Recently, my good friend Paul Corbin offered several quotations from Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., the infamous American General described by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower as essential to our victory in World War II. As mention of Gen. Patton often does, these quotations prompted a range of responses ranging from laudatory to condemnatory and I thought it appropriate as we enter the Memorial Day weekend to offer my perspectives. I am the son of a consummate military leader and warrior, and find the parallels between Patton and my father to be, not surprisingly, very close. Combat will test the mettle of any rational human being, and I arch an eyebrow at the opinions of those not truly tested in the hell of battle. It is a unique experience and will quickly strip an individual down to what he or she is really made of.
Valor is a concept that fairly seethes through the military culture. There exists a number of definitions for “Valor”, but each of them will encompass concepts such as honor, dignity, gallantry, bravery, strength and courage. These traits are absolutely necessary to successfully negotiate a combat setting whether or not the experience is remembered by the participant or memorialized in the citations presented to the next of kin. In fairness, valor is but one of many traits that serves the warrior, but my father, and certainly Patton, placed an inordinately high premium on valor when assessing the value of an individual. Indeed, in my profession of policing, a lack of courage will earn the individual a quick ostracism by his peers and commanders. Gen. Patton once remarked, “Americans despise cowards……the very idea of losing is hateful to an American”. Col. Johnson, dad to me, believed that fear was perfectly normal………however; individual reasponses to fear are what separates fighters from shirkers.
One of the folks responding to Paul Corbin’s post asked if Patton was the same “a..hole” who slapped a soldier during the war. The succinct answer is yes, he did slap two soldiers while visiting two different field hospitals in Sicily. I have no way of knowing this, but I suspect the General went to his relatively early grave regretting slapping these fellows, not because he believed it wrong, but for the notoriety it caused him. Patton was visiting his wounded warriors when Pvt. Charles Kuhl, suffering from what was believed to be “exhaustion and anxiety” told the General, “I guess I can’t take it sir”, referring to combat. Patton slapped him with his gloves. While the doctors may have diagnosed the quivering anxiety as battle exhaustion, Patton viewed it as a lack of valor. A week later, in another field hospital, Patton encountered another soldier, Pvt. Paul Bennett, who was crying and shaking with fear. This soldier, upon Patton’s inquiry, replied, “It’s my nerves, sir, I can’t stand the shelling anymore.” This soldier was promptly backhanded by the General. Both of these soldiers were fortunate to be fighting on the American side, as their conduct in the German Army would have been promptly handled with a bullet in the back of their heads. Patton was, indeed, the General who slapped these hapless soldiers. To Patton, their problems stemmed from a lack of valor, irrespective of what medical malady precipitated this countenance.
Gen. George Patton and Col. S.R Johnson were not afraid of death. Patton’s pragmatic view of death could be summed up in another quotation: “You are not all going to die. Only two percent of you right here today will die in a major battle. Death must not be feared. Death in time, comes to every man”. These words were delivered in a speech to his troops before a particularly bloody campaign.
Patton, for his transgressions, was made to apologize to the 3rd Army, which he did in a series of three short presentations. The last of these presentations was met by a chorus of chants from the troops, “No General, no, no, General no” when it came time to apologize. His troops would not permit the general to apologize…..believing it beneath the dignity of perhaps one of the best fighting generals this country has ever produced. These troops were valorous, and damned proud of it.
On June 5, 1944, the General in a speech to his troops, remarked, “The real hero is the man who fights when he is scared. Some men get over their fright in a minute under fire. For some, it takes days. But a real man will never let his fear of death overwhelm his honor, his sense of duty to his country, and his innate manhood.” General Patton was a fighting General, accustomed to the front lines, and deeply respected by his enemies.
Memorial Day is upon us. I stand proudly with those who have endured hostile fire and lived through it. My tears come easily when I think of those who have not endured, who are resting eternally somewhere, and who exhibited valor until the very moment their lives were extinguished in the name of America. Patton chose to be interred with his beloved troops, in Belgium. My father is resting with his fellow soldiers in a National Cemetary in South Carolina. I will rest easily among the leaders there, when my time comes, knowing that valor lurks behind every marker or headstone.
Thank you, General Patton, Col. Johnson and every man or woman who has donned an American uniform. I understand and am in awe of you valor…….