Capturing the Life of a Complex General

Stanley 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. Grant’s running of the Confederate batteries of Vicksburg and George Washington’s 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 Soldier’s 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 Young).

The library was just then beginning to receive Patton materials from the general’s 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 Patton’s diary is a story in itself.

“Patton earnestly believes in a warrior’s Valhalla…He 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 Patton’s 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. It’s an invention of the Jews.”

Hirshson unravels the decidedly mingled yarn of Patton’s career, parsing the good—his devoted relationship with his father, his advocacy of tank warfare, his remarkable talents as a battlefield leader—and 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 Patton’s diary of generals like Eisenhower and Bradley are given, and Hirshson also offers, not surprisingly, some acerbic views about how movie versions have flubbed Patton’s life.

Contents October 2002

From High School Dropout to Surgeon General – Thanks to BCC

Extending the Lifespan of Learning

The Bronx: A Thriving River Runs Through It

Chancellor's Message: Celebrating CUNY Poets

Two Bills for CUNY Signed by Governor

Colleges Set Out Welcome Mats For First “CUNY Week” Outreach

New Technology: Two Conferences

Celebrating the Pleasures of Literature

The Public and Private Lives of Eleanor Roosevelt

Capturing the Life of a Complex General

TV Boot Camp Gives Students Taste of “60 Minutes” Magic

Big Cats' Novels Change America

Imagining Hopper

New Stars in Faculty Firmament

John Jay Law Enforcement News Honored for Articles on 9/11

Preserving the History of the Puerto Rican Diaspora

Vigils, Bells, Art, Eloquence—and Silence: Campuses Observe September 11

Three WTC Workers from City Tech Receive Scholarships

Future Holds New Home, New Master’s for CUNY’s School of Architecture

N.J. State Human Resources Executive Comes to CUNY

Hostos Goes Electronic on the Grand Concourse

New Shuttle Service Eases Lehman Commute

Leap in Fall Enrollment

CUNY Board Adopts State Early Retirement Plan