Patton: Ordeal and Triumph
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, Eisenhower’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 cavalry, 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 Eisenhower 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, boggings-down, 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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.