Before the Colors Fade: Portrait of a Soldier
by Fred Ayer Jr.
Houghton Mifflin, 266 pp., $6.00
Fred Ayer Jr., the god-son and nephew of General George S. “Blood and Guts” Patton the notorious, foul-mouthed, and effective commander of World War II’s Third Army, has put together a “portrait,” really a rambling series of anecdotal sketches, about his uncle. Uncle George turns out to have been, even on this one-sided inspection, a more circumspect and interesting figure than popular memory credits him.
G. S. Patton Jr. was born not a condottiere, as his public manner suggested, but a basic cavalryman in the image of the Virginia ancestors he revered, a raider at heart, a general by early vocation, a potential hysteric. It is inconceivable that he could have become anything but a leader of an armed host of men. All through his life he claimed to powers (it ran in his family) of prophecy, second sight, and déja vu. He knew he had been to France as a Roman legionnaire. He knew he had been a Crusading knight.
To those who recall only the incredible press gaffs, the ivory (not pearl) handled revolvers and the “slapping incident,” it should also be remembered—and Mr. Ayer is justified in completing the record—that Patton was the U. S. Army’s Master of the Sword (despite an unathletic build), a murderous polo player, and represented this country in five events during the 1912 Military Olympics in Stockholm. Later he was Pershing’s eager-beaver aide in the punitive expedition against Villa, and during the First War was the first U.S. Commander of Armor, suffering a serious wound in the Argonne. A gentleman-martinet of the old school, who believed his Bible and harbored a theatrical instinct for stern courtesies, he seriously and studiously loved war. He was lucky enough to marry a woman who understood him and who once, in the Sulgrave Club in Washington, leaped on a Reserve Colonel who had impugned her husband’s mettle and had to be pulled off as she was pounding the unfortunate man’s head on the oaken floor. His talent for inspiring the fanatic loyalty of those who sided with him probably had something to do with the fact that he was a clearly and frankly frightened man who overrode, and was seen to override, the counsel of his myriad fears.
George Patton was a man devoted to his lights, a militant in the faith of battle. It is not an ignoble faith, even if, early on in his career, he got hipped on killing and a ferocious, careless illiberalism. This is not so common among generals as is supposed. True, he might have become the military leader of an American fascism, but I doubt it. He had absolutely no head for civilian politics (less than Hindenburg, Smedley Butler, or Pétain; and was too much the Virginia aesthete, the latter-day Teddy Roosevelt, ever to stomach a home-grown Mussolini, the Birchers, or even a colorless opportunist like Goldwater. This may, however, be wishful thinking. After his accidental death in Europe, the funeral …