- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at email@example.com.
I’ve had some fun over the last couple of weeks quoting some of Gen. George Patton’s loonier comments and more repulsive observations, so it is only fair to conclude these excerpts by noting that I think Patton, for all his flaws, was a great general.
This is his great contradiction. He hated everybody, and was spewing bile at the end of his life. Yet as a commander, he resembled Stonewall Jackson, having a great feel for the pattern of the campaign, constantly noting changes, calculating opportunities and disconcerting his enemies. For example, when he heard that Lucas would command the Anzio landing, he worried that that officer lacked sufficient drive to get to the high ground as soon as possible-a prescient concern. Likewise, in the fall of ’44, he privately observed that by going quiet in the Ardennes, and using the area to post recuperating and green units, that Bradley was giving the Germans a chance to build up without being harrassed-another important bit of foresight.
Most of all, he understood himself and how to use his talents. Every great captain has to be at least part son of a bitch, and perhaps more than a part. Here are some of his more striking observations from the battlefields of World War II:
April 15, 1943: "Men, even so-called great men, are wonderfully weak and timid. They are too damned polite. War is very simple, direct, and ruthless. It takes a simple, direct, and ruthless man to wage war."
August 11, 1943: "I have a sixth sense in war as I used to have in fencing, and besides I can put myself in the enemies head and also I am willing to take chances."
August 21, 1944: "I have never given a damn what the enemy was going to do or where he was. What I have known is what I have intended to do and then have done it. By acting in this manner I have always gotten to the place he expected me to come about three days before he got there."
September 16, 1944: "I was never better in my life and drink champagne instead of water. We captured 50,000 cases. I issued it to the troops."
November 1944: "The First Army is making a terrible mistake in leaving the VIII Corps static, as it is highly probable that the Germans are building up east of them."
(Tom note: This is that prediction of the German offensive a month later that we now remember as the Battle of the Bulge.)
December 17, 1944: "Had the V and VIII Corps of the First Army been more aggressive, the Germans could not have prepared this attack; one must never sit still."
December 21, 1944: "When one attacks, it is the enemy who has to worry."
December 26, 1944: "The speed of our movements is amazing, even to me, and must be a constant source of surprise to the Germans. … The German has shot his wad. Prisoners have had no food for three to five days. We should attack."