Should History be Kinder to George Patton?
General George Patton has been an enigmatic figure for many years. Robert Orlando’s recently released documentary, Silence Patton, attempts to portray him as a Cassandra-like figure who warned against the risk of Stalin and communism, and nobody would listen. Patton died under strange circumstances, and there has always been talk of a conspiracy to kill him. According to the film, there was an attempt to silence him, because he turned out to be a nuisance to the Allies’ post-war plans.
The film pays some attention to Patton’s incidents, like slapping soldiers who were too nervous to engage in combat. At the time, the American media made a circus out of it, and Patton was temporarily discharged from the Italian campaign. Orlando treats this as a first instance of the American higher command’s flawed decisions, and a sign of what was to come. I would not be so quick to dismiss Patton’s abuses. Yes, slapping is a minor thing compared to the brutal discipline that the Nazis and the Soviets imposed on their soldiers. But, military ethical standards are absolute, and they cannot be relativized simply because the enemy is worse.
Patton’s slapping incidents may not be as harmless as they seem. They sent a terrible message: there is no such thing as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Sure, back then, psychiatrists had not come up with the term. But, common sense would dictate that, in the heat of battle, some human beings can have a nervous breakdown. PTSD victims are not cowards, they are patients. To this day, some people refuse to accept this medical reality, and I’m sure glamorizing Patton’s aggressiveness and militarism does not help in advancing medical knowledge.
The film’s main focus is on Patton’s exhortations to take Berlin before Stalin’s troops got there. His exhortations fell on deaf ears, and of course, Stalin got there first, and made life terrible for all Eastern Europeans. I will not dispute this. Most Latin Americans appreciate Pablo Neruda, but the famous Chilean poet was an idiot when he wrote odes to Stalin. Communism in Eastern Europe was terrible, and Stalin was a psychopath.
However, as with most military matters, this is easily said only with the benefit of hindsight; the fog of war makes things very difficult. Sure, Stalin was already a monster in the 1930s. But I believe Truman, Eisenhower and the others who tried to silence Patton made the right decision. First, they may have had good reason to doubt Patton’s mental stability. Orlando tries to dismiss this as nonsense, but I would not go so fast.
Believing in reincarnation and believing yourself to be a Roman soldier (as Patton did) is not a sign of mental illness. But, even in the film itself, Orlando quotes letters from Patton showing great eagerness to earn military glory. This is a dangerous sign. War may be intoxicating, especially for generals who have been humiliated in the past (as Patton was with the slapping incidents), and are now zealous to prove their military worth. Once rogue generals are given green light to pursue their glory dreams, they may be hard to stop, and indeed, their mental instability may put everyone in jeopardy.
Yes, Stalin was a brutal dictator. But, given Patton’s aggressive past, I would venture to say that even with a moderate and a reformer like Gorbachev, Patton would have urged to fight the commies to the end. A big unanswered question in the film is: had Patton been given the green light to take Berlin before Stalin’s troops got there, would he have been willing to go all the way to Moscow? Apparently, yes. It seems to me this was yet another good and perfectly rational reason to stop and silence him.
This was the summer of 1945. By the time American troops tried to reach Moscow, it would have already been winter. Napoleon failed. Hitler failed. Even the Americans, back in 1919, failed to overthrow the Bolsheviks in the Russian civil war. Why would it be different this time?
I believe there is also a moral argument to be made, although I do not think Truman (not a very moral man) or Eisenhower considered it: Russia had already suffered too much, and in a sense, there had to be some moral gratitude to Russia, even with a brutal man like Stalin. To a certain extent, Orlando prolongs the myth that the Americans came in to defeat Nazism. But, most historians would agree that the real factor in Hitler’s demise was the Eastern front, and indeed, no other country suffered as many deaths as the Soviet Union. Without Stalin, the war would have never been won.
Orlando is a fine filmmaker, and his approach is serious and analytical enough. But, I am afraid that his film may be used as neoconservative propaganda by some. The film itself does not explicitly advocate war. But, it does feature prominently Victor Davis Hanson, admittedly a Stanford scholar, but who nevertheless has become a cheerleader for every American military intervention of the last three decades (infamously including the Second Iraq War; he now advocates preemptive strikes against Iran), and someone I would describe as a warmonger. It is not difficult for a neocon to use Orlando’s film to say that half-assed jobs, like Vietnam or Berlin, are a disgrace, and that America should take Patton’s lead and wipe all dictators off the face of the Earth, no matter the cost.
The last few minutes of the film are particularly disturbing. Hanson and others argue that America needs people like Patton, because as the old Latin phrase goes, “si pax vis, para bellum”, if you want peace, prepare for war. After George W. Bush’s era, is this what America (and the world) really needs? To prepare for war, you need to raise taxes, restrict civil liberties, and even conscript (as was actually the case in World War II). Is it worth it?
Ultimately, Orlando’s film favors the argument that Communism in countries like Cuba might have been stopped had America’s leaders listened to Patton. Hanson and others speak of communism in Cold War language, as a disease. Sure, it was a disease. But, it is extremely naïve to believe that this disease was wholly inoculated from Moscow. At least in the Latin American case, countries such as Cuba, Chile and Nicaragua turned to communism because of the internal class struggles, and above all, American support of right-wing dictators. The way to avoid a revolution and the spread of communism in the Third World was not merely to occupy Berlin, but rather, to assure a greater degree of social justice.
This is not to say that Silence Patton does not make some interesting points, and that Patton did not stand for some noble causes. For example, after Germany’s defeat, denazification punished anybody who ever gave the funny Hitler salute; Patton made the obvious point that most Germans had no choice.
Yet, despite all of this, I keep the sour taste in my mouth after watching this documentary. Early in the film, one of the interviewees says that a lot of people wanted Patton dead, because the US government was infiltrated by communists. To me, this sounds a lot like McCarthyist paranoia. Fortunately, the film never makes that descent into hell. But, I insist, I can easily picture neocons citing Silence Patton in order to make a case to attack Iran, or whatever other American nemesis. Patton may have been a courageous general and a brilliant strategies, but he had plenty of moral imperfections.