#Reviewing 21st Century Patton: Strategic Insights for the Modern Era

21st Century Patton: Strategic Insights for the Modern Era. J. Furman Daniel III, ed. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016.


Some of the best book discoveries are serendipitous. Years ago, I was a young officer, hungry for anecdotes, for stories—anything that described how military leaders used their reading to guide them in their profession. While stationed in Europe, on a whim, I read a copy of Roger H. Nye’s splendid little book Challenge of Command. Looking for more books by Nye, I eventually discovered his lesser known but seminal work The Patton Mind: The Professional Development of an Extraordinary Leader. I had hit the jackpot. The Patton Mind was the most comprehensive and detailed account of a military officer’s professional reading I had ever encountered.

Nye, because he was a history professor at West Point, had access to many of Patton’s books and journals which were stored (and still are) at the academy’s library. And with boxes of Patton’s archives, Nye was able to detail the general’s reading life.

For instance, we learn that in 1910, during Patton’s honeymoon in London, that he picked up a copy of Colonel David Henderson’s The Art of Reconnaissance. There, Patton also bought a 1909 copy of Clausewitz’s On War. After the couple returned from London, Patton packed his copy of On War along with some other books he had bought while overseas and took them with him on Army maneuvers in Wisconsin. When he finished On War, he signed and dated it, “Finished August 15 1910/George S. Patton, Jr,” and then told his wife Beatrice: “Clausewitz is about as hard reading as anything can well be and is as full of notes of equal abstruseness as a dog is of fleas.”[1] Many a war college student has uttered similar words.

Nye goes on to describe some interesting facts about Patton’s note taking style. Patton relied on index cards to capture key parts of a book he had read. Often, after Patton finished a book, he would pull out his typewriter, and then type up a summary or detail the book’s key points. Patton enjoyed French army officer Ardant Du Piq’s Battle Studies so much that he typed up “138 notes over twenty-six cards, agreeing with the author on many points.”[2]

Even at the end of his life, paralyzed and in pain following a devastating car crash in 1945, Patton wanted to read. While people rushed to his bedside, he asked his wife to bring him his copy of Armand-Augustin-Louis de Caulaincourt’s memoirs. During his last days, lying in a hospital bed in Heidelberg, Germany, Beatrice sat by his side reading the English translation of one of Napoleon’s most trusted generals and later diplomat. [3]

This is a man, then, that absorbed the world—and other worlds, for that matter—through books, detailed notes, and writing. I can’t help but think Patton would have agreed with Ralph Waldo Emerson when he famously said, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I’ve eaten; even so, they have made me.” But what kind of man, what kind of soldier did all this reading, thinking, and writing? What was the purpose? It was all, truly, for two reasons, both of course intricately linked: to lead men into battle and to kill the enemy.

Patton was brash, theatrical, and impulsive at the risk of imprudence. His most infamous act, as many know, was when as a Lieutenant General he slapped and verbally abused Private Charles Kuhl and Private Paul Bennett during the Sicily Campaign. Patton thought they were cowards, hiding in the medical tent. Rather, both men probably suffered from what was then called “battle fatigue,” one of the many terms used to described post traumatic stress in a time when few people knew what war did to a man’s mind.

Patton’s slapping incidents made it back to his superior officer, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was furious, counseling Patton in a letter containing “some of the strongest words of censure written to a senior American officer during World War II.”[4] Patton would continue to frustrate Eisenhower throughout the war with his undisciplined actions and ill-timed statements.

General Patton with Generals Eisenhower and Bradley surveying the damage in Bastogne, Belgium (National Archives)

In fact, Kay Summersby, Eisenhower’s driver and the person who probably spent more time with him than anyone else during the war, wrote about how much Patton irritated Eisenhower with his undisciplined behavior. In her fascinating and largely forgotten memoir, Past Forgetting: My Love Affair with Dwight D. Eisenhower, she said that “the most difficult man that Ike had to cope with—always excepting Montgomery, who was in a class by himself—was the flamboyant General George Patton. They were old, old friends….but that man caused him a lot of grief.”[5]

It is Summersby’s particular word here, her description of Patton as “flamboyant,” which is interesting. Patton’s flamboyance was integral to who he was as a combat leader.

Patton’s flamboyance—his showmanship—was borne out of book written by a French physician in the 19th century: Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Le Bon’s The Crowd is regarded as one of the pioneering works of crowd psychology. It is unlikely, however, that Kay Summersby would have known the markings and marginalia that Patton scribbled in his copy of The Crowd when she called him “flamboyant.” Nor did she know how deeply Patton had studied the traits and behaviors of the leader who can wield and shape a crowd. Patton has numerous notes in his copy of The Crowd, but one in particular is interesting. On page 57 of his copy, Patton made three hash marks, clearly highlighting Le Bon’s comments on what impresses a crowd—something that the general would use to great effect during the war:

Given to exaggerations in its feelings, a crowd is only impressed by excessive sentiments. An orator wishing to move a crowd must make an abusive use of violent affirmations. To exaggerate, to affirm, to resort to repetitions, and never to attempt to prove anything by reasoning are methods of argument well known to speakers at public meetings.[6]

Later, after his death, Beatrice wrote a piece for Armor magazine naming all of General Patton’s favorite books—and no surprise, Le Bon’s The Crowd was on the list.

Patton's Reading List

Patton's Reading List

Flamboyance during combat could easily be mistaken for charisma. They are close cousins, however, the former is far more seedier than the latter. Flamboyance has an odor of selfishness; charisma shows a hint of benevolence. Yet both share the element of the showman, the actor, the leader that can inspire confidence in soldiers. But what happens when the show is over? What happens to the showman?

After the war, Patton was assigned as the military governor of the Bavarian region. De-Nazification and rebuilding the destroyed German state were the tasks at hand. But Patton was no politician. He had not read for what happens after the war; he knew how to destroy an enemy, not how to rebuild a country. So when he was asked in a press conference his plans for de-Nazification in Bavaria, he said that while he despised Nazis, they would help rebuild the country. In fact, historian Carlo D’Este notes in his biography of Patton, the other governors of war-torn Germany were doing the same thing: using the Nazis, with their intimate understanding of Germany’s socioeconomic structure, to help rebuild the country. The only difference was the other governors kept silent about using Nazi expertise. In the end, Patton was fired for an impolitic statement. He would die shortly after, frustrated and unfulfilled, never getting the chance to fight in another war.

And yet Patton remains relevant today. I appreciate, as many do, his success in numerous military operations in World War II. But it is his autodidactic drive we should honor today. In fact, Dr. Furman Daniel III, in his fine introduction to the 21st Century Patton: Strategic Insights for the Modern Era, notes that “Patton’s military knowledge was primarily the product of his own efforts.” I read this with the somber reminder that any efforts to maximize our professional military education and the intellectual culture of our military is, as it has always been, up to each of us.

Dr. Daniel rightly asks us to look past the myths that have sprung up around the general, which is largely owed to George C. Scott’s portrayal in the 1970 film Patton. The general, in some ways, has not been able to escape the shadow of Scott’s bombastic and abrasive depiction.

To understand Patton, you have to look at what he wrote and what he read, and it is there that you will find the man. Besides Patton’s well-known journals, deftly edited by Martin Blumenson and published in two volumes known as the Patton Papers, Patton also wrote essays on military technology, history, leadership, and strategy. Many of these are now reprinted in the 21st Century Patton: Strategic Insights for the Modern Era. Some of Patton’s essays, notably his piece on the cavalry saber, were published in the Cavalry Journal, the now renamed Armor magazine. Dr. Daniel resuscitates that essay along with Patton’s essays on “Why Men Fight” (1927); “The Effect of Weapons on War” (1930); “Success In War” (1931); “Mechanized Forces: A Lecture” (1933); “Desert Training Corps” (1942); and his long, yet prescient essay on future warfare, titled, “The Probable Characteristics of the Next War and the Organization, Tactics, and Equipment Necessary to Meet Them” (1932).

Professor Daniel’s work is not hagiographic. He acknowledges that Patton had a “deeply flawed” personality; his introduction, conclusion, and the essays that proceed each Patton piece are taut and descriptive without piling ornate praise on the general’s ideas and intellect. And to those readers looking for discussions about Patton’s flaws, they need to look elsewhere. To aid those in search for more on General Patton, Dr. Daniel provides a section in the back of the book for further reading.

To date, Dr. Daniel’s 21st Century Patton is the fifth of seven books in the ongoing and well-regarded 21st Century Series; and notably, it is the first book in the series to profile an army officer. I have read five books in the series and can tell you that its success rests on a recipe of three things: fascinating and timeless historical essays from theorists and practitioners of war; passionate editors that plumb the details of each figure’s life and writing; and the series editor, B.J. Armstrong, who has kept this train of slim, paperback books humming along with economic precision. Never bloated or chatty, each book says just enough and nothing more.

I spoke with Dr. Daniel, an assistant professor in Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s College of Global Security and Intelligence, about Patton, his new book, and why he still matters today.


Christopher Nelson: To start, how did Patton use his reading for practical purposes in war?

Furman Daniel: Patton’s reading was very practical. And he used it on multiple different levels. He used his reading to broaden his intellectual tool kit; he also used it to understand technology, human beings, and the changing character of war. But the thing I actually found most important about his reading, was he used it to create his own vision of war. His reading provided him an innate understanding which he used to great effect in World War I, the interwar period, and World War II.

Professor, regarding my first question, an entertaining example comes to mind. If you recall the scene in the film Patton when General Patton (played by George C. Scott) is fighting Rommel’s forces in North Africa. Patton’s forces are pushing the German forces back, outmaneuvering them. Patton picks up a pair of binoculars to survey the German retreat, and says, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!” Was Patton referring to Rommel’s book Infantry Attacks?

Interestingly enough that was an ad-libbed line in the movie. You should read Nick Sarantakes’ fantastic book about the making of the movie Patton. George C. Scott actually made up that line. It was one of the most iconic lines in the movie, but it was basically fabricated on the spot. Having said that, Patton did read Infantry Attacks by Rommel. He also read many of the other German writers. One of my favorite anecdotes is that over the 1930 Christmas holidays, he spent his time reading von Seeckt’s book Thoughts of a Soldier and the proto-fascist memoir Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger. He enjoyed them both and he truly believed in the old adage, know your enemy. It may strike us as odd holiday reading, but it speaks to his dedication to learning the military arts.

How did Patton go about building his professional library?

Patton started doing extra reading and collecting books while he was a cadet at West Point. He struggled academically. He had problems with math and he also had problems with French. But he saw the value of a military education and thought he wasn’t doing enough professional reading. So he started buying books as a cadet. He wrote letters to his family asking that they mail him books to read. This thirst for knowledge started as a cadet, and it is something that he built upon throughout his whole career.

Patton, it seems then, was a bit of a bibliophile. Did he collect and cherish rare books?

Patton collected books. Patton loved books. But strangely enough he was very practical about this—he didn’t have the book collector’s fetish that his books had to be the first edition or first printing, that sort of thing. He was more concerned about what the book said. Unlike most book collectors he was willing to write in his books, underline pages, and highlight paragraphs.

It’s unusual to think of Patton as a practical man. He carried ivory handled pistols, he loved the horse cavalry, he was a romantic guy in a lot of ways. But one place he was very practical was his books. He didn’t care about the value, in terms of a collector that is; rather, he cared about the book’s value to the warfighter.

You mention his note taking process—writing notes and marginalia in his books. As to the mechanics of his note taking process, how else did he absorb the works he read?

Patton was a slow reader. He struggled with reading comprehension for most of his adult life. He was a very purposeful reader because of that. He read and reread and made notes and underlined important parts of his reading. He would often type up his notes into speeches and executive summaries for his own digestion. In many ways he was not a natural reader—but he was purposeful and worked very hard to distill the lessons from these books.

Where do most of Patton’s books, journals, and letters reside?

Three places. The West Point’s library has his personal library as well as his journals in their special collections section. Many of his letters, ephemera, reading notes, and his diaries are at the Library of Congress. The Patton Museum has some fantastic items as well, but are a bit less focused in terms of his reading and writing as the other two places.

Patton's Diary

Patton's Diary

One of Patton’s journals, dated January 24, 1917. In it he writes: “Went to tea at the Boyds. Later went to see General Pershing as he was alone. I stayed with him until 10:30, going without supper. We had a most interesting conversation. Among other things, he told me that during the week ending 23 January that the U Boats had gotten over 400,000 tons of shipping. At that rate they would get over a 12th of the world’s shipping in a month. He said that unless it could be stopped we would never get our 500,000 men to France.” [Edited for clarity] [7]

How instrumental was his wife in supporting his reading and writing?

George and Beatrice Patton on their wedding day in 1910. (Armchair General)

Beatrice Patton was essential for George Patton on many levels. She supported him, understood him, and loved him in ways that I don’t think anybody else did. She came from a family that was very wealthy. The wealth she had helped sustain a very active social life that Patton had—making sure he had the best polo ponies when he played for the Army polo team, and hosting lavish parties for top officers and political figures for example. She also helped buy books, maintain his library, and she read to him. He was a slow reader because he likely suffered from dyslexia. Ultimately, she was essential to him on many, many levels.

What book, if there is indeed only one, do you think Patton turned to again and again?

The book he knew the best was the Bible. He particularly liked the Old Testament. The Old Testament tends to be the book about the angry God—the book about war and heroic deeds. He knew the Bible backwards and forwards. It surprised many people on how well he knew the Bible, both at the time and now. One of the great scenes from the movie Patton is when the chaplain asks Patton if he read the Bible, and Patton says, “Every Goddamn day.” I don’t know if he actually said that. But I do think that speaks to an element of truth. He read the Bible in a way that most people today, even religious people, do not. He read the Bible purposefully. It was an instruction for life and a book of meditation. It also helped him fight wars. Sacrifice, heroism—all of these things are encapsulated in the Bible, which he turned to often.

Another book that he took with him in 1944-1945 was Caesar's Commentaries. He turned to the Commentaries regularly in the latter parts of the war. He was also a huge fan of Rudyard Kipling and he carried the complete poems of Kipling with him on campaign.

In the back of your book, you recommend books on Patton for further reading. Of the sixteen that are listed, if you had to whittle it down to three, what would you recommend?

First, I would pick Patton: A Genius for War by Carlos D’Este. Next, I would choose The Patton Mind by Roger Nye. And then I would pick the first volume of the two volume set of The Patton Papers—the 1885-1940 volume. In many ways this volume is more interesting than the stuff he wrote during World War II. It shows the intellectual development of this man. We now know so much about from his exploits in World War II, but tend to forget that his success was built upon years of dedication to the military profession.

In your book, you included Patton’s article titled, "Anticipating the Next War." He is very prescient in that piece. What books did he read to help him write that article? I believe he went back to writings from centuries ago, did he not?

That article more than any other article in my edited volume really puts a lot of pieces together from Patton’s body of reading. You’ll get everything from the Romans, to Napoleon, the American Civil War, and his experiences in World War I. One of the things I like about that article is that it just puts so many things together in a single piece. There really is no one book that made that piece—this is the distillation of one man’s reading over forty years of military thinking.

I'm curious, what's your favorite Patton quote?

My favorite quote is his line: “A pint of sweat will save a gallon of blood.”

In your edited volume, do you have a favorite piece by Patton? Why?

My favorite essay is “The Form and Use of the Saber,” which appeared in Cavalry Journal in March 1913. It is the first chapter of 21st Century Patton. It was also Patton’s first published piece. What I really love about it is that Patton was a junior officer at the time. In this essay, Patton was challenging seven decades of orthodoxy on how the U.S. designed and used the cavalry saber. A curved blade and striking with the edge had been used by cavalry units going back years—but he challenged that convention.

I like the article because it shows that a junior officer can read military history, think, and then can write an article that had major impact on the military. They redesigned the sword based largely on Patton’s observations. Namely, that the point of the weapon was more effective for killing than the edge of the weapon. Patton based this on Roman history, where the point of the sword was what you killed with. He challenged what people thought they knew—and it had an effect. I think that is a wonderful microcosm of how Patton used the past to think about the future.


Christopher Nelson is a naval officer stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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Header Image: LTC Patton in front of a French Renault tank (used by the U.S. Army), France, 1918. (BYU Library)


Notes:

[1] Roger H. Nye, The Patton Mind: The Professional Development Of An Extraordinary Leader (New York: Avery, 1993) 27.

[2] Ibid., 74. (Today this method of note taking has been recommended by author and media strategist Ryan Holiday.)

[3] Carlo D’Este, Patton: A Genius for War (New York: Harper Perennial, 1995) 792.

[4] Ibid., 536.

[5] Kay Summersby Morgan, Past Forgetting: My Love Affair with Dwight D. Eisenhower (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1976) 161.

[6] Nye, 36.

[7] George S. Patton Papers: Diaries, 1910-1945; Original; 1914 , 1916 , and 1917 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/ms000001.mss35634.002