AN ANTI-PATTON BIOGRAPHY OF ‘A GREAT GENERAL’
General Patton: A Soldier’s Life. Stanley P. Hirshson. HarperCollins. 826 pages; photographs; maps; endnotes; index; $34.95.
Reviewed by Col. Cole C. Kingseed, U.S. Army retired
Gen. George S. Patton Jr. was at times the most respected yet vilified, the most congenial yet egotistical, and the most controversial yet complex American military commander of the 20th century. Long recognized as this nation’s most brilliant operational commander in World War II, the real Patton remains clouded in mystery. His untimely demise as the result of a car accident in December 1945 catapulted Patton into a warrior’s Valhalla, where he achieved in death the public recognition that he craved so earnestly in life during only 391 days in combat.
In the latest biography of this flamboyant officer, Stanley Hirshson, a professor of history at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, relies on personal papers and government repositories to present a revised interpretation of Patton’s place in the pantheon of military heroes. The result is a highly unflattering portrait of Patton that leaves the reader no doubt that Hirshson is not enamored with his legendary subject.
According to Hirshson, there were in effect two Gen. Pattons, one the Patton of "public renown: poet, intellectual, reincarnationist, and farsighted leader; the other the Patton of reality: devoted son, materialist, inspirational yet cold, a man of narrow social and political vision."
Hirshson is no stranger to biography; he has well-received biographies of Grenville M. Dodge, William T. Sherman and Brigham Young to his credit. What makes his analysis of Patton so provocative is Hirshson’s contention that incomplete research by Patton’s previous biographers, including Martin Blumenson, Carlo D’Este, and Roger Nye, has led to interpretations that "are at best dubious."
Hirshson dismisses Blumenson’s contention that Patton’s "seeming confidence and supreme rightness of his decisions emerged from the general’s sense of dyslexic inadequacy." Hirshson opines that Patton displayed few of the signs of dyslexia. His poor spelling, Hirshson claims, resulted not from a disturbance in the ability to read, but from an inadequate formal education. Hirshson also questions Patton’s belief in reincarnation, which D’Este has observed formed a cornerstone of Patton’s professional development. Hirshson joins historian Roger Nye in claiming that reincarnation was Patton’s instrument to control his fear in battle.
Not quite as comfortable in assessing Patton’s martial achievements as he is in analyzing Patton’s personal life, Hirshson relies on the European Theater’s chief historian S.L.A. Marshall and British theorist Basil Liddell Hart and postwar recollections by some of Patton’s military chiefs and subordinates to question some of Patton’s military maneuvers. Gen. Omar Bradley, who like Hirshson was no admirer of Patton, believed that several of Patton’s amphibious landings behind German lines along the northern Sicilian coast were unnecessary and resulted in the useless expenditure of lives. Patton’s critics also questioned his frontal attacks on Metz, and S.L.A. Marshall in particular disagreed with Patton’s attack toward Houffalize from Bastogne, which he termed "a tactical monstrosity."
Hirshson’s most damning indictment of Patton is the author’s interpretation of the effect of Patton’s bellicose speeches on his troops in Sicily. Patton’s exhortation to kill as many enemies as possible, says Hirshson, produced a debilitating effect on his Seventh Army and invited five atrocities, including a massacre of 40 prisoners at Biscari airfield and the murder of Italian civilians at a Canicatti soap factory. Patton acknowledged that a massacre occurred and directed Bradley to tell the officer involved to certify that the dead men were snipers.
To Patton, such incidents were regrettable, but in war atrocities take place and "they are dead, so nothing can be done about it." Though the officer who ordered the killings cited Patton’s order to send as many of the enemy to the infernal regions as possible as a defense in his subsequent court-martial, Hirshson’s evidence that the atrocities were directly attributable to Patton’s warlike addresses is dubious. One can not help but be reminded of Adm. William F. (Bull) Halsey’s order to his commanders to kill as many of the enemy as possible in the Pacific theater.
Where then lies the value of yet another biography of George S. Patton? Hirshson gives a far more detailed analysis of Patton’s formative years. The author speculates that Patton’s lifelong distrust of organized labor and people of Jewish and Italian ancestry was the result of the Lawrence, Mass., mill strike in 1912, in which the Ayer family into which Patton married, was the largest corporate stockholder. Hirshson contends, again with too little evidence, that the dispute involving Italian and Jewish immigrants sent George Patton down the road that eventually led to his losing the Third Army in 1945. Perhaps, but Patton’s blatant racism more likely had its origins in a Victorian era in which privilege and wealth distorted one’s view toward classes and societies that were less endowed.
Hirshson is better in describing Patton’s efforts to cultivate friends in high places to advance his military career. As with many Army officers, then and now, Patton was extraordinarily ambitious. His association with Gen. John J. Pershing during the Punitive Expedition in 1916 led to assignment on Pershing’s staff when the American Expeditionary Forces deployed to France in 1917. His relationship with future Secretary of War Henry Stimson led to his advancement to corps command and promotion to general officer on the eve of World War II. His 20 plus years of friendship with Eisenhower more than once rescued Patton from military obscurity.
This is not to say that Hirshson finds no redeeming value in Patton. The author readily concedes that Patton’s breakout in Normandy and his relief of Bastogne were masterpieces of maneuver and combined arms, though he gives much of the credit to Patton’s gifted subordinates Maj. Gen. John S. (P) Wood and Lt. Col. Creighton Abrams and to Gen. Otto P. Weyland, whose XIX Tactical Air Force provided Patton and his division commanders with unmatched support. On the whole, Hirshson views Patton’s military genius as greatly exaggerated, leaving the reader with the unmistakable conclusion that Patton’s war record was marked by occasional displays of tactical brilliance in a career more accurately characterized by raging egotism, shameless self-promotion and martial mediocrity.
Was Patton a great general then? Despite Hirshson’s reservations, the answer is decidedly affirmative. Patton’s record speaks for itself. In Sicily, the American Army came of age under Patton’s forceful leadership and ruthless driving power. In Europe, Patton’s army advanced faster and farther and inflicted a greater number of casualties than any of Bradley’s four armies in 12th Army Group. In slightly more than a year of actual combat, Patton had indeed "earned his pay" in commanding troops in North Africa, Sicily and Europe. Small wonder that it was Patton whom the German commanders feared more than any other Allied commander.
Though Martin Blumenson’s The Patton Papers and Patton: The Man Behind the Legend remain the definitive biographies of the enigmatic commander, with Carlo D’Este’s Patton: A Genius for War a close runner-up, Stanley Hirshson has provided a fresh, albeit controversial, interpretation of one of America’s most renowned, yet flawed, military heroes. General Patton: A Soldier’s Life is sure to generate comparisons with previous biographies and could lead to a revised assessment of the officer whom even Hirshson acknowledges was a master of mobile warfare.
COL. COLE C. KINGSEED, USA Ret., Ph.D., a former professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy, is a writer and consultant.
AN INSIDER’S PERSPECTIVE: THE CURRENT STATE OF THE ARMY
The Future of the Army Profession. Don M. Snider and Gayle L. Watkins, project directors. Foreword by Gen. Frederick M. Franks, USA Ret. Edited by Lloyd J. Matthews. McGraw-Hill Custom Publishing. 558 pages; notes; $28.40.
Reviewed by Lt. Col. Mike Burke, U.S. Army retired
If we could divide commentators on the contemporary Army into two large and varied groups, we might label them insiders and outsiders, or academics and muddy boots soldiers, perhaps even the thoughtful and the shrill. While the latter group garners most of the press -- indeed, dominates the public debate -- the former works largely within the establishment to effect changes in policy, statute or organization. This is the group represented in this collection of essays, and it is the group that bears watching. What they write matters.
This particular book shows what some of the insiders think about. It presents 23 articles written as part of a broad U.S. Military Academy-sponsored study to examine the current state of the Army’s view of itself as a profession. The study’s directors asked the academics, commentators and active officers included here to use the influential 1988 work by Andrew Abbott, The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor, as a lens. Abbott posits, among other things, that professions continually compete for jurisdiction (think of physicians versus insurance companies, or the Army versus the other services), that they rely on expert knowledge to distinguish themselves from other professions, and that they derive their legitimacy in part from the society in which they reside.
This study seeks to answer just how Army officers establish their professional expertise in an environment where it seems devalued. Creating a useful theoretical framework is the first step in answering that question. Of course most officers consider themselves professionals, but many would argue over just what that means. This book attempts to set the terms for that debate.
The essays are divided, somewhat arbitrarily, into five sections: military-technical topics, political-social topics, ethics, leadership and internal expertise. Two other sections set out the theoretical structure and provide conclusions.
Several essays stand out. James Burk’s look at the big questions in "Expertise, Jurisdiction, and Legitimacy of the Military Profession" usefully sets the broad stage on which this discussion must occur. Thomas McNaugher looks at the Army’s competitors, most of whom do not wear uniforms, in carrying out operations other than war. I was drawn to Elizabeth Stanley-Mitchell’s work on the implications of digitization efforts; there is probably no more insightful examination of the impact of technology on an army. Few will find comfortable David R. Segal and Meyer Kestnbaum’s essay on the Army’s past attempts to limit the types of people who can serve. Every one of these efforts has been proven wrong; the implications for allowing gays to serve openly are obvious. I also liked Maureen LeBoeuf and Whitfield East’s examination of the odd culture that has arisen around physical training, particularly testing. They point out that not only does the tail wag the dog in this case, but also that we have aggressively, knowingly exalted that tail at the dog’s expense.
I probably expected too much of the essays on ethics and leadership, given the prominence of these topics in discussions of military service. John Brinsfield’s essay on the "Human and Spiritual Needs of Soldiers and How to Prepare Them for Combat" seemed insightful without being doctrinaire or self-serving; however, it would have been better placed in the section devoted to ethics rather than leadership.
Without meaning to, I know, Joe LeBoeuf’s case study on "The 2000 Army Training and Leader Development Panel" shows how our system really works, as it takes the mostly legitimate concerns and aspirations of mid-career officers and bureaucratizes them to death. I am sure some of the officers interviewed for the study would have preferred to see tumbrels rolling away from the Pentagon rather than settle for the slow and deadly process of panels, committees, studies and changes in manuals described in this paper. This is not the author’s fault; it is the system itself.
Abbott himself contributes the penultimate essay, an interesting one because he acknowledges that his previous writing paid little attention to the political aspects of professional theory. Many of the other authors labor mightily to apply his theories to the Army, but the fit is ill, precisely because internal and external politics -- and hierarchy -- shape the Army in ways vastly different from, for example, medicine or law, two unquestioned professions.
Like many such anthologies, there is considerable repetition of Abbott’s theories, which some readers will find irritating; others will be put off by the language, in spite of Lloyd Matthews’ able editing. The audience is clearly an academic one, and this does not help meet the project’s stated vision of seeking "policy-relevant conclusions and recommendations." Few statutes, regulations or policies are mentioned, and many of the authors propose such broad changes as to limit their value to Army policymakers.
The nine conclusions drawn in the book’s final chapter share this characteristic to some degree; a few are wrong, I think. While it is probably true, as the authors point out, that the Army’s bureaucratic nature outweighs its professional nature, I do not think the authors are right in ascribing that same fault to the officers themselves simply because they do not have the "language, conceptions, or identity" to describe their sense of professional selfhood. Perhaps the language they speak is not clearly understood by the authors -- or by the Army’s leadership. The writers also seem overly concerned about the current practice of contracting out doctrine preparation and ROTC instruction. I would be more concerned about having civilian contractors and active duty logisticians performing the same tasks side by side for vastly different compensation packages, or about the loss of expertise in installation management as contractors provide more and more of that support.
I think Army officers tend to regard the need for an Army, and thus a need for professional officers, as self-evident. Abbott would argue that perhaps the need for armies is not a given anymore. With the kinds of missions the Army has performed lately, and the media attention given to the personal failings of some military leaders, our expertise, jurisdiction and legitimacy are constantly being questioned. The Army must compete for its place in national life, and it seems that we do not know how to do that very well. This book gives us a respectable theoretical framework in which we can locate that competition.
LT. COL. MIKE BURKE, USA Ret., taught English at the U.S. Military Academy for eight years. He served with the 1st Armored Division during the Persian Gulf War.
AUGUST 1944: DEMONSTRATING THE ARMY’S OPERATIONAL AND TACTICAL PROWESS
Victory at Mortain: Stopping Hitler’s Panzer Counteroffensive. Mark J. Reardon. University Press of Kansas. 368 pages; maps; photographs; bibliography; index. $39.95.
Reviewed by Col. Gregory Fontenot, U.S. Army retired
At first glance it is hard to imagine why there should be still another book on the battles of August 1944, particularly one devoted exclusively to Mortain. Mark Reardon’s Victory at Mortain demonstrates that there really is a need for still another book on August 1944 if that book really links and shows the relationship between operational decisions and tactical fights. Reardon promises no less and does deliver. Reardon also succeeds in bringing new scholarship, principally in the form of a host of interviews, to the task of illuminating the tactical-level fights that together produced German failure at Mortain. Reardon’s interview list is poignant, consisting as it does of men who, 60 years ago, turned back the Panzers and demonstrated the growth of the U.S. Army’s operational and tactical prowess.
Victory at Mortain follows operational decisions taken by the Germans and the Allies through tactical execution, focusing primarily on the efforts of the 30th Infantry Division (ID) in and around Mortain against elements of several German divisions. Reardon lays out the operational architecture for both sides quite clearly. Both sides had particular goals in mind that proved difficult to execute, partly because of the considerable confusion generated as the U.S. side organized the 12th Army Group and Third Army while simultaneously attempting an operational encirclement. For the Germans, confusion stemmed at least in part from the tense atmosphere among the German leadership following an assassination attempt on Hitler on July 20. German commanders spent nearly as much time looking over their shoulders as they did confronting tactical problems. Equally important, intense aerial attacks confounded their efforts to reposition troops. Often the orders of the high command were either not executable or simply not pertinent to the facts on the ground. Many German commanders, for example, believed that stabilizing the front made more sense than the counterattack the high command had ordered. Among the Americans there were competing views of what to do also. As Third Army moved into Brittany, some of its leadership, Patton included, wondered why they were not attacking the German 7th Army’s open flank. In this context, 30th ID and other units of VII Corps turned east to envelop or at least hit the flank of the German 7th Army. Instead, they ran headlong into a German operational level counterattack aiming to destroy U.S. forces by striking deep to retake Avranches, cutting off American units in Brittany.
Reardon is at his best narrating the meeting engagements and subsequent bitter defensive battles fought by the 30th ID. Richly documented, Reardon’s account takes the fight down to the platoon level on both sides, albeit with greater detail on the American side. At the tactical level, translating operational directives often boiled down to German troops attacking American units in order to reach assembly areas or lines of departure envisaged in the operational counterattack plan. Hilltops or road junctions that had no prominence in a plan at the operational level proved vital at regiment and below. U.S. units ably fought to seize and retain control of key hilltops and roads. Effective and responsive U.S. Artillery, more than anything else, proved central to U.S. success in retaining key positions in and around Mortain. Reardon illuminates these and other facts that sometimes are lost in the noise of broader accounts. As a result, while Victory at Mortain will not replace Blumenson’s Breakout and Pursuit as the seminal work on the fighting in August 1944, it is a worthy and useful addition to our understanding of this important moment in history.
COL. GREGORY FONTENOT, USA Ret., commanded a battalion in Operation Desert Storm and a brigade in Bosnia. He was director of the School of Advanced Military Studies and commander of the Battle Command Training Program.