Remembering Patton

This Memorial Day we also celebrate the 50th anniversary of the best American war movie, Patton, which won seven Oscars, including Francis Ford Coppola’s first, for the screenplay. This portrait of an American hero is especially necessary in our times, when we are faced with crisis only to find we lack comparable leaders on whose greatness we can rely to see us through.

George S. Patton was the greatest American battlefield commander of World War II—and his life demonstrates both how out of place a martial aristocrat seems to modern Americans, as well as why we need a touch of such greatness. To us, winning wars doesn’t fit the language or practice of our leadership, so he is an exotic figure, but he seems to speak for most of us—we are not happy that our leaders cannot achieve victory and, through it, peace. We are, indeed, unhappy with our institutions, which seem paralyzed. Patton embodied the tougher side of the American spirit, the restless seeking after victory in face of obstacles, and the love of glory and honor that usually only appears in our pursuit of athletic or commercial success.

Great Men and Executive Power

Indeed, Patton shaped his character in order to fit this all-American love of undertaking difficult enterprises, achieving astonishing victories through a combination of hard work, talent, and technology, and never relenting. He was all about discipline, speed, and logistics. He is memorable because he embodies what the Federalist tells us about the nature of modern executive power. But unlike most presidents, he had greatness of heart, which Coppola so admired that he made a movie about it.

Patton was as necessary in the European war as MacArthur was in the Pacific, and was likewise a figure we compare to demigods rather than ordinary officials in government institutions. But he was also needed in 1970, when the movie revived his reputation, and he is needed again 50 years later—because we are constantly in danger of forgetting what kind of men we need to deal with our crises, when the nation seems resigned to paralysis and suffering.

Coppola understood this very well and he therefore concentrated on revealing character—what does it really mean to be a captain in the ancient sense, to rule armies in order to save your country? The movie neglects the technical side of Patton’s career and only hints at his lifelong study of history, but it simply assumes skillfulness to be part of his character. 

Only when we see a man of such ability, who commands by excellence, do we really understand an army’s purpose. At least since World War II, we have placed too much faith in technology and institutions, and not enough in the power of individual character or the capacity of great leaders to make order out of chaos.

Character is the hardest thing for us to study and so Coppola insistently presents the mysterious, romantic part of Patton’s character over the more calculating, contemplative side of his character. The film predominately shows us the man who wrote “Through A Glass Darkly,” rather than the one who painstakingly composed tactical manuals and combed history for lessons in command. It is true, though, that he believed in reincarnation and longed to have lived and fought glorious ancient wars. He never wanted to be anything but a soldier—his every interest was aristocratic. Patton belonged to the Romantic side of America—his ancestors fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

Heroism in Aristocracy and Democracy

Being an American and being a Roman hero are very different things, but both contexts elucidate something about Patton’s character. So the movie starts with a version of the most famous speech Patton gave, his “Address to the Third Army” before the Normandy invasion, in which the great general reassured his inexperienced men that they will prove good soldiers—war itself, which taught him, will also teach them, but now he’s addressing America directly.

Then the movie shifts to the invasion of Casablanca, where we see Patton awarded a medal by the Sultan of Morocco and then visiting the site of Carthage. Instead of the casual, informal modern attitude, he forces all his soldiers to behave with utter propriety, and this concern with the beauty of order quickly proves to be crucial for victory in battle—men’s beliefs tie self-respect to strength, including strength of will. The men suddenly see everything make sense and discipline becomes an image and engine of their command of the chaos of battle.

After the German defeat in North Africa, the action shifts to Sicily, another land invaded by every important civilization in Europe. There, Patton had visions of glory that proved decisive to his practical work, which proved that the American armies were as good as any in Europe. His superiors do not understand at his level what it means to lead an army, and they constantly get in his way. Like Sherman before him, Patton believed in decisive action, aggressive war, and in tough training for free citizens who aren’t soldiers for life. He also believed in a form of warfighting that would return his men to civilian life as quickly as possible. But this was the opposite of the management of war imposed by Eisenhower, in accordance with elite preferences. Like Sherman, Patton was for fighting war to the end and returning to peace. He thought it much crueler to kill people piecemeal, for nothing, by formalities and conventions, than to force harsh battles, lose only the men lost to battle, and save the rest of their lives for peace.

This is the secret meaning of the infamous incidents which Patton blamed for his removal from command—he slapped two soldiers for cowardice who apparently were suffering from what we now call PTSD. He failed here, and couldn’t see the possibility that the war might inflict moral and psychic injury on those under his command.

Finally, after the Roman Empire and the European empires must come a new American Empire, and Patton’s career furnishes the needed example again. His arrival in Europe is that of a ghost—he is in charge of a phantom army intended to deceive the Germans, as though his mere reputation will scare them into paying attention, thus discounting the real landings. But he also trained an inexperienced army for D-Day and, as his prediction that the invasion of Normandy would stall for incompetence proved true, he was sent into battle. Over the last year of the war, he achieved amazing victories, especially compared with the broad-front balancing act of Eisenhower’s command and Field Marshal Montgomery’s brainchild, Operation Market Garden, which was a costly failure.

Here, Coppola gives us a strange companion to the previous examples of combining beauty and power. It may seem mere chance that Patton starts his European campaign by cursing like a common soldier in his great “Address to the Third Army,” and ends forcing a chaplain to compose a weather prayer when he has to race to Bastogne to save American troops in the Battle of the Bulge. But cursing and oaths are naturally connected, so we see him talk to himself and his staff about God guaranteeing his destiny, despite all setbacks!

Patton is shown declaring his pride for his men—he had trained them to achieve a strength previously considered impossible, indeed, that they disbelieved until the eve of the battle. Patton taught himself to curse in order to appeal and speak in a memorable way in a democratic age—this is similar to bending his genius to the democratic American cause, despite his own aristocratic soul.

Patton prays to the God of David—of the Psalms, the God of hosts, that is, armies. This seems rather un-Christian and is certainly unpopular. But the alternative, fighting atheist wars, may be impossible, so what was he supposed to do?

American Exceptionalism

Patton appeared in 1970, when far-sighted men like Coppola could see that progressive liberalism was beginning to crack. He ended the decade with Apocalypse Now, where the liberal way of war appears as insane. Something more is needed than institutions that enforce conformism, limit influence to a small, self-perpetuating class that isolates itself in a few metropolises, and polish mediocrity in hopes of hypnotizing America with fantasies of celebrity.

Executive power calls forth great men in America. They have to obey institutional requirements and, ultimately, the rule of law, but American constitutionalism is unique for its encouragement of remarkable power in the executive when the occasion calls for it. The other powers check and balance it, since they have the stability the executive lacks, but it has the energy they desperately need. Our nature requires it—we are a nation on the move.

One thing obvious only in crisis is the great resources America can draw on. Patton was a natural aristocrat, with a remarkable classical education, and love of manly striving. We are still able to teach and to instill these loves and these powers in young Americans if we choose to. The past and our very heroes have long been despised by liberals, but if we are to create new elites, we should revive these teachings.

Patton may seem anachronistic, but anachronism comes easily to us, since we do not have the long history and customs that other nations have. America was born modern, but that itself made it easy to bring to America from Europe a remarkable civilization, Christianity as much as modern science, natural and political, the commercial spirit as much as the manly love of freedom, all necessary to the conquest of the continent.

Great men prove what we are capable of, but they also prove that institutions are not by themselves enough. We need to replicate what we can of the education of great men and we need also to change our institutions in light of what we learn from how great men help us overcome crisis. We should correct our typical mistake of preferring technology to soul. 

Thanks to Coppola, director Franklin Schaffner, and the remarkable portrayal by George C. Scott, Patton will live in our memories as long as we retain our pride. And with that memory, we retain the ability to learn what it takes to form elites fit to wield executive power and how they can lead Americans in accordance with American character and our hidden resources. This time of crisis should suffice to persuade us we need a new class of leaders.

Reader Discussion

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on May 25, 2020 at 07:55:23 am

Patton was simply the greatest military strategist the U.S. ever produced and one of the great men of American history. It is both highly appropriate and sadly ironic on this Memorial Day, in which most Americans are prisoners of their government, to honor the man who did so much on the field of valor to defeat totalitarianism.
Please see the recent talk praising the extraordinary General Patton, given to a Hillsdale College audience by military historian Victor Davis Hanson, entitled, "George S. Patton, American Ajax."

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on May 25, 2020 at 15:39:49 pm

Bravo! You are receiving a standing ovation. I fear that there are sorry few today who would join me. You have exceptional talent and wish you many years persuading the demos. How much more our country can stand of the executive mediocraties is open to question. Not everyone can be a Patton, but we desperately need them to be more widely read and honestly educated. It's a crying shame when a teacher becomes a governor and demonstrates utter incompetence, performing like a principal rather than a statesman, i.e. Minnesota.

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mike timmer
on May 25, 2020 at 16:51:58 pm

excellent essay!

"We need to replicate what we can of the education of great men and we need also to change our institutions in light of what we learn from how great men help us overcome crisis."

This will never happen so long as we have organs such as the NyTimes that publish such rubbish as this:


wherein we find that the US Military is maligned, slandered and otherwise abused as (what else?) racist. And this on Memorial Day.
Consider also that the NYTimes represents the voice of academia - the oracle of instruction for those we would educate as in olden days.

Fat chance!

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on May 26, 2020 at 08:06:37 am

A great essay on an outstanding movie. It is one of my favorites. It has given me a lifelong interest in the General. I was only 13 when the movie came out. For those who want to learn more, Victor Davis Hanson's book "The Savior Generals" is a great place to start.

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Robert F
on May 26, 2020 at 08:49:16 am

Victor Hanson points out how society reveres and then disposes of people like Patton. We need them, they save us, and because we see them as crude, we dismiss them. We like weak kneed jelly spined "leaders" because they never tell us we are wrong, they never want us to feel bad. They only want our votes. And dutifully we surrender those votes, along with our liberty. It is sickening that a once great republic is so awash in utter stupidity and incompetence.

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on May 26, 2020 at 10:22:03 am

"Something more is needed than institutions that enforce conformism, limit influence to a small, self-perpetuating class that isolates itself in a few metropolises, and polish mediocrity in hopes of hypnotizing America with fantasies of celebrity.Something more is needed than institutions that enforce conformism, limit influence to a small, self-perpetuating class that isolates itself in a few metropolises, and polish mediocrity in hopes of hypnotizing America with fantasies of celebrity."
This may be one of the best statements I've read in a very, very long time. As the father of two, a recent HS grad and a rising junior, I see how they bombarded with the victimology/identify politics theories in school; we push back but it is clear these ideas/ideals are now part of the lenses through which they view the world.
Patton indeed despised mediocrity; he drove himself well above it, at a huge price to himself and those close to him. Such is the price of genius. But, our nation, in fact the world, must forever recognize and be grateful for what he did.
BTW, I was 11 when this movie came out and it is my favorite movie of all time.

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Greg B
on May 26, 2020 at 12:13:53 pm

I had the great good fortune (?) to be a plebe (freshman) at West Point 69-70 and we were able to see Patton at its premier. During a year of Cambodia, Kent State, etc., the film had both an inspiring and reassuring effect. It inspired us, and it reassured us that at some point in the future, Soldiers of Patton's character would be needed. It has the same effect 50 years later, if one is open to the message.

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on May 27, 2020 at 15:23:02 pm

And 50 years later we are still waiting for a soldier (or statesman) of Patton's character.

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on May 26, 2020 at 19:36:28 pm

As necessaryas MacArthur in the Pacific? MacArthur hid under his bed December 8th, 1941, for more than 12 hours after Pearl Harbor, gave the Phillipines to Tojo and shoulda been cashiered like Kimmel and Short.

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on May 27, 2020 at 05:22:50 am

Well done. Next time do a compare and contrast on leadership styles as portrayed in the movies Patton and Gandhi.

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James Madison
on May 27, 2020 at 15:40:12 pm

Interesting thought, Patton and Gandhi.
Both men larger than life, even in the extraordinary times in which they lived; both of great courage and single-mindedness, both born leaders but each, arguably, with the flawed, singular talent and deep vision of the hedgehog not the multanimous talents and broader perspectives of the fox, more needed then and now by a statesman. Better a Churchill than a Ghandi, better a Marshall than a Patton for the respective grand victories each sought.

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on May 27, 2020 at 10:36:52 am

One of my favorite movies (have the DVD). A good read is Patton’s memoir “War as I Knew It”, it’s his battle memoirs.

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on May 30, 2020 at 17:47:34 pm

One of the great virtues of the film is that it raises the question of what does a republic do with leaders like Patton when the war is over. As portrayed in the film, Patton himself had no answer to this question. He wanted to continue with a war against the Soviet Union. The film invites comparison with Shakespeare's Coriolanus, who was essential to the Roman Republic in time of war and disastrous in time of peace.

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George Tarr

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A 20th-Century Tolstoy?

Grossman is especially concerned to recreate wartime experience in its entirety, from the separation of loved ones to heroism, cowardice, and death.