Military Leadership Merits of General George S. Patton, Jr.
One aspect of cultural development which seems to be universal throughout the course of humanity’s history is the innate desire of society to lionize the accomplishments of triumphant military leaders. Perhaps owing to a subconscious desire for the implicit protection provided by effectual wartime figures, nearly every civilization from the ancient Greeks to contemporary suburban Americans has placed its generals, admirals, and other military authorities on a proverbial pedestal, lauding their preternatural ability to motivate men during the heat of battle while achieving strategic victories. Among this nation’s long lineage of military leaders — which begins with George Washington’s revolutionary heroics and includes famed generals like Andrew Jackson and William Tecumseh Sherman — one of the most competent and accomplished figures to ever lead American troops on the field of battle was also considered to be among the most controversial. General George S. Patton, Jr. attained a level of recognition — what critics would no doubt call infamy — that few in the history of the United States Army have ever reached, the result of his uncanny ability to command men during combat, his aptitude in exploiting the advantages of armored warfare, and indeed, his regrettable but regular lapses in judgment. By studying the course of Patton’s military career, in conjunction with an examination of his many flaws, both public and private, one can employ empirical analysis to demonstrate conclusively that Patton’s controversial incidents cannot possibly outweigh or invalidate his celebrated military career, nor his invaluable contributions to the refinement of combat tactics using armored vehicles.
The legend of the man known to his soldiers as “Old Blood and Guts” began at the turn of 20th century, when a then 17-year-old George Patton penned a letter of request to Senator Thomas R. Bard in hopes of realizing his ambition of attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Although the initial 1902 request was delayed for a period of two years — while a doggedly determined Patton sharpened his drilling skills at the Virginia Military Institute — Patton’s characteristic relentlessness was evident early on, and in 1904 Bard recommended the young upstart for the coveted appointment. Although he consistently struggled to maintain an average academic performance during his time at West Point, these formative years propelled Patton along his path to becoming the preeminent military leader of his generation. Foretelling the position of dominance he would attain during World War II’s tank battles in the North African theatre, the aspiring officer made a fateful decision to forego the infantry — traditionally a better avenue for career advancement, because “cavalry seemed naturally more suited to Patton, a lover of horses and an outstanding horseman & #8230; (and) the branch was more elite than the infantry, its officers typically a better, more uniform class of ‘gentlemen,’ like himself” (Axelrod, 2006). In 1909, Patton graduated from West Point as the 46th ranked in a class of 103 cadets, and despite his intense yearning to enter headlong into the fray of battle, he soon found that the peaceful state of international relations prior to the outbreak of World War I was not hospitable to an aspiring warrior. As Patton described his personal motivations during this time of idleness while consigned to Fort Sheridan in Illinois, in a letter to his eventual wife Beatrice, “I dare say that for every man remembered for acts of peace there are fifteen made immortal by war, and since in my mind all life is a struggle to perpetuate your name war is naturally my choice” (Axelrod, 2006), but he would be forced to wait until the U.S. entered WWI in 1917 for his chance to pursue glory in defense of his country.
The appointment of John J. Pershing to the position of commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) proved to be fortuitous for Patton, who served as Pershing’s aide and confidant during the so-called “Pancho Villa Expedition” which preceded WWI. During the early years of WWI, Patton specialized in tank warfare training and strategy development for armored division officers after establishing the AEF Light Tank School, and he received two promotions in as many years, attaining the rank of major and receiving command over his own tank brigade. Patton’s skill with wielding the massive force capability provided by armored divisions was tested on September 12th, 1918, when his 140-tank brigade was ordered to launch the first massed tank attack in U.S. Army history — the Battle of Saint-Mihiel. It was in this campaign that Patton’s intense devotion to the pursuit of victory was first displayed on the battlefield, as when he delivered an astonishingly bold set of special instructions to the troops under his charge:
“No tank is to be surrendered or abandoned to the enemy. If you are left alone in the midst of the enemy, keep shooting. If your gun is disabled use your pistols and squash the enemy with your tracks. Remember that you are the first American tanks. You must establish the fact that AMERICAN TANKS DO NOT SURRENDER” (Brighton, 2009).
Rather than simply issuing audacious orders to men who will die bravely in their performance, while retreating to the safety of a protected encampment, Patton established his own courage during the Battle of Saint-Mihiel. With communications capabilities essentially severed between tank operators and the command post, Patton responded to this potential obstacle by walking behind his tanks and directing them into a crucial position which was under heavy enemy shelling. In just two days of command, Patton’s tank force punched through and seized the salient at Saint-Mihiel, and in the process he proved the viability of armored divisions as a modernized cavalry force — a notion which he had championed since his stewardship under Pershing. When Patton was officially reprimanded for his decision to leave the command post — just the first of his many infamous interactions with Army authorities — he cited the communications breakdown as the impetus for his choice of action, and “only to Beatrice did he admit his personal need to experience the ‘blood and guts’ of combat, saying that he wanted to duck as shells exploded but refused to do so & #8230; (and) that he found the danger and the admiration of ‘the men lying down’ to be ‘a great stimulus'” (Brighton, 2009).
Patton would soon encounter further opportunity to experience the ‘great stimulus’ provided by tank warfare, as the outbreak of World War II thrust him into a central role in the American and British collaborative campaign against German and Italian occupational forces in North Africa. After assuming command of the U.S. II Corps and attaining the position of Lieutenant General, Patton consistently demonstrated his outstanding military leadership abilities, time and again showing his extraordinary commitment to achieving strategic victories no matter the cost. When ordering an attack on a hill in Gafsa, Patton memorably wrote: “I expect to see such casualties among officers, particularly staff officers, as will convince me that a serious effort has been made to capture this objective” (Hunt, 1990), a directive that is at once inspiring in its staunch allegiance to duty, and disturbing in its lack of compassion for the lives of those who served under his command. By the time that Operation Husky commenced to begin the invasion of Sicily, Patton had been entrusted with command of the Seventh United States Army, but despite his ruthlessly effective leadership on the battlefield — the Seventh Army suffered only 7,500 casualties while capturing 113,000 Axis troops and destroying 3,500 vehicles (Axelrod, 2006) — several sources of significant controversy occurred that threatened to undermine his rapid rise in the ranks the of U.S. Army hierarchy. Patton claimed that an official directive limiting his conduct while taking Messina was never received, and he coldly shot a pair of mules blocking his path despite the protestations of local Italian villagers. However, the most reviled act committed by Patton occurred after he received a report that more than 70 Italian prisoners of war had been massacred by troops under his command, as the rising military star provided a meaningful insight into his view of the value held by human life:
“I told Bradley that it was probably an exaggeration, but in any case to tell the officer to certify that the dead men were snipers or had attempted to escape or something, as it would make a stink in the press and also would make the civilians mad. Anyhow, they are dead, so nothing can be done about it” (Atkinson, 2007).
The fact that the captain responsible for perpetrating the atrocity clung firmly to his defense — that Patton’s impassioned rhetoric against the Italians in a previous exchange was tantamount to an order of execution — compounded by his implicit justification of the mass shooting has forever linked his name to one of the dozens of massacres which marred American conduct in throughout the European theatre.
Just weeks after his blatant disregard for the summary execution of seventy enemy soldiers, Patton was embroiled by another controversy — this time involving misconduct toward his own troops. After being informed on August 3rd, 1943 that Private Charles H. Kuhl was suffering from “battle fatigue,” and therefore could not perform his duties, Patton exploded in a fit of rage, slapping the shell-shocked soldier while belittling him for his alleged cowardice and ordering him back to the front lines, and while this act of willful aggression against men under his command may have been dismissed as an isolated incident, Patton managed to slap another sidelined soldier and send him back into battle just one week later (Blumenson, 1974). This lapse in judgment resulted in a reprimand from President Dwight D. Eisenhower himself, who wrote to Patton expressing his severe disapproval, stating while he “clearly understands that firm measures are necessary in order to secure the desired objectives & #8230; this does not excuse brutality, abuse of the sick, nor exhibition of uncontrollable temper in front of subordinates” (Blumenson, 1974), and Patton was forced to apologize to the troops he assaulted, as well as to make several speeches to the those under his command expressing remorse. His fellow generals universally distanced themselves from Patton’s conduct, and his reputation was irrevocably altered due to these flashes of contempt for the inaction of others.
Despite the ramifications of what many termed “the slap heard round the world,” Patton’s legacy as a feared opponent for those pitted against him on the field of battle preceded him, and he played an integral role in the Allied invasion of Normandy while acting in a reduced role as a result of the assault scandal. With American military leaders suddenly doubting Patton’s ability to control himself, he was not chosen to lead an expeditionary force during the invasion of Normandy, but the fact that Nazi generals believed Patton to be America’s most capable commander allowed the Allies to engage in an act of subterfuge and misdirection which changed the course of world history forever after. By feeding the Nazi high command with a steady stream of misinformation designed to mislead them into thinking Patton would be leading the crucial entrance into the fiercely defended French occupied territories — a rouse that the Germans were all to ready to believe due to their reverence of Patton’s exploits against them in Northern Africa and Italy — the Allies managed to gain the tactical advantage they needed to gain an upper hand in WWII that they would never lose. Patton’s abilities on the battlefield were so respected in his day that even when not in command, the very suggestion of his presence was enough to motivate massive deployments of resources and personnel, and this astounding ability to strike fear into the heart of the enemy even from afar played a foundational role in the American’s subsequent defeat of Nazi Germany and the Axis powers. For that reason alone, the relatively minor controversies which dogged Patton throughout his long career should not be used to discredit the multitude of contributions he made to the defense of American interests abroad.
Atkinson, R. (2007). The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943 — 1944 (The Liberation
Trilogy). New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
Axelrod, A. (2006). Patton: A Biography. London, England: Palgrave Macmillan.
Blumenson, M. (1974). The Patton Papers 1885-1940. Vol. I.
Brighton, T. (2009). Patton, Montgomery, Rommel: Masters of War. Random House Digital, Inc.
Hunt, S.D. (1990). A Don at War. London: Frank Cass.
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