I was stumbling around the internet when I happened across the full text of Gen. George Patton's famous speech to the Third Army. My memory is a bit fuzzy, but up until about fifteen minutes ago, my only knowledge of this oratory marvel came from anecdotes and the film Patton starring George C. Scott.
In truth, it was nothing I didn't expect. Patton crammed enough violent imagery and profanity into that address as humanly possible and spoke with the hyperbolic sense of patriotism one expects from a general in the United States Army. Don't misconstrue my words, please. There isn't anything wrong with patriotism, and indeed, it is to be commended when applied rationally, but patriotic sentiment was monopolized long ago by a contingent of people who seem unable to grasp loving one's country without full-blown militaristic zeal. To this demographic, patriotism is synonymous with imperialism and typified by the very hubris that has become a de facto substitute for foreign policy. The practice was, by no means, instituted by George W. Bush as many would have us believe (though he did proliferate it with glee), and despite Barack Obama's ascension to power, one can only hope that he will keep his sensibilities logical and refrain from applying the mask of entitlement under which many Americans appear to operate. In general, presidents tend to receive a great deal of undue glory from their respective constituencies, and the last one who really deserved any such accolades was Franklin D. Roosevelt.
We'll see if Obama's pragmatism manages to overcome knee-jerk reactions. His disingenuous handling of marijuana-related questions at last month's internet town hall meeting not only risked alienating a large swath of his supporters but exemplified the power of stagnation over progress in American political culture and reinforced the notion that even he — our supposed beacon of change — is not immune to caving in to the pressures of the Game. The only thing to be said in his defense is that (at least in that clip) he never says he is closed to the notion of decriminalizing marijuana, simply that it would not be a strategy that would benefit our struggling economy. I don't personally agree with his views, but I will say that those watching this broadcast deserved more than a dismissive remark delivered through a smirk.
But I was talking about Patton, wasn't I? I seem to remember something about that, but who can remember anything for more than a few seconds in the Age of Twitter?
For those of you who didn't click the first link to read Patton's speech in it's entirety, here are a few of my favorite tidbits from it:
Americans will not tolerate a loser. Americans despise cowards. Americans play to win all of the time. I wouldn't give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That's why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war; for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.
Each man must not think only of himself, but also of his buddy fighting beside him. We don't want yellow cowards in this Army. They should be killed off like rats. If not, they will go home after this war and breed more cowards.
We're not going to just shoot the sons-of-bitches, we're going to rip out their living Goddamned guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks. We're going to murder those lousy Hun cock suckers by the bushel-fucking-basket.
And then comes the striking and admittedly brilliant crescendo:
You may be thankful that twenty years from now when you are sitting by the fireplace with your grandson on your knee and he asks you what you did in the great World War II, you WON'T have to cough, shift him to the other knee and say, 'Well, your Granddaddy shoveled shit in Louisiana.' No, Sir, you can look him straight in the eye and say, 'Son, your Granddaddy rode with the Great Third Army and a Son-of-a- Goddamned-Bitch named Georgie Patton!'
These words were given to the Third Army in secret somewhere in England on June 5, 1944, and I should think they would have to be delivered in a much similar way today to avoid a publicity crisis. No comparable display of machismo and American arrogance could publicly survive the media blitz that would be sure to follow, and rightly so. In 1944, this type of rhetoric might have been acceptable, and not to say that foreign affairs and policy matters weren't nuanced back then, but politics in the 21st century will require a great deal more grace.
Granted, Gen. Patton was speaking to a group of soldiers and not to a room full of reporters or politicians, but perhaps it is for this reason that his speech is even more worrying. This type of patriotism is the norm among conservatives these days, and as hard as it is to swallow the blaring and dangerous political rhetoric coming from the likes of Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, and Glenn Beck, most of us would probably cringe to hear what they say behind closed doors (assuming they believe their own horseshit).
This is not, of course, to place the blame solely on conservatives for relying on flagbleeding euphamisms. It is only fair to blame much of the liberal movement's willingness to pander to the lowest common denominator — the ilk that see the American Flag not so much as a symbol of freedom, liberty, or virtue but as an approval stamp, a ringing endorsement of whatever policies those who invoke it support. Such willingness to rally behind a symbol rather than an ideal or a set of ideals, no matter with which members of the punditry you align, is what makes true discourse in the political sphere so rare, and it all filters back to the inherent machismo we associate with being American. We're the biggest, strongest, most powerful nation on the planet. We will be, anyway, until China pushes through to the other end of their industrial revolution and the United States comes down with a bad case of what can only be described as international penis envy.
Most of us are not rooted in or befallen by the pathological Superiority Complex that Patton exhibits in his speech. Brilliant general though he was, Patton was also wonky enough to believe he was a reincarnated Carthaginian who had once fought against the Roman Army. So we should take his comments with a grain of salt. His speech is not the ravings of a mad man. It's much worse than that. Patton's speech is a word-for-word translation into military terms of what many Americans likely believe today. They might not express it in the blood-and-guts tradition like our good general, but the reptilian world view that stresses the oversimplified dynamics of Good vs. Evil and Us vs. Them is both prevalent and well-defined. Like Patton, there are those out there whose idea of a Great American is the apish infantry grunt, spiteful of the enemy and willing to charge into a cloud of bullets without asking why, instead thinking only that it is what a brave man would do. Just peruse the comment board under Patton's speech at Free Republic.
Gen. George Patton is who qualifies as a Great American, and perhaps he was in the most brutish sense. He was, no doubt, a brilliant military man and an adept tactician. The United States would not have enjoyed some of the victories it did during World War II if it weren't for Patton, and yes, maybe I'll even concede that he was the man for that time and place. He was the kind of man he glorified in such fervid prose to the men of the Third Army that night in England.
And the ideal here is that we should be working toward a situation in which the glorification of blind patriotism is overruled by the sensible desire for mutuality and peace between countries and not push for a system that maintains American superiority. The challenges we will face in the very near future demand that we not draw alliances based on such arbitrary things as geographic boundaries. We must attempt to see eye-to-eye with the rest of the world — holding our ground, of course, when necessary — and compromise with instead of impose upon them our own set of core values. We need to protect ourselves. Naturally, this is true, and only a woefully naive person would say otherwise, but the best thing we can do is ditch our Old World mentalities. The real ideal here is that we move forward into a world that will never need another Gen. George Patton.