In his 2014 book Killing Patton, conservative TV personality and author Bill O’Reilly refers to General George S. Patton as the best general in World War II. In his deeply right wing view, Patton was nothing less than “the most audacious, forthright, and brilliant general on either side of the war.” (Kindle Location 210). We’ve heard this sort of bragging for decades, but in this article I am going to argue that such unqualified, and undeserved, praise is typical of the American Right, and the whole “We won the war singlehandedly movement” in the US. To begin, to make sure his book would be very popular among the Right, Reilly made sure that nothing really bad was said about Patton. The fact that O’Reilly deliberately didn’t mention that Patton was a deeply prejudiced man was noted by Richard Cohen’s Chicago Tribune 2014 article “O’Reilly ignores Patton’s anti-Semitism”. The man truly despised Jewish people, much like the Nazis he fought. Patton’s hatred is well-documented and many Jewish people have “cancelled” Patton as a result.
Moreover, a more recent book called Patton’s Madness: The Dark Side of a Battlefield Genius, author Jim Sudmeier declares that although Patton was a very aggressive warrior and a celebrity, “I have been repelled by Patton’s shameless abuse, bullying, and belittling of others, his egotism, snobbishness, racism, and xenophobia. He was extremely callous about the needs of his colleagues and subordinates, including many American soldiers who were needlessly killed or wounded under his command. It is most cruel that the names and reputations of many fine officers who served beside Patton’s star—a star that sometimes shone too brightly—have suffered virtual oblivion.” (p. xiii) This confirms what war correspondent Andy Rooney had to say about Patton back in 1995: “Many of the soldiers in Patton’s army hated him and hated that nickname, ‘blood and guts.’ Their line was ‘Yeah, his guts and our blood.’” (p. 193)
Rooney also tells us that Patton’s celebrity status was not earned so much in battle but because Patton’s greatest talent was getting his name in the newspapers. (p. 194). Furthermore, Patton was “a loudmouthed boor who got too many American soldiers killed for the sake of enhancing his own reputation as a swashbuckling leader in the Napoleonic style. It’s my opinion that a great many Americans who idolize Patton confuse him with George C. Scott, who played the Academy Award–winning part of Patton in the movie with that title.” (Ibid.) It’s been my experience that the American Right loves that movie more than anyone else because it depicts the quintessential example of American Exceptionalism on the battlefield. Too bad it’s based on a despicable human being who got far too much attention.
There’s no doubt that Patton was a very bellicose general, and military historians, and conservative commentators like O’Reilly, tend to gravitate to the generals with the biggest egos, not necessarily the best ones. In a 2019 article, award-winning military historian Cathal J. Nolan asks “Do generals matter? Well, of course they do, on some level. But do they matter as much as military history suggests they do, or as much as most people believe? In thinking about generalship and outcomes while writing Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost, I was surprised to come to the conclusion that generals matter far less in the history of war than is usually represented in traditional military history. This is especially true of those generals praised by military historians as geniuses of maneuver warfare [like Patton]. Superior generals may win a tactical or operational victory by overmatching an opponent in a day of battle or a campaign, but in the protracted fighting that marks major wars among modern nations and coalitions, they do not deliver strategic victory.”
In addition, he concludes, and this relates directly to Patton, “Bluntly stated, we should accept the grim reality that victory in modern major wars was most often achieved by mass slaughter, not by heroics or the genius of generals. Winning at war is much harder than winning in battle.”
With this in mind, did the egomaniac Patton really make a difference in World War II? Nolan would say no, and so do I. It was his men who did the fighting, and they made a difference, and they died in unacceptably large numbers thanks to Patton’s desire for personal glory. In my humble opinion, Patton was a terrible general and he made little difference in the great scheme of things.
The question that now remains is when will the US Army “cancel” Patton as the American Jewish community has already done? If the US Army is serious about having a diverse, equitable and inclusive force, everything the Far Right opposes, surely Patton’s days have passed, and it’s time to take down Patton’s statue at West Point.
Bill O’Reilly; Martin Dugard. Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II’s Most Audacious General. Pan Macmillan. Kindle Edition.
Richard Cohen “O’Reilly ignores Patton’s anti-Semitism” Chicago Tribune, October 1, 2014.
Jim Sudmeier. Patton’s Madness: The Dark Side of a Battlefield Genius. Stackpole Books. Kindle Edition.
Andy Rooney. My War. PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.
Cathal J. Nolan “Do Generals Matter?” War On The Rocks, June 24, 2019.