A review of Patton: A Soldier's Life, by Stanley P. Hirshson

In an age where nuance and sensitivity in language are valued more than resoluteness on the battlefield, it is not an easy thing to praise the career of General George S. Patton. Despite his spectacular victories in North Africa, Sicily, and Europe, he left a depressing paper trail of grotesqueries about blacks, Jews, Asians, Mexicans, women—and almost anyone outside his WASPish class. Most Americans know more about his two slapping incidents in Sicily than his famous sprint to Bastogne during the dark days of the Battle of the Bulge. 

It won't quite do to say that Patton's outbursts (or his occasional vulgar antics) simply reflect a different age—not when other great captains of the time like George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, and Mark Clark sometimes found his rantings, profanity, and juvenile political views repugnant, indeed often bordering on the lunatic. Eisenhower, after all, never slapped a soldier, and Bradley did not pull out pistols to shoot donkeys blocking a bridge, or urinate in full view into the Rhine. No, there was something altogether uncouth about Patton that both his admirers and detractors could agree was exceptional for the times. 

In addition to the problem of Patton as the purported bigot and loudmouth, the biographer must struggle with the mythological warrior Patton whose flashy audacity captured the hearts of a wartime America. Whatever we think of his outsized ego and dirty mouth, millions of Americans quite simply loved (and continue to love) George Patton. There was a reason, after all, why he, and not Omar Bradley (the supposedly beloved "G.I. General"), was the subject of an Academy-award winning film, and why news clips and Time magazine covers of the era splashed Patton's ridiculous image of polished helmet, polished guns, and polished stars everywhere they could. It is the general's star-quality—a certain mystique surrounding what Patton did and stood for—that captures the popular imagination, despite, rather than because of, the often silly things he said. Still, the perplexing question concerns the degree to which such often scary eccentricities enhanced, detracted from, or were irrelevant to his military genius. 

Stanley P. Hirshson's massive new biography is the fourth major account of the general. All the past studies, despite their differing emphases and approaches, are quite good—though not always acknowledged to be so by Hirshson himself, who has surely benefited from their scholarship. The brilliance of Ladislas Farago's Patton: Ordeal and Triumph arose from the author's keen understanding of Patton's dichotomies. For all of Farago's engaging prose and first-rate narrative (presented without footnotes), his biography first established the central paradox at the heart of Patton's strange odyssey from misunderstood and largely ignored general nearing retirement, to national icon, in a mere four years. Though bothered by Patton's excesses, Farago nevertheless communicated the connection between the general's untidy exuberance and the restless energy that powered the Third Army—almost as if the swearing, slapping, and swaggering were the necessary costs of instilling audacity into newly conscripted GIs, asked to take on the seasoned Wehrmacht

Martin Blumenson's multifaceted works (The Patton PapersPatton: the Man Behind the Legend) provided much of the raw data for subsequent biographers. Like Farago, he also did not shy away from Patton's pathologies, but provided more than enough evidence of how and why they were redeemed on the battlefield. Although Carlo D'Este's Patton: a Genius for Warlacked Farago's flair and literary elegance, and did not go beyond Blumenson's scholarly erudition, it was a first-rate biography nonetheless—largely because d'Este, the sober and judicious ex-officer, was not confused about the true nature and value of generalship. In fact, we owe D'Este a great deal for his evenhandedness: although an Omar Bradley or Eisenhower might better appeal to his own sense of decorum, D'Este was too much the scholar not to see that beneath Patton's repugnant crudity there was both talent and, in the end, humanity—and a tactical genius that simply overshadowed Eisenhower's and Bradley's combined. 

Hirshson senses that the field is already crowded, but unwisely starts off with an unbecoming two-page attack on rival Patton biographers, defending the need for his new narrative by calling attention to his tireless work in the archives:

Put simply, I take issue with the way previous biographies of Patton have been researched. Incomplete research has, in my opinion, led to interpretations that are at best dubious….I especially invite a comparison of the footnotes.

Historians do not declare—they earn—their stature, more by the sagacity of their analyses than by the size or polish of their footnotes. What precisely did Hirshson's undeniably prodigious research of some twelve years (presented without a bibliography) uncover that would radically alter our appraisal of Patton and thus justify this new 826-page investigation? With all due deference to the historian's years in the library, not much. 

Triviality abounds. There is new evidence, Hirshson argues, that underscores the importance of the role that his early girlfriend Kate Fowler's family would play throughout his life (her son was an aide to Patton). And as proof of Hirshson's belief that "much that historians have written about Patton is questionable," we are assured, without evidence, that Patton's poor spelling was not attributable to dyslexia, but rather to the influence of his father's eccentric ideas about education. The old idea that Patton believed in reincarnation is now modulated to explain Patton's struggle to control his apprehension about battle. And so on.

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Hirshson claims a few significant findings: General John S. Wood has been unduly overlooked as a key source about Patton's Normandy career—ironic since he, more than Patton, might have been the exemplar of swashbuckling use of armor in Normandy. Even more seminally, Hirshson goes on to explain, Patton's own family and California upbringing were neither racist nor illiberal. Thus the blame for his later indiscretions properly belongs to his wife Bea—and her Ayer industrialist in-laws of Massachusetts: the "family operated woolen mills whose workers lived in tenements" and had a "role in creating the horrible slums of Lawrence." The Ayers, Hirshson has uncovered, had become famously wealthy by manufacturing patent medicines, and held bigoted views of minorities, Jews, and foreigners, befitting their narrow class interests. So there is no escaping nemesis: according to Hirshson, the reactionary politics that harmed General Patton during his proconsulship in Bavaria were due to his wife's family's pernicious influence. 

There are several problems with all this. First, is the matter of degree—the fallacy of magnifying something that may well be true about the man into the Truth about the great general. Take the case of John S. Wood. Hirshson strangely elevates Wood, an old friend whom Patton removed from command in 1944, into a foil to Patton throughout his entire biography, as if a division commander's observations about Patton's strategic lapses in commanding an entire army were, in fact, prophetic, rather than embittered. Yet, if anything, the aggregate of Wood's observations show far more disdain for Eisenhower and Bradley than Patton, who once called Wood "the best Division Commander I know." 

Do we need new gossip about celebrities with whom Patton may or may not have been intimate? Here the prurient Hirshson is bordering on the hypocritical, for he claims to wish to discredit just such past hearsay and speculation. But Hirshson himself contributes far more innuendo than he debunks. For example, he tells us that "Patton supposedly took with him to a banquet Doris Duke, the tobacco heiress often referred to as the richest girl in the world… . After that, according to Tex McCrary, then an air force (sic) public relations officer and later a radio personality, Patton and Doris spent four days together, an intriguing observation considering that Patton and his entourage left on the sixteenth for Paris and London." Of all Patton's rumored liaisons the most likely and lasting may well have been with Jean Gordon, who committed suicide shortly after Patton's death. Yet his daughter Ruth Ellen's letter in defense of her father is merely an implicit, generic denial of all Patton's adulterous affairs—not a specific denial regarding Ms. Gordon, contrary to Hirshson's reading of it. 

Many of Hirshson's conclusions, then, are contradicted by his own data. Patton's bombast supposedly proves that he was anti-Semitic, but a prominent trusted military aide, the intelligence officer Colonel Oscar Koch, was Jewish and beloved by Patton—as was his official biographer Martin Blumenson. Patton was purportedly racist, but more than most other commanders he admired black units ("I don't give a damn who the man is. He can be a nigger or a Jew, but if he has the stuff and does his duty, he can have anything I've got. By God! I love him."); insisted on the presence of some black officers as judges of military tribunals involving black defendants; and spent more time with his African-American aide, Sergeant Meeks, than with almost anyone else while in Europe, developing a relationship of mutual respect that transcended that of a general and his valet. Patton hated the British, but in fact was more appreciative of Montgomery's organizational talents than was either Bradley or Eisenhower. 

But this book's problems run deeper than mere distraction, gossip, or inconsistency; there are also serious errors in judgment. Hirshson claims that Patton "lost control of his army between July 12 and July 14" on Sicily, when American G.I.s killed dozens of prisoners. Hirshson blames Patton directly as the head of an enormous army for the conduct of a sergeant, captain, and lieutenant colonel. He alleges that their barbarism was aroused by Patton's often bloodcurdling rhetoric: "His speeches and orders, meant to inspire soldiers, inspired instead a series of atrocities." And Hirshson goes on to remind us, "The twentieth century might well be labeled the century of bold talk leading to holocausts and ethnic cleansing. The more such tragedies are discussed, perhaps the rarer they will become." 

This is wrongheaded and quite unfair. Throughout the European and Pacific theaters there were numerous instances of American and British troops in the field, under dozens of both sober and fiery commanders, who shot prisoners; most of these soldiers were investigated, many tried, and some convicted. There was never a finding that such inexcusable behavior was due to the incendiary rhetoric of a general, much less to one who never gave such express orders. In any case, Patton's armies had no higher incidence of shooting prisoners than did other American forces in Europe—and far less than in the Pacific. The accused troops in Sicily, facing capital charges, logically may have blamed their outbursts on Patton, but to save their lives they pleaded a variety of other extenuating circumstances as well—from exhaustion to anger from watching the enemy kill American prisoners. The worst offenders during the Sicilian campaign were French native troops, whose violations of the laws of war could not have been attributable to Patton's harangues. Besides, to suggest, even if obliquely, that Patton's emotional harangues led to battlefield atrocities akin to millions butchered in ethnic cleansing and the holocaust is ludicrous and unbecoming a serious historian. 

Concerning Patton's removal from the Third Army in October 1945 and his controversial postbellum governorship of Bavaria, Hirshson may be right that the old Ayer chickens came home to roost. Such family prejudices may have prompted his intemperate remarks and even his concern with order rather than with removing Nazis from postwar reconstruction, which policy led to his ouster. But just as likely the sixty-year old man, who had slept little for a year amid constant battle at the front, was worn out, and, like dozens of generals in the theater between June 1944 and May 1945, long overdue to come home permanently. As we have seen from the recent American experience with the Baathist diehards in the Iraqi Sunni Triangle, governing the defeated is a thankless task. Americans are damned if they do use soldiers and party members from the former regime in order to restore order, and damned if they don't.

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Patton's skills were not those of a diplomat in the politically charged climate at the dawn of the Cold War. But his ravings about the Soviets were prescient rather than unhinged—and, yes, really did lead in part to his dismissal. Even paranoids have enemies, and if an exhausted Patton was wrong to see left-wing Jewish progressives behind his firing, he was surely right that many in the State Department and among the military were too sanguine about the ultimate intent of some 400 Soviet divisions on the border who were as eager to stay in Europe as the Americans were to disarm and go home. In turn, given the naivete of our postwar leadership, our optimistic diplomats had legitimate grounds for worrying that a loose cannon like Patton might ruin what they thought was still a salvageable relationship with Stalin. Sixty years later, however, it is hard to see as all that crazy Patton's claim that World War II had started to save Eastern Europe from autocracy, and had ended by consigning it to autocracy. 

Yet the deepest problem with A Soldier's Life is that it really is not a soldier's life. One could make the argument that on key occasions—the approach to Brest, the closing of the Falaise Gap, the crossing of the Seine River, the August race to the Siegfried Line, the initial desire to go much deeper to the rear of the Bulge, and the decision to stop before Prague—thousands of lives might have been saved had superiors ceded to Patton's judgment. Such controversial and monumental decisions affected an entire theater; yet they warrant only a few pages in Hirshson's account and are overshadowed by stories of Patton's purported liaisons, insensitive language, and blinkered class biases. In lieu of in-depth military analysis, we get a few extended quotations from Chester Wilmot, B.H. Liddell Hart, and S.L.A. Marshall—none of whom is known for consistency, fairness, or sympathy to Patton. 

Hirshson's biography will be a valuable storehouse of information about Patton's career and a guide to the various often little-known Patton archives. But for all the exhaustive detail, it offers almost nothing new or incisive about Patton the soldier, his contribution to the Allied victory, or his place among the great military minds of history. This book lacks the style and verve of Farago, the insight and fairness of Blumenson, and the sobriety of D'Este. Unlike Hirshson, these past biographers realized that their fascinating subject was a great man despite his indiscretions, rather than a small one because of them.