Before the Colors Fade: Portrait of a Soldier
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 train carrying Patton’s body was met at a dozen cities along the route through the occupation zones by crowds of both French and Germans. They stood bareheaded on a bitter cold cloud-covered December day while their spokesmen laid huge sheaves of out-of-season flowers in the baggage car containing the casket of the man who genuinely, I think, could not understand the difference between a Nazi and “a Republican or Democrat back home,” but did order the Mayor, City Council, and leading citizens of Ohrdruf, Germany, to visit their nearby concentration camp at gunpoint to witness what they had permitted. “He reported, with a certain grim pleasure…that the Mayor and his wife, upon returning home, had committed suicide.”
One of the better things about Patton, as retailed by his admiring nephew and which I hope is true, is that he loathed any kind of high-echelon cautiousness which might result in “undue” casualties. (What are undue casualties?) “General Blank has twice failed to take hill so-and-so. I believe that he is a coward. Therefore, I have ordered him to ride in the lead attack vehicle tomorrow. This will make him either a corpse or a man.” A bit stentorian perhaps, but a far cry from the little red button. His preference for saying directly and publicly what lay uneasily on the minds of his colleagues, and for risking heavy casualties over a relatively brief time in battle, were not calculated to win favor with either home-front liberals or no-fight generals.
The incident for which I remember Patton best, and for which he became world-famous, occured at a field hospital in Sicily. He hated visiting hospitals. (I trust this is not public relations.) He saw a G.I., apparently unwounded, but sobbing, sitting on a packing case. When it transpired that the soldier was “merely” suffering from nerves, Patton slapped the man across the face with his glove and ordered him back to his unit. The resultant chorus of horrified disapproval almost swamped Patton out of his command and nearly lost us prematurely one of our few competent generals. During the Battle for Germany he led the armored dash across the Rhine and had himself photographed urinating in it. He was among those who correctly foresaw—if we are to believe the author, and I do on this point—Rundsted’s final-gasp rupture of our lines in the Ardennes, and he appears to have undergone, as a matter of policy, considerable combat risks. Even as a young man, he religiously applied himself to his “war face” in front of a mirror, and if he thought the word would spread he indulged himself flagrantly in front-line incidents of noblesse oblige towards enlisted men. He was not above taking credit for other men’s ideas and inventions (e.g., the hedgerow V-plow for tanks). He was, inevitably, anti-Russian, anti-liberal, and something like an utter disaster as military governor of a denazifying Bavaria.
Not the least of Patton’s endearing features was his incorrigible contempt for Field Marshal, then General, Montgomery, whom he saw as perennially constipated by a rigid penchant for amassing exaggerated pre-battle superiority and then “attacking like a savage rabbit.” Psychoanalysis, of the kind which apparently Dr. Rogow recently did on Forrestal, brings only limited results with a man of Patton’s stripe. He was a useful, potentially disinterested and dangerous man, a shrewd ham actor (which is what troops like), a patrician buzzard. He has to be judged and understood in a different way, though not necessarily by different standards. Like Thomas J. Watson, Sinclair Lewis, Jimmy Walker, Joe Cannon, J. Howard Scripps, and others of their era, he was a remarkable man who was just beginning to understand the source of himself and could only articulate it in clumsy terms which did him less than justice. Patton bent his lights to killing. But then I can think of no general, good or bad, who hasn’t.
Ayer, the FBI man, sometimes gets near something, the something Patton was intermittently “on” to, but hasn’t the guts and perspicacity—and in this is like his illustrious uncle—to know what it is and handle it with tenderness, and so lets it slip away in Reader’s Digest yarns and a loyal case for the defense. Too bad.