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Posted on Feb 5, 2007 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Patton: A Biography – Book Review

By Elliott Grollman

Patton.jpgBook Review: Patton: A Biography. Great Generals Series
Alan Axelrod, Palgrave MacMillan Books

As we gathered with families and friends at the last Memorial Day, our thoughts turned to our veterans who are serving now and to those who served in the past and in particular to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and, who we honor, but who did not return to celebrate with us in the future. While we honor all of our veterans, there is a special place for special military leaders in our history who lead those veterans to glory and victory. Palgrave Books has created the Great General series to feature the stories of eminent military leaders who changed history in the US and abroad. They have started the series with a biography of General George Patton.

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There is no question that General George S. Patton, Jr. was one of our most colorful of the WWII generals if not of any time in American military history. Depending on whom you talked to, people seemed to love Patton or loathe him. His success on the battlefield was clearly the stuff of legend. His friends and foes would have to agree on that. What makes this an excellent biography is the fact that it examines Patton, the general as well as Patton the man.

As great a leader or General as Patton was; he was still a man who had strengths, weaknesses and emotions. As the book states "we admire Patton the captain, we relish Patton the legend, but we are, at least the very least, uneasy with Patton the man." Patton was born to a family with a long tradition of military service and George was destined to follow in that tradition. As a dedicated student of military history, he started out as a cadet at VMI as had others in his family. Using that that family influence he was able to get into West Point and of course went on to graduate. During these times Patton excelled in sports, horsemanship, and fencing. It was also here that Patton demonstrated that he was driven to succeed as a military officer and rise above his peers. He believed in reincarnation and that he had been a warrior in other lives. It was here that he also demonstrated that he was less then tolerant of those who failed to live up to " his " standards and was often " too military".

Patton married into a family who had money and who was part of " high society". Through the contacts from his father and from his wife’s family, he was able to greatly influence his career through contact with high ranking officials in the Army. Patton got his first taste of combat as a cavalry officer chasing Pancho Villa under the command of General Pershing, who Patton would befriend and model himself after. Gen. Pershing was impressed by Patton and would bring him into his inner circle in future endeavors. While in Mexico chasing Villa, Patton won a conflict with the bandits while driving automobiles and received much fame as well as publicity for the battle from the media.

This need for battle as well as the fame and glory would seem to become an obsession for Patton which would follow him for the rest of his career. Patton had the good fortune to become involved with tanks at the beginning of their involvement with the US Army and the foresight to see their future use. He also knew that the traditional combat arms would be resistant to the use of tanks and he was smart enough to offer up the tanks as a tool for the infantry, not as a replacement. Patton would go on to set up the Army school for tanks and to get them into the battle. Patton through his sheer force of will, was able to lead by example to train and push his soldiers to demonstrate their capabilities and success. He was a stickler for discipline, training, military courtesy, appearance, etc. from all his troops and officers. Whatever he demanded of his soldiers, he also demanded of himself. He led by example and lead from the front. While many troops did not like Patton, there is no question that he motivated them. Patton’s tactical success on the battlefield would follow him from a Lt. in WWI to a General Officer in WWII. However, in other areas Patton was less than successful. While Patton’s drive would lead to repeated victory on the battlefield, this same drive would hurt him during times of peace or in assignments when he was not directly involved in combat. While he excelled as a commander and trainer, he always perfected the training of his men, perfected the tactics and doctrine of mechanized armor as a weapon of modern war as well as demonstrated his personal prowess as a warrior.

As a man, however, he was haunted by personal demons of a combination of impulsiveness, reckless personal behavior, feelings of worthlessness and outright depression. Of course, everyone knows of the " slapping incidents". It was these types of incidents that would help torpedo Patton’s career. Gen. Eisenhower, who was friends with Patton throughout their careers, saved Patton on many instances, but Ike believed that the very qualities that made Patton fast and aggressive in battle also created a certain instability and volatility which were barely under control. But ultimately even Ike could not save Patton’s career. His repeated conflicts with the chain of command and in particular the political leadership, as well as his conflicts with his allied counterparts would often leave him playing lesser roles in the grand scheme of things. His greatest self inflected wounds came from his encounters with the media. His comments were what we would call today " politically incorrect". He was reassigned to a non-combat command and would die shortly afterwards from a car accident. His untimely death would lead to the legend of Gen. Patton.

There is no question of the contributions that Gen. Patton made in the areas of command presence, tactics, military professionalism, updating the cavalry idea, combined arms approach, the principle of speed, reduction of collateral damage, training, and leadership.

While many of us are familiar with the legend of Gen. Patton, this book gives new insight into Patton the man.

Elliott Grollman
MAJ., USAR (Ret.)
Adjunct Professor

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