The Magazine

Man of War

General George Patton defeats his latest biographer.

Dec 2, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 12 • By ROBERT D. NOVAK
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General Patton
A Soldier's Life
by Stanley P. Hirshson
HarperCollins, 826 pp., $34.95

IS THERE ANY JUSTIFICATION for yet another biography of the much-chronicled General George S. Patton Jr., particularly after the superb "Patton: A Genius for War" by Carlo D'Este (1995)? Certainly not the one supplied by academic biographer Stanley P. Hirshson. Earlier biographers were guilty of "incomplete research," he writes, meaning that he has dipped into previously ignored library boxes. "I especially invite a comparison of the footnotes," urges Hirshson, which sounds like a librarian's view of history.

Footnotes aside, Hirshson urges readers to compare his chapters "on the conflict between tankers and infantrymen in the 1920s and 1930s, on Patton's failure to denazify Bavaria and on the loss of the Third Army and on the struggle over the Patton diary and movie with those in any other book." Those obscure revelations hardly justify the eleven years that Hirshson, a history professor at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, spent on "General Patton: A Soldier's Life." They seem niggling attempts to downgrade Patton's towering reputation.

Nevertheless, I waded through this heavy tome, and found it worthwhile for a pair of disparate reasons. Hirshson employs the vacuum cleaner style of biography favored by academic researchers who spew out whatever they find in their library boxes. That results in inelegant prose but also supplies new Patton anecdotes and trivia that delighted me as an unabashed admirer of one of the truly great military leaders in the nation's history. More significantly, this new book teaches, however inadvertently, that irascible, indiscreet warriors are needed in times of trouble. They were necessary sixty years ago, and they may be today.

Stanley Hirshson clearly does not like George Patton, and has diligently sought out the general's many critics (such as novelist John P. Marquand, whose ferocious unpublished attack on Patton even Hirshson labels "unduly critical"). Patton surely is "politically incorrect" for the twenty-first century, but he was also PI for the 1940s.

If the frequently shortsighted George C. Marshall had had his way, the Allied cause would have been deprived of Patton's brilliant leadership because he had slapped two soldiers hospitalized with battle fatigue--and columnist Drew Pearson made it a cause célèbre. Only the good sense of Patton's old friend (and often sharp critic) General Dwight D. Eisenhower saved him from being sent home after the slappings.

If Hirshson had his way, Patton would never have been available for the relief of Bastogne that ranks high in American military annals. Apart from his finding that Patton was not really dyslexic but just a very poor speller, the author appears to value as his greatest revelation the allegation that Patton's ferocious speeches arousing the warrior spirit in American draftees led to the murder of enemy POWs in Sicily. Even though Hirshson fails to connect such a commonplace wartime atrocity convincingly with Patton's rhetoric, he still would have sacked him.

Hirshson also dwells on Patton's anti-Semitism as unacceptable in a war against Hitler. The general's remark during the furor over the slapping incident, overheard by a reporter and included twice in this book (which would have benefited from more robust editing): "There's no such thing as shellshock. It's an invention of the Jews." He described the visiting wife of President Roosevelt's adviser Judge Sam Rosenman as "a very Jewy Jewess." At war's end, he confided to his diary his disgust with the poor personal hygiene of DP's (displaced persons), "and this applies particularly to the Jews, who are lower than animals."

The anti-Semitism of Patton, scion of rich California aristocrats, was typical of his time and caste. It wasn't the virulent Hitlerian strain. Greeting Jewish entertainers who came to Europe during the war, Patton had a wonderful time with Al Jolson and was rumored to enjoy a dalliance with Dinah Shore. The general wrote in his diary: "They have no shame nor modesty and will take all they can get." He was speaking here not of Jews but of the British. The military historian S.L.A. Marshall wrote of Patton that he hated the Supreme Command, the First Army, the Jews, and, above all, the British.

WHAT REALLY SEEMS TO BOTHER Hirshson is that Patton was not liberal and did not oppose the economic conservatism of his fabulously rich in-laws, the Ayers of Massachusetts. He writes in the preface: "After the death of his father, a reform Democrat, Patton seemed to adopt the Ayer family's attitude toward labor, race and ethnicity." In fact, the elder Patton opposed women's suffrage and ran to the right of progressive Republican Hiram Johnson in an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate.