- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Best Defense is in summer reruns. Here is an item that originally ran on April 12, 2016.
By Randy Brown
Best Defense poet laureate
“Patton, you magnificent bastard! I read your verse!” —Charlie Sherpa
Even casual consumers of military history — at least, those familiar with actor George C. Scott‘s portrayal of Patton in the 1971 movie — suspect the historical general may have more than occasionally written poetry. In an early scene set in World War II North Africa — the original script was written by a young Francis Ford Coppola — Lt. Gen. George S. Patton briefly diverts his command car to an ancient battlefield he senses from a past incarnation. Patton then delivers this memorable roadside monologue to Maj. Gen. Omar Bradley, played by Karl Malden:
“It was here. The battlefield was here. The Carthaginians defending the city were attacked by three Roman legions. The Carthaginians were proud and brave but they couldn’t hold. They were massacred. The Arab women stripped them of the tunics and swords, and lances. And the soldiers lay naked in the sun. Two-thousand years ago. I was here.
You don’t believe me, do you, Brad? You know what the poet said:
Through the travail of ages,
Midst the pomp and toils of war,
Have I fought and strove and perished
Countless times upon a star.
As if through a glass, and darkly
The age-old strife I see—
Where I fought in many guises, many names—
but always me.
Do you know who the poet was?
The movie dialogue takes two separate stanzas — the first and twenty-second — from Patton’s longest poem, “Through the Glass Darkly” (1922). The excerpted poem also evokes 1 Corinthians 13:11 (“For now we see through a glass, darkly…”). In the unabridged work, Patton describes himself as being present at various points in history, from the crucifixion of Christ and ancient Rome, to the Battle of Crécy (1346), to the Battle of Waterloo (1815).
Scholar Carmine A. Prioli (Lines of Fire, 1991) documents more than 80 poems written by Patton between the years 1903 and 1945. According to biographer Carlo D’Este (Patton: A Genius for War, 1996), Patton was a dedicated practitioner of poetry, starting in his first years at Virginia Military Institute and West Point. Patton was not a strong student overall — in retrospect, he likely suffered undiagnosed dyslexia, which contributed to his academic difficulties — but he excelled in history. He also regarded the memorization of verse to be a worthy mental exercise, and its recitation a welcome distraction for himself and others.
Particularly during times of separation from his beloved girlfriend Beatrice — later his wife — or convalescing in hospital from sports or war injuries, Patton found writing poetry a source of inspiration, entertainment, and solace. Patton also notably used poetry to shape his public persona, tasking Beatrice with submitting works to magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Women’s Home Companion. At one time, Patton reportedly planned to publish some of his poetry during the years between the world wars. In 1943, one of his poems was even set to music and broadcast to soldiers in Europe by the American Expeditionary Radio Station.
For Patton, then, the practice of poetry was both tactical and strategic.
The poems collected by Prioli often adhere to some form of iambic form, in stanzas of four lines each. The poems are sometimes amateurish, but are not without merit or appeal. Not surprisingly, Patton’s favorite themes involve soldierly life, battlefield death, and reincarnation. Patton’s words could also deliver profane humor, scathing satire, and insights into his geopolitical worldview.
For the profane, one need look no further than Patton’s “The Turds of the Scouts,” the title of which alone is certain to amuse horse soldiers and latrine humorists of all eras. (Oft given to quoting Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae’s World War I poem “In Flanders Fields,” 21st century cavalry troopers are some of the soldiers most likely to maintain an appreciation of military poetry.) Patton achieves something akin to cowboy poetry with lines such as:
For days and weeks he’d ridden hard
He’d eaten many a meal
Yet every morn he waits in vain
Some bowel movement to feel.
The rest of the poem is, perhaps, best left to off-hours Internet searches. Patton’s father, a California attorney, thought it downright vulgar, and refused to share it with family. Still, anyone who has partaken of too many MRE crackers, or ridden too long on convoy, can empathize with Patton’s scatological sentiments. No doubt, a poet of the M-RAP generation will someday deliver an “Ode to a Gatorade Bottle.”
On a higher note and satirical purpose, Patton makes an effective assault on bureaucracy with his poem “REFERENCE: B AND B3c-24614 FILE: INV. FORM A62B-M. Q.” Consider these excerpts:
[…] They had written—”Your directive when effective was defective
In its ultimate objective—and what’s more
Neolithic hieroglyphic is, to us, much more specific
Than the drivel you keep dumping at our door.” […]
[…] But first he sent a checker, then he sent a checker’s checker
Still nothing was disclosed as being wrong.
So a checker’s checker’s checker came to check the checker’s checker
And the process was laborious and long.
Obviously, Patton had a sense of humor. And could use that humor to direct fire at a satirical target, in order to achieve an objective.
In “Absolute War” (1944), Patton offers a critique of the American way of war, as applicable to the 21st century as it was his own:
Now in war we are confronted with conditions which are strange.
If we accept them we will never win.
Since by being realistic, as in mundane combats fistic,
We will get a bloody nose and that’s a sin.
To avoid such fell disaster, the result of fighting faster,
We resort to fighting carefully and slow.
We fill up terrestrial spaces with secure expensive bases
To keep our tax rate high and death rate low.
But with sadness and with sorrow we discover to our horror
That while we build, the enemy gets set. […]
Bringing his philosophy more down to earth, Patton underscores his thoughts later in the same poem, observing that “[…] in war just as in loving, you must always keep on shoving. / Or you’ll never get your just reward.” Like film and history and other human endeavors, poetry is an imperfect mirror. Patton wasn’t perfect. Neither was his verse.
Patton’s poetry humanizes and complicates our understanding of his persona and of our history, however, enriching it beyond his cinematic ghost. And, in reading it, even if we hear in our heads the graveled growls of actor George C. Scott, we are reminded of universal truths, encountered on battlefields both ancient and modern:
War is repetitious. War is shit. War is bureaucratic.
Randy Brown embedded with his former Iowa Army National Guard unit as a civilian journalist in Afghanistan, May-June 2011. He authored the poetry collection Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire (Middle West Press, 2015). As “Charlie Sherpa,” he blogs about military culture at www.redbullrising.com.
Photo credit: U.S. National Archives/Wikimedia Commons