Authors: Alan Axelrod


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Alan Axelrod


The WORLD HAS CHANGED SIGNIFICANTLY SINCE George Patton’s day, as has warfare. The struggle for imperial dominance that led to World War I continued as Germany fought for recovery and revenge in World War II. But the advent of the atomic bomb marked the beginning of mutual deterrence between potential adversaries in the west and the Soviet Union. The risks of nuclear escalation were so daunting that the struggle for world dominance was carried on largely by subterfuge and proxy wars fought on the margins of Western civilization.

But while there were no more World Wars, the United States was engaged in action after action, some difficult and bloody, others marked by nuance and maneuver. Still, these were operations Patton would surely have recognized as his own—forces with armored vehicles and air support, often engaged in intense ground combat. Indeed, there were battles in Korea—the breakout from the Pusan perimeter—and in Vietnam—the incursion into Cambodia—that could have been lifted straight from Patton’s playbook.

American military interests in Korea, Vietnam and during the forty-year Cold War were in many ways the legacy not just of Patton’s generation, but rather of Patton himself. Patton’s tactical vision for maneuver warfare suffused the post-World War II US Army. His former subordinates and family kept alive not only his reputation but also his principles and spirit.

When the army built its first postwar tank, it was named for Patton. And at many an army post there was a Patton Hall, a Patton barracks, or a Patton museum. The spirit of maneuver warfare, and the use of combined arms, including airpower, as taught by Patton, became hallmarks of army war-fighting doctrine. Patton’s tough training regimen became the stuff of legend, with a whole generation of officers claiming to carry his torch. One of the army’s greatest chiefs of staff, he was best known for his leadership of the tank battalion that spearheaded Third Army’s relief of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. In the case studies of battles and leadership at the U.S. Army Armor School at Fort Knox, Patton was simply lionized.

At the US Military Academy, some fifty classes of West Pointers have walked daily past the inspirational statue of Patton in front of the library. With his feats near enough to make us glance over self-consciously, we dreamed and prayed that we might have the opportunity and courage to live up to his legacy.

After the difficult decade of the Vietnam War, as the army struggled to recover its bearings, army leaders returned to the foundations laid by Patton: the Desert Training Center. Just a few miles north of where Patton located his training camp in 1942, the army created a National Training Center, dedicated to teaching the art of combined arms, maneuver warfare. I was privileged to serve there twice, the last time as its commander. At the Center we made sure that, in true Patton style, the army sought to teach better fighting techniques and develop the requirements for better equipment. The result was an army that was trained, transformed, and ready for a fight.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, some of the restraints on the use of U.S. forces were released. Patton would have been proud of the army’s sweeping maneuver to push Saddam Hussein’s legions out of Kuwait. He would have positively rejoiced as American armor, including a brigade from his own 2nd Armored Division, knocked out enemy vehicles from ranges of up to two miles with precision tank gunnery or defeated a large defending force at night in one of the largest tank battles in military history.

And certainly Patton’s spirit was there with army generals Dave McK-iernan, the Land Force Commander, and Scott Wallace, commanding V Corps, as they sped deep into Iraq to penetrate Saddam’s forces and seize Baghdad in the spring of 2003. Maneuver warfare, risk taking ... it was all there, and Patton would have been proud to acknowledge his legacy.

Technology is far advanced now, of course. Unmanned aircraft fly over the enemy and send pictures to the ground, tanks communicate by internet-like messages, and with infrared technology we own the night. But Patton would see all this as the natural evolution of warfare along his own design.

It would be a mistake to limit Patton’s influence to a form of warfare. In fact, it is also his character that has exerted a magnetic pull on the officer corps. His “tone-deafness” to politics, his aggressive swagger, his “fight where we’re told, win where we fight” attitude marked a line of professional ethics that many officers have followed. He was the consummate professional warrior, committed to learning his profession, the “master of the sword.”

Despite his swagger, Patton had a large dose of self-doubt. But only fools are always certain in leadership and war, two of mankind’s most unpredictable activities. Patton’s willingness to admit his doubts to himself may have been a key factor in his continuing professional growth, for as you will read in the following pages, Patton was able to look over the “edge of the cliff,” and work to avoid the failures foreseen.

Many of my mentors at West Point and later would work hard to produce a “Patton-plus” mentality—hard-charging in combat, yes, but also able to deal with the intricacies of strategy and statecraft. In view of the challenges we face in peacekeeping operations today, we’ve never needed the “Patton-plus” mindset more.

Patton was a master of the media (at least most of the time), as you will read in Alan Axelrod’s book. For all his appreciation of and use of the media however, he also discovered that it was truly a double-edged sword—the publicity that could make a career could also finish it.

No doubt Patton would have his frustrations with the global war on terror, nation-building, and peacekeeping. In the pages that follow Axelrod describes Patton’s difficulties in postwar Germany, difficulties that are reflected in our current peacekeeping missions. But Patton was a student, perpetually studying how best to accomplish each mission. And it is this mindset, more than any other, that Patton has to offer today’s leaders. He was a winner, a morale- and team-builder who adapted quickly and sought to master every challenge. We need leaders like that today

—General Wesley K. Clark

Command and Controversy

FIELD MARSHAL GERD VON RUNDSTEDT WAS the brilliant German commander of World War II whose daring and desperate Ardennes offensive—“the Bulge”—was pounded into disaster by George S. Patton’s Third Army. Asked, after the war, to name the American commander who most impressed him, Rundstedt did not hesitate: “Patton was your best.”

In a stunningly candid appraisal, Marshal Joseph Stalin declared: “The Red Army could not have conceived and certainly could not have executed the advance made by the Third Army across France.”

Americans also offered praise. Patton’s subordinate, Lucian Truscott, a hard-bitten old cavalry commander who clashed bitterly with his chief during operations in Sicily, called him “perhaps the most colorful, as he was certainly the most outstanding battle leader of World War II.” As for ordinary GIs, many certainly did not love the general. Patton’s partially self-invented nickname, “Old Blood and Guts,” was ubiquitous during much of the war, and many a GI griped, with sarcasm typical of the American army, “Yeah.
blood.” Yet probably to a man, the soldiers of the Third United States Army took very hard and very personally Patton’s death on December 21, 1945. As one private wrote to his parents, all the boys in his outfit were “in mourning for . . . one of the greatest men that ever lived. . . . The rest of the world thinks of him as just another guy with stars on his shoulders. The men that served under him know him as a soldier’s leader. I am proud to say that I have served under him in the Third Army.”

Some other Americans had very different feelings. The critic and cultural historian Dwight Macdonald, who served in World War II, called Patton “a swaggering bigmouth, a Fascist-minded aristocrat . . . brutal and hysterical, coarse and affected, violent and empty, . . . compared to the dreary run of us, General Patton was quite mad.” Andy Rooney, a young war correspondent who today is best known as the curmudgeonly commentator on CBS Television’s
60 Minutes,
minced no words. He “detested Patton and everything about the way he was. It was because we had so few soldiers like him that we won the war. . . . Patton was the kind of officer that our wartime enlisted man was smarter than.”

It is easy to find scores of paeans to George S. Patton Jr. and just as easy to find at least as many indictments lodged against him. What
be found is anything in between. No one seems to have had a moderate, let alone objective, opinion of the general.

Why did Patton so powerfully polarize opinion and, indeed, why does he continue to do so?

Historians, armchair generals, and professional soldiers routinely dissect and debate the campaigns of Napoleon, Grant, and Lee, apportioning praise or blame, merit or criticism, based on tactics and troop movements. This is not the case with Patton. No one disputes the results he achieved.

Patton was a highly effective pioneer, advocate, and exponent of modern mechanized warfare as well as a doctrine of highly mobile offensive, which enabled American ground forces to prevail against the army that invented blitzkrieg. On the eve of American entry into World War II, in the largest, most ambitious war games the U.S. Army had ever staged, Patton was universally acknowledged to have outgeneraled all of his colleagues. Subsequently assigned to create a desert warfare training center outside of Indio, California, Patton turned out America’s first generation of desert warriors. When the U.S. II Corps, in the army’s first major contest against the Germans, suffered humiliating defeat at Kasserine Pass, Tunisia, Dwight D. Eisenhower, commanding the U.S. Army in North Africa, called for Patton. Within days he transformed the thoroughly demoralized American force into the kernel of a victorious army that defeated the vaunted Afrika Korps. When Anglo-American forces jumped off from North Africa to invade Sicily, Patton unilaterally revised the subordinate role his Seventh Army had been assigned and, with lightning speed, took Palermo and then beat British general Bernard Law Montgomery to the conquest of Messina.

Following the D-Day landings at Normandy, Patton was assigned command of the Third Army and, with it, amplified Operation Cobra— General Omar Bradley’s modest plan for breaking out of the Norman hedgerow country—into the most spectacular and productive advance of World War II.
The Third Army’s After Action Report,
the official account, begins: “In nine months and eight days of campaigning, Third U.S. Army compiled a record of offensive operations that could only be measured in superlatives, for not only did the Army’s achievements astonish the world but its deeds in terms of figures challenged the imagination.” During this brief period, Patton’s men liberated or gained 81,522 square miles in France, 1,010 in Luxembourg, 156 in Belgium, 29,940 in Germany, 3,485 in Czechoslovakia, and 2,103 in Austria. The Third Army liberated or captured some 12,000 cities, towns, and villages, 27 of which contained more than 50,000 people. It captured 1,280,688 prisoners of war between August 1, 1944, and May 13, 1945. It killed 47,500 enemy soldiers and wounded 115,700 more. During this same period, Third Army logistics troops brought in by rail, truck, and air 1,234,529 tons of supplies, including 533,825 tons of ammunition. Its engineers built 2,498 bridges—about 8.5 miles—and repaired or reconstructed 2,240 miles of road and 2,092 miles of railroad. Its Signal Corps troops laid 3,747 miles of open wire and 36,338 miles of underground cable. Its telephone operators handled an average of 13,986 calls daily. Its ambulances evacuated 269,187 patients. Its officers and men administered civil affairs in Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, and Luxembourg, as well as providing military governments for parts of Germany and Austria, ultimately regulating the lives and welfare of some 30 million men, women, and children.

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