Patton is one of the top five movies ever — in the elite group occupied by Godfather, Gone with the Wind, and a couple place-holders than I am pondering. Casablanca was a member of the Elite Five for a long time, but on further reflection, her fundamental dishonesty is a leaden weight tied around her beautiful ankles that is causing her to sink. Same with Sound of Music. So I want to reserve the final two slots for placement after a bit more thought. Chariots of Fire is a contender.
One characteristic shared by all the Greats is that it is impossible to capture the grandeur in a single essay of blog-digestible proportions. This is because the greatness involves roots that go very deep and touch on, not just some, but many of the tender themes of life. So instead of essaying my usual goal of capturing the nub, I have decided to try in this little screed to scratch a little on the periphery, to dwell on a subtext that is easily missed altogether, as a way of revealing a pointer to the tragedy that Patton’s whole project was. First consider three aspects of the film as phenomena.
1. Patton vs. Bradley
We can take the contrast that is depicted between the attitude of Patton and General Bradley as a starting point. Bradley was seen as the G.I.’s General, a man that had their concerns foremost in his mind. Even the German staff notices this in their screening room. As they watch a newsreel of Bradley stepping off a troop carrier, someone observes he doesn’t even look like a general, and staff captain Steiger explains, “Er ist ein auserordentlich fähig und doch bescheidener Mann. Höchst ungewöhnlich für einen General” but quickly apologizes when he notices Jodl glaring at him: “Verzeiung.” (Exceptionally capable, yet modest — most unusual for a General. Oh, sorry.)
The contrast to Patton’s attitude is brought out most vividly in the scene when Patton commands General Lucian Truscott to mount a risky amphibian salient that could lead to his exhausted troops being slaughtered. Under protest, Truscott submits to the order, and leaves the tent. Patton asks Bradley if he thinks Truscott was right, and Bradley gives a memorable speech:
No. But I do know that you’re gambling with the lives of those boys just so you can beat Montgomery into Messina. And if you pull it off, you’re a big hero. But if you don’t, what happens to them, the ordinary combat soldier? He doesn’t share in your dreams of glory. He’s stuck here. He’s stuck living out every day, day to day, with death tugging at his elbow.
There’s one big difference between you and me, George. I do this job because I’ve been trained to do it. You do it, because… [dramatically removes spectacles]… you love it.
II. The slapping incident
The scene is well-known, so I won’t belabor it. A young man, admitted to the camp hospital for “shell shock,” is shaking and weeping when Patton arrives to decorate some wounded soldiers. When Patton hears his story, he rebukes him, then slaps him, then threatens to send him to the front line. His rage increasing, he grabs his pistol and threatens to kill him right on the spot, but the orderlies hustle the boy out of the tent.
This was almost a career-ender for Patton. Eisenhower demanded he apologize, not just to the boy, but to every division in the army, publicly; then took away his command and sent him to Malta. Jodl is incredulous when Steiger explains what happened. “Remove their best commander for boxing the ear of a soldier? Hrmph.” It must be a diversionary tactic, he concludes.
III. The conflicts within the “alliance”
The manly rivalry for glory between Patton and Montgomery is the grist for a great deal of humor in the film. But the humor masks a soft underbelly. When Patton is told that his plan for the invasion of Sicily was rejected in favor of Monty’s, the messenger explains “Ike had to consider all points of view. He made his decision not as an American, but as an Ally.”
Later, Beetle Smith intones, “George this is the toughest coalition ever attempted in history. Ike sits at the top trying to hold it together and lick the Germans at the same time. Now believe me, it’s one hell of a job,” and another time: “Don’t you realize how suspicious the Russians are of the British and ourselves?”
The common soldier’s misery that Bradley allegedly had such fatherly concern for was depicted in the print cartoon Sad Sack that first appeared in the Army Weekly. My father (a WW2 veteran) had a hardback edition of the comic that I perused as a boy. It depicted the lowly spiritless soldier being kicked around by his sergeant and the whole army system. He was a dupe, a pawn, whose only goal was to get back home. It resonated with millions of people and was serialized for quite a while even after the war.
But the Sad Sack, and General Bradley’s solicitous concern for his fate, points to the fundamental problem with America’s involvement in WW2: we had no business being there. When men are fighting a real enemy of their nation, when the survival of their people is at stake, they are not Sad Sacks. They are full of fight and vim to their last breath. Even after the bloody disaster of Pickett’s Charge, the surviving men clustered around General Lee and expressed their willingness to try it again. By the end of the war, they were bare-footed scarecrows, but not Sad Sacks.
The reflection suggests that we can add a heuristic to the criteria for Just War: in addition to the list reasoned out by Christian ethicists, we can add that when a war is just, there is no difficulty in recruiting a body of men that are willing, nay eager to fight. An eager fighting corp is not sufficient proof that the cause is just, for sometimes, men have fought fiercely out of base motives, such as the hope for plunder. But the converse is true: if the corp is characterized by malingers that wish they weren’t there, it is strong circumstantial evidence that the war is unjust: no just war, I submit, has ever suffered from a chronic problem of the Sad Sack.
If my reasoning is sound here, then the figure of General Bradley as depicted in the movie is actually that of a wicked man: a man who knows the war he is fighting is the business neither of him nor his men, yet he carries on, “because he has been trained to,” waging war with two sets of victims: the “enemy” soldiers, and his own. Fretting about it and posturing about “concern” for the second set of victims does not mitigate the moral guilt, it actually exacerbates it.
In a just war, there might be the rare dispositional coward such as the boy that was slapped by Patton, a boy, let us suppose, raised by women, coupled with a natural sensitive disposition. For such a boy, a humiliating encounter such as was depicted with the great Patton could be life-changing experience. The incident could have rescued the boy’s self-respect (as Patton claimed was his intent) and gained a worthy soldier for the army. It would not have been an occasion for moral posturing by Ike, let alone the occasion for relieving his best field commander from duty.
In short, the entire incident as played out by the executive staff shows that this was not a just war in their minds either. It was something else: a political escapade, a “tool of diplomacy,” a means to advance the Soviet Union, a way to grab some spoils, a way to jump-start the economy, or whatever. But it was not a desperate war for the survival of their own nation.
The same analysis applies to all this walking on egg-shells to “hold the alliance together.” When nations join together in a desperate and justified fight against a common enemy, there is not an endless problem with hurting each others’ feelings. Certainly, there could be a conflict in vision of how to proceed, but that is not what Smith was highlighting. He was highlighting the honor and glory, and petulant pride. That this was a major factor in setting policy and strategy is proof, if the movie is accurate, that the war was not a just one.
If we lift the scope of our analysis out of the movie into the complete history, the situation is even more farcical. At one point during the war, the western “allies” fretted that Germany and the USSR might conclude a separate peace. God forbid that peace should break out before we are done smashing things up! Then when we add to the mix Churchill’s sneaky secret meeting with Stalin, in which on paper they divided up the post-war spoils of Europe between them, why, it turns out that Attila the Hun had more integrity than the “allies.”
Now, how does the figure of Patton fall out from this analysis?
Though glory was a big motive, this was of the type from the heroic age, not reducible to base pride. His was the spirit familiar to readers of the Iliad, and Beowulf, and the Battle of Malden.Though he was willing to wage desperate battles knowing that many men would be killed, his genuine concern for the men is depicted in several scenes. He fought with the desperation of a man that believed the war could be lost, and had come under the conviction that it really needed to be won. Later, after the fall of Germany, he shows his true colors: the real enemy all along was Bolshevism. Now the Bolsheviks did present a lethal threat to all the nations of the world. Had they been the designated enemy from the beginning, rather than our “ally,” our involvement in the war could arguably be called just.
So what was going on in Patton’s soul during the intermediate state, when the Germans were the focus of his bellicosity? Admittedly, this casts a shadow across his character. Partly, we can excuse his (as well as Bradley’s much worse) posture as deriving from the military man’s loyalty and obedience to the civil authorities of his nation, in which he does not see it as his “job” to take part in the bigger questions. Taking his numerous great qualities as a whole, and granting the judgment of charity, we can, I hope, regard his two-year posture of regarding the Germans as “the enemy” as confusion arising from his heroic vision and his tacit intuition that the war should continue and keep going all the way to Moscow.
His (and our) enemies ensured that this could not happen.