The Patton Advance and How to Do Extraordinary Things
By Mari A. Gomez
There is a story General George Patton writes about in his war diaries that precisely indicates the type of tenacity and fearlessness that is needed to achieve greatness.
He was observing a 37mm. gun practice and he describes how one defective round exploded in the muzzle and wounded two men. Then, he writes:
“The next round exploded in the breech, blowing the head off the gunner. The men were reluctant to fire the next round, so it was incumbent on me, as the senior officer present, to do so-in fact, I fired three rounds without incident.”
Those men had just seen a guy get his head blown off, but it was imperative that they not be afraid to pull the trigger because the consequences of that fear could be costly in the long run or in battle and Patton understood this. His job was to maintain confidence because his job was to lead. “I must admit,” he writes, “that I have never in my life been more reluctant to pull a trigger.” He knew his duty and it made him almost indestructible.
There are similar stories of Patton walking through gunfire in France in World War I, directing tanks and soldiers at the forefront without fear of incoming bullets. It is precisely this impetus to push through that is so characteristic of people that achieve something extraordinary. It includes an ability to disregard your own safety because you can see beyond the immediate. This very attitude tends to make people far better survivors than those that proceed with caution and hesitation.
Part of this is a belief that you were destined for a purpose and that everything you do must reflect and/or advance your climb towards that end. Much has been written about the General—his foresight, his military genius, his criticisms, his profane nature, and his untimely death—but there was something that struck me in reading his war diaries and a biography of good old Georgie Patton: he seemed to understand precisely where he was going the whole time and he remained true to himself and his ideas to the very end.
Even as a child, Patton felt a great responsibility set on his shoulders. He saw himself as a continuation of the honorable men of war he so revered. He used every opportunity to reassert himself that God did in fact mean this as his mission. There’s a story of his once getting in the way of target practice, just to see if he could stay calm while being shot at. It’s a testament to how powerful faith can be in shaping people’s lives.
Patton always said, “A good plan executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” He went full force towards everything. This was part of his philosophy in battle: that no one ever defended anything successfully, rather one had always to advance. In his famous address to the Third Army, Patton made clear that he didn’t respect a man that dug a foxhole. Digging a foxhole was a way of surrendering.
Extraordinary things are achieved in small increments, with minuscule, often unseen or undetectable, sacrifices and learning. So whether he was participating in sporting events or battle, he threw himself with full-fledged confidence against the winds. He overcame obstacles and difficulties and was ferocious in moving towards his goals. If predestination could be seen in a map of your life, then Patton had seen it somewhere along the road and knew that his final destination required, every day, a tremendous amount of discipline, fearlessness, and will. Everything mattered, from the cleanliness of the uniforms, to ritual, and morale. An army was composed of soldiers and thus it had to move as one. Achieving this kind of unity and beehive mentality took everything and demanded that every soldier feel necessary, indispensable, and important to the greater cause.
When he was a child, Patton suffered from dyslexia and he had to work twice as hard as everyone to pass his necessary schooling. He agonized for hours and hours getting it right. This would serve him well in the future, as he became an avid writer through letters and his journal. He fell in love with stories of past military heroes. It was through the greats that he learned about character and respect and adopted these principles to his life. He was read Shakespeare and stories of military heroism. Because of his difficulty reading, he often memorized entire passages. He absorbed these tales and inhaled them so deeply that they assured him that he was being tasked with following and continuing the legacy of great leaders. These heroes of history, as well as his ancestors, were his past lives. Thus, he felt, he carried the burden, the responsibility, and the destiny to be a great man of war. He craved fame and glory, but not through shortcuts. He wanted to get the job done.
He did possess all the contradictions and messiness that composes every human being and he didn’t hide them. He had a mouth on him and he often spoke out when he felt it necessary. He had a tendency to be erratic, impatient, with bouts of emotional outbursts and infidelities. He could at times be unpredictable. There is the famous incident where he slapped a soldier suffering from battle fatigue and called him a coward. These are the kind of outbursts that make Patton fascinating: he was not detached in the ways one might imagine a great General to be. In fact, it was the opposite, a great General could not be detached because they had to lead the soldiers forward, not just through orders, but through something far more intangible: instilling confidence, ideas of honor, trust, and duty. He had to reach the soldiers in a profound way to influence their actions in the most trying of times.
Only an entire lifetime of work could add up to the Patton the world knew leading the Third Army. Every action takes us somewhere and if we see that end clearly enough we might just get somewhere trying to reach it. He is a testament to leading a life of meaning and purpose. Everything that he is remembered for, his great leadership and his command of the Third Army, took an entire lifetime to accomplish. That level of greatness is not achieved through one or two acts but living by a set of principles and truths for a long time. God played a big role in Patton’s life, as he often makes reference to his faith in his diaries and was known to pray with his soldiers. His diaries reveal a man of reflection, discipline, and uncanny attention to detail.
There is no holiday to celebrate General George Patton, but we might learn something from people like him: he who was far from perfect, but who dedicated his life to a bigger purpose. He didn’t care much for political correctness or for hiding the truth. His ‘attack, attack, attack’ philosophy existed to save soldiers’ lives, as he believed this tactic meant fewer casualties. He had built tremendous intuition on the battlefield throughout his life and through the many experiences he put himself through early on in his career. His advances were successful because he believed and because he had spent an entire lifetime studying and embedding these ideas into his psyche.
How many lives did Patton save because he dedicated his life to studying war, tactics, the function of armies? How many lives did he impact because he had absorbed the lessons of Shakespeare and great military heroes and adopted their philosophies? How many American soldier’s lives were protected through Patton’s leadership? In the same vein, how many casualties did he (directly and indirectly inflict through his soldiers) upon the enemy, which may have helped the overall cause? These things can’t always be measured, but it shows just how important it is to be truthful and dedicated in everything.
Patton believed that everyone’s job in an army was indispensable and that a man must do his job, no matter how insignificant it might seem, with honor, competence, and grace. Everything you do matters and has consequence and if what you do is inspired by a final vision, by a bigger purpose than yourself, then you might just make some real impact in the world.
Everything matters and nothing can be squandered in the pursuit of greatness. Of course, most of us are not destined for greatness or the history books, but we are headed somewhere and every action matters because every action has an impact. In the trenches of everyday life many of us will be wounded, we will dig foxholes and remain there, many will surrender or give up their weapons, we will let ourselves be beaten by fatigue, let our wounds fester, let our nightmares and fears get the best of us.
Patton told his soldiers that day in 1944, before his Third Army went into France, that the real heroes are those that fight on, even when they’re scared. That's what we have to remember. And just like Patton was scared to pull the trigger on that .37 mm anti-tank gun, the fight was more important. That’s why he is “Old Blood and Guts.” That’s why the soldiers that fought by his side remember him as that son of a bitch named Georgie Patton and that’s why even when things get dim, when life offers little insight and one is bombarded by challenges, we must remember to move forward, always forward, always for something bigger than ourselves. There is a destination, after all, somewhere out there, waiting to be taken.