“The very idea of losing is hateful to Americans.”
Now that Kathryn Bigelow has made it safe for us to recklessly court macho annihilation again, it may be time to focus on one of the most respected and controversial military leaders of all time — General George Patton, and the 1970 film that bears his name, starring George C. Scott. I recently had the pleasure of acquiring the film on an excellent Blu-Ray disc, and highly recommend it to fans of Hurt Locker (2009), The Deer Hunter (1977), and Apocalypse Now (1979) and anyone who's ever had a heart, who wouldn't turn around and expose its flank to daily howitzer bombardments . . . or who is interested in this new Tom Hanks-produced mini-series, The Pacific (though Patton wasn't in the Pacific, it's still the same goddamned wonderful war!).
From the famous opening (quoted above) — Patton's clinically insane and perhaps wrong but nonetheless inspiring opening speech in front of a giant American flag — onwards, we know we're in for some heavy stuff, as Scott has no plans to pull punches, glorify the American dream or lament the unfairness of war. Indeed, as the esteemed general of the magnificent Third Army, Scott's ranting makes you realize, as a man, that part of cowardice involves forgetting there's no real reward to being alive in the first place as a coward. Unless you risk it all, it's all wasted.
It makes sense that Francis Ford Coppola worked on the script, since the man knows a thing or too about the seductive lure of megalomania and the high of facing death on a daily basis. Coppola was kicked off Patton, but later found fictional editions of that kind of military mindset in characters like Kilgore, Willard, and Kurz in Apocalypse Now, and brilliantly captured the way an ordinary man might find himself manifesting the cold reptilian killer within, as in Michael Corleone's transformation from idealistic young lover of Diane Keaton into a cold-as-ice Don in The Godfather. And of course, there's the inspired use of Sicily; a deeply rooted trans-historical lyricism seems to emanate from the very soil of that island.
In order to rouse his men from their first defeat, Patton initially presents himself as a maniac for discipline and army regulation, making his men fear and hate him, but makes them better soldiers as a result, and when they measure up, his admiration becomes enough of a reward that they're ready to die for him. As Cesar "The Dog Whisperer" Milan would say, he is an excellent pack leader, understanding that all affection must be earned for it to have value. Or as Tura Satana said in Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill, "You don't have to believe it, just act it." Patton doesn't mind that your hands shake so long as you're trying to keep them steady. It's only when you cower that he boots you into the deep end like a sadistic but wise pool instructor (my own most hated-feared childhood figure).
Patton realizes that even with all this killing and combat going on in the pre-nuclear days of World War II, there's the odd soldier here and there who hasn't yet realized that mom's not coming, that no bell is going to sound signifying the end of dodge ball — a soldier who still clings to his notions of civilized fear and won't access the inner savage, who thinks clinging to the crumbling shards of his ego will strengthen rather than destroy him. In the end, all the military drilling and exhaustion is partly for this purpose — to weaken the ego's dogmatic hold, so you can actually be molded into a killing machine who can then run into the path of flaming bullets — against all common sense and instinct of self-preservation — because you love your platoon-mates more than life itself, and revere/fear your general like the big Other he is. When you're more scared of running away than you are to fight, cowardice evaporates in the crossfire. It's like skydiving or a roller coaster; you can't get off, so just scream into the wind all you want. Mom can't hear you. As long as one soldier can get away with pretending to be sick to get out of combat, the morale of the whole unit is in jeopardy. However, though I realize all that now, I used to think him a bully for bullying sake, and apparently so did the bulk of America. Yet Patton must necessarily be excused from any consequence of not respecting boundaries, for it made him what he was. The way Eisenhower masterfully played the event up to deflect Nazi attention from D-Day (he had Patton scoping locations in Turkey, making the Germans sure that he would invade there, and that the slap incident was a flimsy smokescreen).
Remember that while Patton seemed to be recklessly chasing the Germans back across France, he very nearly might have won the war single-handed if Ike wasn't so eager to give all Patton's gasoline to Montgomery right as Patton was approaching the Elba river. Now we can't know for sure if Patton wouldn't have found his third army cut off, but who the hell knows, he could have caught the Germans off-guard and spared thousands of lives in the process. If you consider it as chess, Patton was the kind of player who goes right for the checkmate with his first few moves, like a pit bull to the jugular, keeping his opponent on the defensive, always fending off aggressive moves with no time to regroup or mount a counter-offense. Montgomery and Ike, on the other hand, were more the types to advance a few miles than to fortify positions, allowing the enemy to do the same, afraid to extend themselves too far and risk being cut off, meanwhile subjecting the men along the lines to constant shelling and mortar fire.
Consider the line from the hippest movie ever made, Performance: "The only performance that truly makes it is one that achieves madness." When George C. Scott looks out at the carnage along the River Elbe and says "I love it. God help me I do love it so," one's aware of a performance that "truly makes it."
I've seen this movie all through my life, and my reaction to that line varies with age. As a child watching it with my dad on TV, I thought it was pretentious. Later, it seemed existentially gutsy; still later, callous. Now I see it as a coping mechanism. The very nature of heroism is perhaps this coping mechanism, an alchemical transubstantiation that enables one to derive perverse, counter-intuitive satisfaction from horror, the "you must make friend of horror" aspect, a looking down under the pretty flowers and below the serpents under them, to the deep roots wherein one endures the unendurable through a cultivated detachment, the stripping away of illusion's bodice, to reveal the grinning skull and scythe below. The tripper and the warrior both must kiss this skull and call it love. To survive this awful surrender, the hipster has his rueful irony, the court its jester, the American G.I. his endless complaining and satiric reading of army sloganeering. "You found a home in the army, bud" is the in-joke repeated amongst the dogfaces of Battleground (1956), indicating how much they're enduring freezing in the cold thinking only of warm, clean, dry socks. But by the end it's come to be true, even as the satirical edge remains. The Germans never got that sense of humor; they considered it our weakness. They didn't realize that irony can be a kind of casual loyalty that works better than attack-dog allegiance. As long as we can gripe and crack wise about it, we can endure anything; that was what made us Americans: freedom to gripe!