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Patton: A Biography

by Alan Axelrod, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2006, $21.95.

 None too surprisingly, when Palgrave Macmillan launched a “Great Generals Series” of short biographies, number one on its list of subjects was George S. Patton Jr., who in spite of the impolitic acts and statements that denied him the seniority he craved, still managed to become one of the most influential military leaders in 20th-century American history. Alan Axelrod, who also authored the book Patton on Leadership, manages to summarize the general’s life and exploits in a manner that balances his personal foibles against his genuine achievements—as well he should, given that this dichotomy is integral to the Patton legend. Neither Axelrod nor series editor General Wesley K. Clark cares to dwell on legends, however, instead exploring the actions and principles that made—and still make—Patton relevant.

The final chapter of Axelrod’s biography focuses on all the techniques, lessons and examples set by Patton that still apply. For example, the author writes in regard to his influence on tactics: “If all great generals project an effective command presence, most are also significant strategists. This was not the case with George S. Patton, a fact his seniors recognized.” Patton, he points out, was usually content to play a subordinate role in executing the strategy set by others, provided he be given a free hand in doing so: “He believed that brilliant strategy could never compensate for inadequate tactics….Conversely, he sincerely believed that good tactics, skillfully and violently executed, could even compensate for poor strategy.” Even so, Axelrod acknowledges the fact that while Patton’s emphasis on the importance of time in combat is more tactically important than ever in the high-tech 21st century, the insurgency against American forces in Iraq since 2003 reveals its strategic limitations: “Patton’s tactics were developed on and for vast battlefield spaces occupied by large conventional armies. They are not effective in asymmetrical warfare scenarios, in which time, which a determined insurgency can draw out almost indefinitely, becomes for the much larger invading force an enemy rather than an ally.”

Whatever Patton’s limitations—which are still a perpetual source of lively debate—General Dwight D. Eisenhower, most notably, recognized his capabilities and did his utmost to keep the controversial commander in a position to play the instrumental role he took in the Allied victory in Europe in World War II. His concepts of training, combined arms tactics and leadership—still applicable to any army—were aptly summed up by one of his lieutenants in the Third Army, John Ingles, who said that “we knew what General Patton expected us to do, and we believed that if we did it we would win.”


Originally published in the September 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here