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The Ordeal of George Patton

Patton: Ordeal and Triumph

by Ladislas Farago
Obolensky, 832 pp., $9.95

Ladislas Farago, a journalist of indefatigable style, has made the first attempt at a definitive biography of General George S. Patton, Jr., who was an extraordinary man. Mr. Farago confesses, “where professional historians…feared to tread, I am walking rather boldly.” He has transcended his humility with this labor of twelve years. Its bibliography of both Patton’s own writings and to now untapped primary sources is eclectic and impressive. The “source supreme” is an official of the New York City school system who, as if to prepare for the nervewracking job he holds, served in World War II as Patton’s confidential secretary. The variety of informants to this biography (parents of the martyred GIs of the “Slapping Incidents,” the Virginia foxhunting set of Major Patton’s social tour at Fort Myer, Allen Dulles, Waffen SS officers, Elsenhower’s G-2 chief, Von Rundstedt’s Chief of Staff, Rommel through his papers) is overwhelming.

Mr. Farago adopts a rude novelistic form for this tale, which starts in November, 1942 as Patton invades Morocco. The narrative lunges back to the Scottish origins and soldier forebears of Georgie Patton, his choosing of a military career and a Boston bride. Mr. Frederick Ayer, the Yankee patriarch and affluent manufacturer of textiles, asked by his new son-in-law for advice on the armored cavalary, replied, “choose the weapon with which you…can inflict the most punishment on the enemy while at the same time suffering the fewest casualties yourself.” In matters professional and social, Patton frequently deferred to the Ayers. The narrative lurches forward again, through the First World War and the fallow peace that followed (Patton’s career was so mediocre that he would probably have retired from the Army, had it not been for Pearl Harbor) and picks up the General in Morocco as he is committing the first of his ineffable gaffes. (Already the reactionary bent of the patrician cavalryman and a wild ineptitude for politics had him favoring the Pétainist, gang of General Noguès over the Free French officers whom Noguès had jailed for their “traitorous” support of the Americans. Patton was accepting and passing on to Eisenhowere Noguès’s Naziesque palaver about the subversive potential of Morocco’s Jews, a people of “the lowest order.”) Then through Sicily, England, Brittany, the Ardennes, and Saar; through the unconscionable back-stabbings, boggingsdown, fuckings-up which Patton endured, this redoubtable volume heaves to its end in Bavaria, shaking and crepitating like a Patton tank.

There was more ordeal than triumph in the life of Old Blood and Guts. (Like Beatnik or Existentialist, the name was fabricated by the press. He sometimes resented it, though never strenuously.) As if to atone for an evident and often juvenile admiration of the General, Mr. Farago is unsparing of the ugly details of Patton’s career and the reprehensible streaks in his tormented nature. He admits Patton was not “a truly great man.” He wisely eschews any Freudian treatment of a hyperneurotic and presents us instead with a warrior of the ancient mode, a feudal personality with a quantity of failings.

This book abounds in contentions, of which the most striking is that the war against Hitler could have ended in September, 1944. After the German collapse in France that August, if Eisenhower had only supported Patton’s southern, right-flank drive to the Rhine, instead of backing the other egomaniacal commander, Montgomery, then Germany would have surrendered within weeks. The Third Army alone would have been spared 110,000 casualties and 17,000 lives. At least Patton believed so, with passionate intensity; he never quite for gave Ike for thwarting him. Mr. Farago is loyal to this Napoleonic thesis which he pursues for about three hundred pages, leaving his flanks wide open to attack from Army historians, some of whom are anonymously accused of doctoring the evidence. This has drawn a sharp retort in a review by S.L.A. Marshall, who for his part finds Mr. Farago’s account filled with inaccuracies.

An informal way with history may perhaps recommend Mr. Farago, as it does Herodotus, to the general reader who is sooner moved by impressionism than by niggling detail. So it is a shame this book is so flawed in its writing. When Mr. Farago’s prose starts to roll, a single solecism reduces its tone to that of the Daily News: “…shortly after lunch on August 8th, at 12th. Army Group Headquarters, at Bradley’s swank château near Countances.” It is a shame these pages of improbable dialogue, ponderous stag humor, and fustian rhetoric derive from the literary romances of the Civil War school rather than the realism of, say The Thin Red Line. What reader of contemporary fiction will accept any battlefield general, far less a Patton, who discourses in euphemisms so genteel as “butt-kisser” or “limey sonuvabitch”? Mr. Farago’s failings are in large measure redeemed, however, by his vast acquaintance with the mind and mores of the professional military caste, whose exquisite sensibilities and propensity for chicanery, brown-nosing, casuistry, Schadenfreude, and narcissitic vendetta bear comparison to the literati of New York City.

Back in the halcyon days of PM, George Patton was a name any mother could frighten her polite liberal children with. While German civilians were learning to fear him for a barbaric invader, a sort of Attila who followed after the napalm bombs and never took prisoners, back on the home front the other legend, heavy with implications of anti-semitism and worse, of the hysterical reactionary who struck the soldiers in Sicily was taking hold in our Kitsch liberal culture: The figure of a swaggering bigmouth, a Fascist-minded aristocrat who toted pearl-handled revolvers. One welcomes this chance, refreshingly free of Liberal cant, to examine the nature of this formidably talented survivor from the American romance that died sometime between San Juan Hill and Teapot Dome.

Patton was of the last of our generals to call the Germans “The Hun.” His horizons were limited; he was born for war, as he freely confessed. To die in war, there was the immolation he was never to have—to be one with the pre-1918 dead of Rupert Brooke, “Those swimmers into cleanness leaping,” so pure, so evangelically remote from the mud and rotting corpses that haunted Robert Graves and other poets who came through that war of the trenches and made a generation of pacifists. In the Meuse-Argonne offensive, imagining that his Confederate kinsmen were watching him “from a cloud,” Patton led an unauthorized and futile charge that killed three volunteer doughboys and got him his first shrapnel wound. When a Distinguished Service Cross was not forthcoming for this action, Patton brown-nosed and politicked until Pershing gave him the “goddam” medal, for which Patton wrote himself a flattering citation.

Decorations always mattered. In 1944, when he went to “be seen by the men,” an aide would bring along a “bunch of bronze Stars.” The first of the slapping incidents occurred during the hard fighting for Troina, when Patton dropped in on an evacuation hospital with “a load of 40 Purple Hearts.” Himself fairly deranged with anxiety, he would bolster his courage from the sight of the wounded; they seemed to inspire him. The notion of combat neurosis was as maddening as the sight of “boys crying in the armies.” (It is as well the General did not live to read the verse of Allen Ginsberg.) Pvt. Charles Herman Kuhl of Mishawka, Indiana, who said “I guess I can’t take it,” got slapped with the General’s gloves kicked in the ass, and obscenely chewed out before the assembled patients, doctors, and nurses. The General had it in mind to notify all companies of the disappointing First Division that such men henceforth be tried for cowardice and shot. A week later at another hospital, a similar flash of madness occurred. Drew Pearson broke the story, and Ike took Patton’s victorious Seventh Army away.

After that his former subordinate, Omar Bradley, years junior to Patton in age and time of service, was to be his commanding officer. The story of this relationship is sometimes poignant as an Andy Hardy film, with Patton an abashed Mickey Rooney doing penance before Bradley as a dour, kindly Lewis Stone. And Eisenhower—he had been Patton’s junior too. Describing Patton after Eisenhower had given him a vicious chewing out, John Gunther wrote he looked like “a Roman emperor carved out of softish stone.” In one of his pathetic acts of contrition. Patton wrote Ike (“a man…for whom I would gladly lay down my life”) about a dear friend of his who similarly lost his nerve in the First War, and after years of anguish committed suicide. This man had confessed to Patton that he would have been all right, had he been “roundly checked” at the time of his misbehavior. “Naturally, this memory actuated me when I ineptly tried to apply the remedies suggested. After each incident…I felt I had probably saved an immortal soul.”

There is no doubting his sincerity, and no doubt that compared to the dreary run of us, General Patton was quite mad. A soul may be possessed of the primordial God:

He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains and the shouting.

Once in his fantastic romp through Brittany Patton stood on a hill and thrust his arms over the devastated farmland. In his thin, high-pitched voice, he shouted above the salvoing tanks and howitzers, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance. God, how I love it!” In such a moment a man passes beyond the judgments of politics or morality.

As the war ended, he grew depressed. With no more Germans to kill, he had wistful dreams of killing Japs, but knew the Pacific was unlikely for him “unless something happens to Doug.” He wrote Mrs. Patton, “Peace is going to be hell on me.” A triumphal tour of the States with pistols and helmet-liner only increased the morbid feeling. He addressed audiences with watered-down versions of the speeches he gave his troops. Dwight Macdonald, a battling pacifist, was dismayed by their tenor which lacked the uplift of Trotsky’s exhortations to the Red Army, and he pronounced the returning hero “an extreme case” of militarist hysteria. There was always somebody who had it in for Patton. Mark Clark would not have him in Italy, not even when the Anzio beachhead was in danger. Walter Bedell Smith nearly had Patton dismissed from the European Theater. Ike himself was fed up with wisecracks from the Third Army H.Q. which called him “the best general the British have,” and a military politician with eyes already on the White House.

Yet it was always the compulsive bigmouth who did himself in. While he served with disastrous candor as Military Governor of Bavaria, a sly reporter bagged Patton with a loaded question. It scored headlines of classic Liberal Kitsch:PATTON SAYS NAZIS ARE JUST LIKE REPUBLICANS AND DEMOCRATS. Howls from the State Department, bellows from Ike, orders to retract in full. But Patton calls in reporters and, astonishingly, amplifies his blunder. Practically all middle-class Germans, he explains, who survived in trades and professions were in some degree beholden to the Nazis; very many belonged to the party; these were people who, while removable “eventually,” were at present sorely needed for civil administration…No reasonably perceptive American then in Germany would have quarrelled seriously with the first two clauses. Today, after two decades of observing West German affairs, the general’s ingenuous bulletin reads like a prophecy. To know what has become of those “eventually” removable persons, we have but to read Fragebogen and the novels of Günter Grass. But prophets are notoriously unrecognizable, and this time Patton had fucked up for fair. Ike took his tremendous Third Army away and gave him a dummy command.

He seems today a figure of singular innocence. He never lived to run for President or take a stand on John Birch. His sins were pre-nuclear, even pre-public relations; publicity mad, he was destroyed by public clamor. Soldiers felt for him none of the easy affection inspired by duller, more valuable commanders like Bradley, but they either loved him or despised him; this may have been Patton’s test to the courage of each particular man. As a very young man, safely attached to the headquarters of a less valiant army than his, I knew that I feared and despised him. If you drove in the Third Army sector without steel helmet, sidearms, necktie, dogtags, everything arranged according to some forgotten manual, Patton’s fiercely loyal M.P. gorillas would grab you. You could protest, but say one word against their pigheaded general?—I never had the nerve.

He was a patrician, a hunter of game in the Black Forest. He went down the Autobahns in an immense, roaring sedan which bore his emblems and forced traffic to the side of the road. The roads were clogged with people, horses, carts full of household goods, all fleeing the Russians. It was the surrealist dawn of “Our Epoch.” Night and day the American Armed Forces Network relaxed us with disk jockey programs called “Midnight in Munich” and “Luncheon in München.” Fresh facts about death camps were being turned up every hour, as whole SS regiments rested in the meadows, lying down with their abandoned weapons. The Russians were westward into Weimar, entering the town with a patrol of hairy women police. Russian families entered the town riding Lend-Lease tanks to which might be tethered a goat or cow or sheep, some agricultural plunder from out of the East to sustain a family through the cold winter to come. Naturally Patton disliked these scenes. Confronting The Bolshevik, he was forgiving The Hun. He disliked drinking vodka with crass Bolshevik generals. He thought Zhukov looked like an ape. He was sixty years old when he was killed by an automobile crash, tooling down the Autobahn on his way to shoot pheasants in the forests of the Rhenish Palatinate.

Letters

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Obscenity February 25, 1965

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