Patton: A Genius for War is an excellent biography of one of America’s greatest and most controversial army generals. Written by Carlo D’Este, a retired U.S. Army officer turned military historian, Patton: A Genius for War presents a well rounded, fair, and objective portrait of General George Smith Patton, Jr., the man not so affectionately nicknamed “Old Blood and Guts.”
General George Smith Patton, Jr. always believed that he was destined for greatness on the battlefield, and in Patton: A Genius for War, Carlo D’Este argues persuasively that, despite the General’s many personal flaws, the judgment of history vindicates Patton in that belief. Patton: A Genius for War portrays its subject as warrior in the truest sense of the word – a man possessed with a supreme genius for making war. Among his greatest attributes were a killer instinct; superb natural strategic and tactical skills; absolute fearlessness on the field of battle; and highly refined leadership abilities. D’Este also points out Patton’s many personal flaws, among them: excessive ambition; egotism; a perceived lack of concern for his men; and a hubris which would ultimately cause his removal from command.
Patton: A Genius for War argues persuasively that the seeds of both Patton’s greatness and the hubris which led to his downfall were planted early in his life. He was the scion of a family steeped in military tradition; two ancestors died as heroes to the Confederacy during the Civil War. Impoverished by the events of the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Patton family moved to California, where the future army General was born in 1885. Patton was a sickly and spoiled child. His greatest early influences were his father and his Aunt “Nannie,” both alcoholics. Patton suffered from what we now know was dyslexia, and its attendant low self esteem. His unbreakable will and unquenchable thirst for success led him to overcome his learning disability – to such a remarkable degree, that he was able to gain admittance to the U.S Military Academy at West Point.
It was during his five years as a member of the “long gray line” at West Point that Patton deliberately began changing his personality . He struggled mightily with academics. He compensated for his scholastic difficulties by becoming highly skilled at fencing and track and field. His almost uncanny knack for saying and doing the wrong things at the wrong time made him extremely unpopular with most other cadets. He compensated for his low social standing by “…honing an image [of how a general ought to look and behave] by becoming profane, ruthless, and aristocratic.” (D’Este, p. 77.) By the time he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1909, Patton had, by design, transformed himself into the ultra-macho, highly profane, and overly ambitious martinet that became so well known during the Second World War.
Patton’s military career spanned thirty-six years, from his graduation from West Point in 1909, to his death in 1945. Patton: A Genius for War describes with candor and objectivity the pinnacles of this great General’s career: among them, his fifth place finish (out of 37 competitors) in the Modern Pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics; his heroic combat exploits (which earned him the Distinguished Service Cross) while fighting in the Meuse-Argonne and Saint Mihiel offensives during World War I; and his tremendous military triumphs as a Corps commander, and later a Numbered Army commander, during the Second World War.
D’Este objectively describes Patton’s career blunders and their consequences, among them: his continuous attempts at professional self-promotion; his slapping of a battle-fatigued soldier during the Sicily campaign (perhaps his most infamous – and egregious – professional blunder); and his highly publicized disobedience of orders to implement U.S. government de-Nazification policies in the German district of Bavaria – an action which ultimately led to his removal from command of the U.S. Third Army.
Patton: A Genius for War also thoroughly examines Patton’s personal life: his often turbulent 35-year marriage to Boston socialite Beatrice Banning Ayer; an account of his one and only extra-marital affair; his often distant relationship with his children; and his professional relationships, especially his friendship with General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
I was hesitant to read Patton: A Genius for War after seeing some less than glowing critical reviews which complained of its excessive length and lack of organization. But, I plunged ahead anyway, and found the book to be a genuinely pleasant surprise – written with lively prose, richly detailed, balanced, and obviously well researched. Certain areas of the book might have benefitted from better organization; on occasion, D’Este does tend wander into extremely detailed descriptions of various military battles (especially the preparation and execution of the D-Day invasion), without fully explaining Patton’s role in them. However, I found these “sidebars” very well written and entertaining, and not especially distracting.
MY VERDICT: In Patton: A Genius for War, Carlo D’Este has written an extremely readable, highly entertaining, and factually sound biography of a great American military leader. He succeeds admirably at presenting General George S. Patton, Jr. – soldier and man – fairly and with great impartiality. Patton: A Genius for War is indeed a biography that’s very well worth reading!
Carlo D’Este, Patton: A Genius for War (New York: HarperCollins, 1995)