Good Advice from General Patton’s Grandson: Listen

Ben Patton’s remarkable new book, Growing Up Patton, gives a clear-eyed inside-the-family view of two famous generals, father and son, who happen to be Ben’s grandfather and father.

Ben, a documentary filmmaker, doesn’t flinch from discussing the men’s flaws, even as he crafts loving portraits of them.

Yesterday, Ben posted a wonderful piece titled “This Memorial Day: Listen.”  It’s great advice.

Someone recently asked me whether I thought my grandfather and father, General George S. Patton Jr. and Major General George S. Patton IV, had suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Considering that they were both famously aggressive soldiers, veterans of a combined four wars, and famously unsympathetic to what they thought of as “shell shock,” it’s an unsettling question.

The fact that my father and grandfather reacted so violently to displays of battle fatigue among their men does make one wonder whether they themselves ever feared falling apart. In July 1943, at the height of his Seventh Army’s successful offensive across Sicily, my grandfather notoriously slapped two soldiers who were being treated in field hospitals but who had no visible wounds: he considered them malingerers at best, cowards at worst. (As it turned out, one of the soldiers had been suffering from severe dysentery).

Similarly, near the end of the Korean War, in 1953, my father — then a company commander — learned that a young lieutenant had fled his frontline position during a firefight and soon found him sobbing in his tent. Dad struck the lieutenant with a steel helmet, drew his pistol on him and threatened to have him court-martialed for “misbehavior before the enemy,” as he later told me. “And the penalty for misbehavior before the enemy is death!” he exclaimed. The soldier eventually returned to his post, but my father had him transferred out the next morning.

It’s interesting that my father and grandfather could be so loyal to their soldiers but so insensitive in that way. Duty and faithfulness to their mission came before sympathy. Even though one of my father’s favorite junior officers was diagnosed with severe PTSD years after Vietnam, Dad couldn’t relate. The two men remained close friends but never really talked about it.