What Would Patton Say? Who Cares?

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For more than a decade, I have regularly received Imprimis, which reprints speeches that various people have given at Hillsdale College functions. For a long time, I always looked forward to receiving it, given that what was said was much more intelligent than what most speakers on college campuses utter these days.

The content of the speeches ranged from conservative to libertarian; liberty was the polestar, and a free economy and personal and political freedom were the means to a free society, according to the speakers. The bellicose side of conservatism — the promotion of war — generally was not part of the Imprimis message.

In the past few years, however, all that has changed. There is still the occasional sop given to free enterprise, but the main message has been consistent and troubling: the U.S. must expand and preserve its empire through the purification of war. Thus, Charles Krauthammer could claim in one speech that the USA stands as "a colossus" across the world with power and influence greater than Rome at its heights.

The latest one I received (October 2004, Vol. 33, No. 10) is dominated by the glorification of war, both in a speech by Victor Davis Hanson ("What Would Patton Say About the Present War?") and nine pictures of Hillsdale supporters on a college-sponsored trip to France and Germany to revisit sites of World War II battles. The message given both by Hanson and the photographs is this: World War II was a glorious triumph for the USA in its defeat over Nazi Germany, and if the political leaders of this country are willing to make the sacrifice, we can reach those same wonderful heights, if only we will listen to the wisdom of George Patton.

Patton, as we recall, was a very successful U.S. general in that conflict, winning acclaim first in North Africa as British and U.S. troops drove Rommel’s Afrika Corps off that continent, then later in Sicily, where he lost his command after slapping two soldiers who were in field hospitals suffering from combat neurosis. After serving as a decoy to fool the Germans into believing that the main invasion of Europe would come at Calais (and not at Normandy), Patton’s Third Army cut into German defenses and relentlessly advanced to the East, helping to end the war more quickly. He died in the autumn of 1945 in Germany after having suffered severe injuries in an automobile accident.

As many writers have noted, Patton was cut of a different piece of cloth than most of his comrades and certainly different than the politicians who tried to move the chessboard pieces of that war. He was brash, outspoken — and brilliant. His tongue and his temper proved his professional undoing, but no one doubts his abilities as a general and a soldier. His hatred of Bolshevism won him many supporters in this country, then and now. Hanson is one of them.

Hanson’s point is simple: Patton had all of the answers to solving the difficulties both of the war and the accompanying peace, and if we can translate his thoughts then into present-day analysis, they have deep and abiding meaning for us now. War interpreted through the Patton lens, notes Hanson, offers a deeper, more purifying meaning than the simple destruction of people and property. Patton, he writes, "…hated war defined as a purely bureaucratic enterprise or a purely material and industrial challenge, inasmuch as neither can change the hearts of men that need to be changed." (Emphasis mine) Only war waged as Patton would do it can regenerate those wicked hearts; we did it in Germany, he says, and we can do it in Iraq.

How does an army accomplish this regenerative miracle? It is simple; one "crushes" the enemy. He says:

If an enemy is demoralized but not destroyed, he may well come back encouraged and with less respect, interpreting magnanimity as weakness or incompetence. Fallujah and Najaf are proof enough of the tragedy that can follow when a defeated enemy is not completely crushed.

What kept U.S. forces from crushing the Iraqis? It was not our military leaders, but rather the cowardly politicians who are not fully aware of the need for complete and absolute victory. Hanson states forcefully:

Patton was sometimes asked where he was going. Berlin was always his answer, along with quips about Hitler soon to be in chains. This was no mere braggadocio, but revealed strategic insight that there could be nothing less than unconditional surrender, the occupation of the enemy heartland, and the humiliation accruing from taking the German Fhrer — that only in that way might Nazism be discredited. We bristle at such Manichaeism in the present postmodern war, forgetting that we shall not be through with Islamic fascism until the governments of Iran and Syria cease their support, al-Qaedists are killed or in cuffs, and the greater Middle East autocracies are terrified of offering succor to terrorist offshoots. Anything less as our goal and we will be in a perpetual quagmire of reactive warfare.

So, there it is. As he alludes elsewhere, we must engage in total war. Yet, one might utter such words, but is one prepared to back them? Our parents and grandparents suffered many hardships and the Europeans and Asians suffered even more during World War II. To Hanson, it may be a season of glory, but to the people on the ground, it was endless destruction, death, and the kind of cynicism that enters the body politic and never truly leaves.

Writers on this page have argued many times about whether U.S. entry into World War II was avoidable. It is obvious that it was — we did not have to fight anyone, even after the debacle at Pearl Harbor, but one can understand the war fever that occurred after the attacks. Furthermore, after the U.S. Congress declared war on Japan, Germany, through previous agreement with Japan, declared war on the USA, and Congress, in turn, reciprocated. (This is the last time that Congress declared war on any country; all wars since then have been purely administrative affairs, much to our sorrow and the destruction of the Constitution.)

But whether or not the U.S. involvement in World War II was worth the cost — and I seriously doubt the benefits matched the eradication of so many millions of lives — Hanson wants more of the same today. If we are willing to pay the "price," he reasons, there is glory on the other end.

In the meantime, to accomplish such "worthy" goals, people must die. Homes and their human occupants must be blown to bits, and the process of civilization turned in upon itself. Young men must be transformed into killers, all for the glory of the state. On the home front, we must support the government at all costs, vote (as is our duty), and serve in the armed forces so the rest of us can be trained as killers as well.

Of course, in the end we will succeed in changing the Middle East Muslims into people just like us. At present, they are killers for the Axis of Evil. After our armies sweep through them and in the aftermath have magically turned these ancient lands into modern democracies, they can learn to kill for the good guys.

Somehow, I believe Patton might have figured out that this present war in Iraq is an absurdity, not because of bungling of directions from the White House and Pentagon, but rather because Islam is not Nazism and Middle Easterners are not Germans. And Patton, I would hope, would have recognized that men like Hanson are nothing more than cowards who glory in war, but only at an antiseptic difference, as though it were an imaginary battle of the forces of the cosmos and not the killing and maiming of innocent people before our very eyes.

October 23, 2004

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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