An Anti-Patton Biography of 'A Great General'

Article excerpt

General Patton: A Soldier's Life. Stanley P. Hirshson. HarperCollins. 826 pages; photographs; maps; endnotes; index; $34.95.

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. …