Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Musical Explanation 2/9/16: Patton

George S. Patton was not a man with evil in his soul, he was much more dangerous than that - a man addicted to war the way so many Americans of 1970 were addicted to drugs. Were America a more authoritarian place, he could have become a butcher so heinous as to rival Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Only in a a place like America, with its trivial political concerns and regard for the small man as the equal of the great, could a force of nature like Patton be prevented from stomping his boots on the face of millions.
The true danger of the 20th century was not the villain who pleasures in harming others, but the idealist who believes in the glorious cause of selflessness with his whole soul, willing to risk the souls of millions to impress his stamp upon the world. Even Shakespeare was inadequate to describe the grandeur of men like Patton - "Macbeth's self-justifications were feeble - and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too." So wrote Alexandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago. "The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare's evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology." It was only in the twentieth century that writers like Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, Kafka, Conrad, Koestler, Huxley, Pasternak, were able to comprehend how some men could perpetrate destruction on a scale so vast. Patton was from California, but his worldview would have had a much more comfortable home in Berlin. It was only luck that put a man like Patton on the side of the democrats rather than in his true home with the fascists. The vast destruction of war catapulted him to very near the center of power, but it was only the trivial concerns of democracy which kept him from achieving the center.
I've just seen the 1970 biopic of Patton all the way through for the first time. It is, without question, one of the greatest movies ever made in this country. It does not judge Patton, it simply presents him as he was: both the myth, and the man carefully sculpting himself to match his myth. It was left for Americans of 1970 to decide what they had just seen. Conservatives saw this movie and saw the glorification of war, honor, and a great man. Liberals saw this movie as a cautionary tale. They thanked their lucky stars that simple bureaucracy justly kept a man this jingoistic and arrogant from the reigns of power. Sixties radicals saw this movie and saw one of their own - an outcast and rebel, prevented by 'the man' and 'the system' from achieving his true self. It was perhaps unpredictable that radicals saw so much of themselves in Patton. But there were clearly points of similarity. When Patton tours with Omar Bradley the sight of a famous Carthaginian battle against three Roman legions, he says "I was there." with absolute literalism. He truly believed that he was a soldier in ages past, reincarnated in every age like the very spirit of war itself.
Did General Patton have any ideology except war? Probably not, he probably never thought about any problem in his life except war, but the ideology of fascism was already so connected to the glorification of war that in all too many ways, the two are identical. Just think of these lines from Patton's famous opening monologue:
"Now, an army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, fights as a team. This individuality stuff is a bunch of crap. The billious bastards who wrote that stuff about individuality for the Saturday Evening Post don't know anything more about real battle than they do about fornicating."
Just as he was for Hitler and Mussolini, the Common Man is nothing to Patton but a small gear in the larger machine; a vassal awaiting death into which the state can pour its propaganda about the glories for which he sacrifices. It's important to the movie's success that we never see war from the ordinary soldier's vantage, only his - a game for talented rich boys to play with their toy soldiers, whose victories are then celebrated by tribute parades a mile long - with garlanded roses and myrtle wreaths. In such a parade, a general can imagine himself the descendent of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, a god of war who by right of his superior military acumen should rule the world. By watching war through the filter of Patton's delusional eyes, we become complicit in his view of it. We actively begin to root for Patton to set a torch to all of Europe. We feel none of the horror of war and all of the excitement. Even the carnage in Patton is glorified - not a stinking pile of horror but a ecstatic tableau. This is war on the mythic terms of Homer and Thucydides.
After Truman, it was almost a given that the next President would be a World War II general. In spite of contemporary America's military dominance, the modern American General is little more than a cog in a larger machine. In today's America, true power resides with big business. But in Postwar America, true power resided with the famous generals of the World War II. The postwar era was the era of the Five Star Generals, who maintained the peace around the world as military governors with powers so far reaching as to be little different than dictators. When Douglas MacArthur was relieved from command of the Pacific Armies by President Truman in 1951, the Senate launched two separate investigative committees to determine Truman even had the constitutional authority to do so. Fortunately, Patton could never be President. He was dead within six months of World War II, twelve days after injuring his head on some glass in a car accident. It seems so trivial that one's tempted to ask if he could not live without war.
The question nevertheless remained, which type of general would rule postwar America. Would it be a reluctant soldier like Eisenhower or George Marshall or Omar Bradley, who loved peace more than war and would work to sustain the new American prosperity? Or would it be a joyful soldier who gloried in conquest like Douglas MacArthur or Curtis LeMay, so accustomed to viewing other countries as the enemy that they would embroil us in a Third World War to conquer the Soviets. When President Truman fired General MacArthur for insubordination in 1951, MacArthur immediately was invited by Republicans to address congress, and then went about giving stump speeches around the country. Rumors abounded that he would seek the Republican nominee for President in 1952, and if he wanted it, there was little question that he'd get it. Other quotes privately circulated that MacArthur was so concerned by the loss of China to the Communists that to remove Mao from China, a nuclear weapon would have to be used. Not just one or two atomic bombs, but dozens.
Today, fifty-five years after President Eisenhower's speech about the Military-Industrial Complex, the true threat is not from the generals of war, but the generals of finance and industry, few of whom can more refrain from conquest than a scorpion can from stinging. We live in the era shaped by Ayn Rand; an era when the Orwellian fanatic of the 20th century has crossbred with the traditional Shakespearean villain, the result is that selfishness is no longer viewed as a vice, but as a religion.
When General Patton declares in his opening speech, "Americans love a winner, and will not tolerate a loser." it is not possible from the vantage of 2016 not to hear a pre-echo of Donald Trump. For all we know, Trump consciously cribbed his line from this movie. Even if Trump is not our next President, it's only a short matter of time before our President will be a business mogul. Will it be a deranged billionaire after the image of Trump or the Koch Brothers or Sheldon Adelson who releases the worst effects of business amuck on the world? Or will it be a moderate in the image of Michael Bloomberg or Howard Schultz or Warren Buffett, who, like Eisenhower, will maintain the status quo and - more importantly - protect us from the most harmful effects of the profession which let them prosper so greatly because they know just how dangerous people within it can be?

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