One of the perks of Memorial Day is the endless stream of war movies shown on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Perennial favorites are ‘The Longest Day’ with John Wayne, ‘The Battle of the Bulge’ with Henry Fonda, and of course ‘Patton’ with George C. Scott. Although I have seen it a gazillion times I cannot help but watch when Patton is on, so I watched it again last night, and it gave me a chance to reflect on what has changed in the US military since Patton’s days. It is of course always risky to draw conclusions from what ultimately is a fictionalized version of events, but since the last five star General of the US Army, Omar Bradley, at the beginning of the movie Patton’s subordinate and at the end of the movie his commander, was one of the advisors of the movie makers, you have to believe that it has stayed relatively close to the truth.
The movie starts with a magnificent, undoubtedly fantasized, scene of Patton standing in front of a giant American flag lecturing his troops on his war philosophy. He explains that no ‘poor bastard’ has ever won a war by dying for his country, and that the whole idea is to make the poor bastards fighting on the other side die for theirs. Patton continues by telling the troops that thirty years from now, when they have their grandson on their knee and he asks ‘what did you do in the great war, grandpa?’ at least they won’t have to say ‘I was shoveling dirt in Indiana.’ Americans love to fight, is one of his generalizations, and therefore America has never lost a war. That may have been true for Patton’s past, and maybe the US didn’t lose the Korean War, but it ended at best in a stalemate, and from the perspective of winning or losing Vietnam was much worse, although technically the US got out before the south was overrun by the north.
So the winning streak ended immediately after WWII, and from then on until the Iraq and Afghanistan wars the record is at best mixed, with a draw in Korea, a licking in Vietnam, and victories in ‘Desert Storm’ and on Grenada, where Ronald Reagan sent US troops for a pathetic little scuffle, probably hoping that it would make him look like Patton, or at least like George C. Scott. The ‘Vietnamization’ of the war in Vietnam was the first attempt by the US to not lose a war it couldn’t win, and now it appears to be a model for the wars the US has been fighting for the last twelve years in Iraq and Afghanistan, something that would have disgusted Patton.
Two other scenes in the movie illustrate how out-of-date Patton’s style of running an army has become. During a visit to a field hospital at the beginning of the movie he tells the doctors and nurses that ‘battle fatigue’ is not an accepted condition under his command, because it is only an attempt by ‘yellowbellies’ to get a free ride. And in a later scene, also in a field hospital, he slaps a soldier whose nerves have been shattered by shell shock. This is the famous incident for which Eisenhower forced Patton to apologize to his troops and that almost cost him the rest of his career.
Shell shock of course was already known to doctors treating wounded and otherwise incapacitated soldiers during WWI, and therefore Patton, who was the first officer assigned to the U.S. Tank Corps during that war, had to know about it, but it simply didn’t fit in his frame of mind. It would have been interesting, but probably not enlightening, to hear his opinion about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the treatment serving members of the military and veterans are receiving for it these days.