the Life of a Complex General
Hirshson considers that General George S. Patton, Jr.s
rescue of trapped forces in Bastogne during the December 1944 Battle
of the Bulge ranks with Ulysses S. Grants running of
the Confederate batteries of Vicksburg and George Washingtons
crossing of the Delaware at Trenton in daring and ingenuity.
According to Hirshson, everyone thought the relief of Bastogne was
impossible, but Patton turned his army 180 degrees, a remarkable
achievement, and relieved Bastogne in bitter weather.
But that high regard does not prevent the Queens College and Graduate
Center professor of history from examining two very different General
Pattons in his massive new biography, General Patton: A Soldiers
Life (HarperCollins). There is, he writes, the general of public
renown (poet, intellectual, reincarnationist, and far-sighted
leader) and the general behind the battle front (devoted
son, materialist, inspiring but often cold leader, a man of narrow
social and political vision).
Hirshson has good reason, in his preface, to invite comparison of
his footnotes with those of previous Patton biographies, for he
has spent more than a decade haunting all the germane archival sites
and tracking down still-living members of the Patton cast. Indeed,
his project sparked to life around 1990, when he was wrapping up
work in the library at West Point on a biography of General William
T. Sherman, The White Tecumseh (Hirshson has also biographized Brigham
The library was just then beginning to receive Patton materials
from the generals family. I began reading Sherman materials
in the morning and Patton materials in the afternoon. I soon got
very interested in Patton. The 25-year battle over rights
to Pattons diary is a story in itself.
Patton earnestly believes in a warriors Valhalla
honestly thinks it is to the glory of a man to die in the service
of his country, wrote a military aide in 1944. Hirshson speculates
that this faith may explain the best-known and most infamous events
of Pattons career when, on a hot August day in Sicily, he
slapped two hospitalized soldiers for their seeming dereliction
of duty. But Hirshson also cites an English journalist who said
he overheard Patton say, just after the slappings, There is
no such thing as shell shock. Its an invention of the Jews.
Hirshson unravels the decidedly mingled yarn of Pattons career,
parsing the goodhis devoted relationship with his father,
his advocacy of tank warfare, his remarkable talents as a battlefield
leaderand the bad: everything from his notoriously bad spelling
to his anti-Semitism, social-climbing and snobbery, extramarital
affairs, and his often too-violent attempts to inspire his soldiers,
which, Hirshson believes, encouraged battlefield atrocities in Italy.
His most ignoble failure? Hirshson cites his failure to de-nazify
Bavaria after the war, which lost him command of the Third Army.
He told everyone he had been relieved because he alone saw
the Russian menace. He was incapable of facing the truth.
Along the way, the often blunt criticisms in Pattons diary
of generals like Eisenhower and Bradley are given, and Hirshson
also offers, not surprisingly, some acerbic views about how movie
versions have flubbed Pattons life.