Gen. George S. Patton Jr. spent only 391 days in combat during his entire life. What took Alexander the Great and Napoleon a decade, and took Lee and Grant at least four years, earning reputations for military genius, Patton nailed down in a year and a bit. A top British commander called Patton, quite accurately, "the greatest master of quick tactical movement that World War II developed."
So clearly able to envision the whole battlefield, so quick to seize the moment in battle, so vital to victory in time of war, and so huge an embarrassment most of the rest of the time--these are the often contradictory qualities of a most complex and remarkable 20th century figure.
Patton captured the public's imagination like no other top general in World War II. The press loved him and hated him. He was larger than life with his ivory-handled revolvers, Cavalry jodhpurs and lacquered helmets. We may never see his like again, especially in this time of the savage little wars of peace. Today, the stages are too small and, curiously, the stars of today's wars are the briefers on television, not those who pull triggers and command tanks in battle.
Historians and biographers approach Patton at their own peril. Just when a historian or biographer thinks he has Patton clearly in view, that Patton vanishes and another quite different one appears. Stanley P. Hirshson, the biographer of Brigham Young and Gen. William T. Sherman, grappled with the Patton personae for 11 years and churned out more than 800 pages in his quest.
The essence of Patton distilled in "General Patton: A Soldier's Life" is one of a deeply divided, deeply disturbing figure. The book is a fuller, more detailed study of Patton than what has come before, thanks in part to Hirshson's exhaustive research of overlooked, forgotten archival material and newly available Patton family papers.
Hirshson concludes that there were two Pattons: "One is the Patton of public renown: poet, intellectual, reincarnationist and farsighted leader. The other is the Patton of reality: devoted son, materialist, inspiring but often cold leader, a man of narrow social and political vision." Or as Col. Roger H. Nye, former head of history at West Point, wrote of Patton's complex mind: He was at once broad and narrow, genteel and vulgar, receptive to new military ideas but in other ways stagnant and even regressive.
If it stopped here, Hirshson's biography would present characteristics that could apply to many historical figures with vast ambitions. But Hirshson insinuates into his chronicle a startling suggestion that Patton, by his "bloodthirsty" speeches to his troops in World War II, was responsible for three massacres of German POWs and one slaughter of Italian civilians looting a soap factory in Sicily. His evidence that Patton is the author of these killings is thin. Similar incidents happened in other American units not under Patton's command. Such incidents happen in wartime.
Elsewhere in this biography, the revelations are less titillating but more fascinating. Hirshson gives a detailed recounting of Patton's family history and shows how, by blood and marriage, the Pattons were kin and friend to many of those who settled Southern California. Patton's great-uncle migrated to California and, by 1866, was well established as a lawyer in Los Angeles. Patton's Civil War-widowed grandmother, Sally Taylor Patton, with three children to support, married her late husband's cousin, who joined her brother's law firm. Patton's maternal grandfather, Benjamin D. Wilson, arrived in California in 1841, buying Rancho Jurupa (which covered what is today Riverside) as well as large tracts in San Marino and Pasadena. Upon his daughter Ruth's marriage to Sally's eldest son, George, the newlyweds moved onto the San Marino property where Patton was born in 1885.
It is a little hard to imagine the future warrior enjoying a sunny California childhood on the sprawling Lake Vineyard Rancho (as it was called), getting his first horse at 4, his first gun at 5. The young George was a child of privilege. Summers were spent on Santa Catalina, riding, fishing and sailing. In his teens, George's eye was caught by Beatrice Banning Ayer, the daughter of a relative by marriage. In due course, young Patton married her and made her Massachusetts home his own.
Both Patton's and his wife's families would leave fortunes that enabled them to have a lifestyle far above that afforded by a military man's salary. It is also the Ayer family--mill owners during the bitter Lawrence, Mass. strikes of 1912--whom Hirshson blames for Patton, the son of a Populist Democrat, descending into a lifelong hatred not only of organized labor but also of people of Jewish and Italian descent.