no poses, just Ike: a great general who had no trouble telling Walter Cronkite that when he thought later of the Normandy invasion he thought of his son, John, who was at West Point and was spared the horror, who had blessed him with grandchildren, “whom Mrs. Eisenhower and I love very much.” He was a great and simple man.
The second is George Marshall, whom Eisenhower rated (with Churchill) as one of the two greatest men of the age, a soldier who would become a Nobel Peace laureate, “whose very goodness seemed to put ambition out of countenance,” who, Truman believed, more than anyone else “gave us victory.” Marshall was a remote figure. He was a man utterly without pretension. His reputation for integrity was so great that he could argue for large military appropriations and preparedness before we entered the war and still convince people that he truly wanted peace. Not many soldiers can do that.
The sociologist Morris Janowitz once called the history of the modern military establishment a “struggle between heroic leaders, who embody traditionalism and glory, and military ‘managers’ who are concerned with the scientific and rational conduct of war.” The former are “perpetuations of the warrior type, the mounted officer who embodies the martial spirit and the theme of personal valor,”while the managers are “professionals with effective links to civilian society.” It is easy to place Marshall and Eisenhower in the “managerial” category. The other two, MacArthur and Patton, are clearly “heroic leaders.” If the managers are generally regarded as “safe” soldiers, direct projections of the civilian mores they represent and defend, the heroic leaders are men who seem to enjoy their business, revel in its challenges, and accept, unblushing, credit for their armies’ military successes.
MacArthur was a military genius, certainly: the most gifted uniformed strategist the country has produced since Sherman and Grant. He was also frightening: a man without selfdoubt, distant and Prussian in bearing, magisterial and compelling in utterance. He had no common touch, knew it, and did not care. As his Memoirs clearly show, he was totally an egotist. Like George Patton he inspired either absolute loyalty or complete repugnance.
But of the four the last was the most complex and surely the least understood. The superb film, a work of high kitsch, addressed but two years of Patton’s life; it had to leave unanswered the intriguing question of how its subject became what the public knew in 1945: a swaggering, bombastic, profane, but above all successful tactician and leader of soldiers. The half-dozen earlier biographies, excluding the excellent, impressionistic memoir Before the Colors Fade, by Patton’s nephew Frederick Ayer, have passed over his early years quickly, relying on what have become clichés: the self-absorbed child having the Iliad read to him, the adolescent on long solitary rides in the desert, the cadet who hated algebra and could cold-bloodedly and without apparent remorse report another caught in flagrante delicto.
Now the detailed record of those years is available for anyone who wants to read through it. Martin Blumenson’s The Patton Papers (18851940), is mainly a collection of previously unpublished journals, notebooks, memos, personal letters, medical and efficiency reports, and professional writings from Patton’s life down to the end of the interwar years.
Blumenson’s is a superb job of editing: calm and informative connecting passages, tight summaries of Patton’s often turgid writings, intelligent hypotheses about what made “Georgie” run. Patton is made to tell his own story, and anyone who reads it should be warned at the outset that he’d better read it through. Much of the collected writing will serve only to reinforce the familiar public image. But some of it tells a very different story of Patton’s character and development. It makes plain the fact that Patton, even in his diaries or in his letters to his wife, was trying desperately to fill a role he had selected for himself as an adolescent, was trying by one attempt at self-conviction after another to make himself fit that role.
Essentially, it was a simple one. It demanded above all that he stand out among his contemporaries, and that a reputation for physical courage and an unassailable devotion to the military profession be the vehicle for gaining distinction. Patton’s social connections and family money were only of marginal use in developing such a reputation. They could help put him in a position where such qualities would stand out; they could also expose him to criticism and censure if these qualities were absent.
Winning was what counted: “You have done your damdest and failed now you must do your damdest and win. Remember this is what you live for. Oh you must! You have got to do some thing! Never stop until you have gained the top or a grave.” Repeated academic setbacks in early life only served to reinforce a natural calling for soldiering; for, Patton recognized, success in the profession of arms came as a result of developing talents which no academic test could measure: it was the result of courage and perseverance, physical stamina, the unswerving commitment to a role, and a deep and comprehensive knowledge of the theory, history, and practice of war.
By the time he reached West Point he appears almost to have succeeded in convincing himself that war “is really a very beautiful intellectual contest: the butcher’s bill part so to speak is to war what the physical exertion of using a hammer is to the sculptor; besides just think that in all the thousands of years during which man has been killing there are just seven men who ever have risen above vulgar murder . . . who have raised themselves to a place far above the heads of any other men that have ever lived.” (Patton was thinking of Napoleon’s Seven Great Captains, whose transcendent ambitions and vision seemed to him to have legitimized their killing.) By 1926, when Patton was forty-one, the man and the role were getting closer to identification: “the history of war is the history of warriors: few in number, mighty in influence. Alexander, not Macedonia conquered the world. . . . Cromwell, not the roundheads dethroned Charles. . . . Truly in war: ‘Men are nothing, a man is everything’ . . . the leader must he an actor ... he is unconvincing unless he lives his part . . . the fixed determination to acquire the warrior soul and having acquired it to conquer or perish with honor is the secret of victory.”(Provision was prudently made in advance for the biographer and the critic quailing at such thoughts: “. . . the historian ... is by nature a man of thoughtful and studious habits utterly incapable of appreciating the roaring energy of a soldier.”)
These were the private reflections of the man for whom soldiers (who are nothing) would happily forgo the pleasures of shoveling shit in Louisiana: Willie and Joe could follow a man who had acquired the warrior soul.
Or were they serious thoughts? Might they not be the half-formed impulses which it was easier to acknowledge than to analyze and reflect upon? Might they not be part of an unceasing litany sung in solitude and prompted by the desperate hope that if they were repeated enough they would be fully believed? The tone, it seems to me, is too strident, the sentiments repeated too often. And there is much in Patton’s later career that contradicts them. The famous slapping incidents in Sicily have made it easy to forget the general’s enormous devotion to his soldiers. He spent much more time crying over their wounds and their deaths, seeing to their comforts, than he did screaming at them. His admiration for the ordinary “doughboy” was boundless, his loyalty to his subordinates almost legendary. Before his experience of the battlefield, he might screw himself up into believing that the sweat of the sculptor was a comfortable analogy to the hideous suffering of maimed and dying men. In the 1920s he might write that “men are nothing.” But in the combat theater he was more than a bold and attractive general: he was, as Eisenhower’s aide Harry Butcher called him, “chickenhearted,” by which was meant, of course, that he was a sentimental old bastard.
Yet he was known mainly for other things: for his preoccupation with the outward signs of good discipline: dress and appearance, spit and polish. To most of his soldiers this was a forgivable and amusing idiosyncrasy: the old man was simply a character who had a hangup about shined brass. He was known for saying publicly whatever the hell he felt like saying—often an admirable rather than despicable practice in subordinate commanders: the enemy, after all, knows that the obiter dicta of field army commanders do not prescribe national or theater policy. He was known to be wellborn and rich, a polo player and a yachtsman; it was therefore inferred that war must seem a great game to him, and that he was cavalier about its destruction and suffering. It was, and is, a foolish inference. And if it took an assured social position and independent means to undergird public honesty, it is perhaps too bad that more of his “class” (as Patton always referred to his social world) were not generals and political leaders during the war years.
In the thirties Patton’s ebullient but generally sunny public temperament began to change. He became subject to towering rages and ungovernable depressions. Mr. Blumenson hypothesizes that this may have been the result of an ailment called subdural hematoma, stimulated by what Patton grimly called his “annual injuries.” The disease is characterized by the formation of a thin layer of blood between the skull and the covering of the brain, which by osmotic pressure draws fluids to it. The result is severe pressure on the brain, leading to irascibility and in Patton’s case heightened aggressiveness. Unpleasant though this condition may have been, it might even be said to have come at a fortuitous time. Patton rarely let it get the better of him. And plain aggressiveness combined with a healthy streak of sentimentalism and brilliant tactical gifts would be no disqualification for command of field armies in World War II.
Presumably another volume of the personal papers will be published in the next few years. Meantime, The Patton Papers, 1885-1940, will answer many questions and stimulate new arguments. They should also make it plain that many of the qualities men admire in Eisenhower, in the civilianized “managerial” generals, were part of Patton’s character too. He had his doubts about himself, an abiding love for his country and the soldiers it entrusted to his charge, and an engaging sense of the absurd. As he wrote in his diary, he was from an early age well aware that great distinction “like all things which one wants . . . usually becomes dust on the getting.”