Military history

PROLOGUE

GEORGE Patton. Erwin Rommel. Each is a name to conjure with—especially on the cover of a book. Their names and faces are regularly used to advertise large-format, general-reader volumes on armored warfare, on World War II, and on great battles and great captains. They are available in varying scales to model-builders and collectors. While “Patton’s Sherman” has not yet made an appearance, in the 1960s Monogram offered “Rommel’s Rod”—a “Krazy Kommand Kar” complete with decals.

Patton and Rommel play central roles in the writing of military history. Their names. deeds, and ideas run like threads through academic monographs and professional military writing. Ronald Lewin, Sir Hubert Essame, Martin Blumenson, Davvid Fraser, Carlo D’Este, Stephen Ambrose, Russell Weigley—these are only a few of the soldiers and scholars who address the operational performance of these generals, as supporters or debunkers.

In the 1960s, Patton and Rommel were featured in Ballantine’s classic series on commanders of World War II. They are highlights of Brassey’s contemporary Military Profiles series. Each is the subject of a classic film. They appear regularly in science fiction and alternate history. Patton has the title role in John Barnes’s Patton’s Spaceship. Rommel is the central character in Matthew Costello’s Time of the Fox. In Fox at the Front, Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson even have Patton and Rommel fight side by side to prevent the Soviet overrunning of Germany after Hitler’s assassination! Each man has not one, but two massive biographies by major authors, each a commercial and literary success: David Irving’s Trail of the Fox and Sir David Fraser’s Iron Cross for Rommel; Carlo D’Este’s Patton: A Genius for War and Stanley Hirshson’s General Patton: A Soldier’s Life. A Google search, that twenty-first-century standard for measuring significance, turns up about 156,000 references to “Rommel” and about 174,000 for “George Patton.”

Men of War is nevertheless the first book-length joint study of these familiar figures. This is a dual military biography. It seeks to integrate three focal points: the men, their wars, and the systems they served. It also seeks to be reader-friendly, by eschewing the academic apparatus that so often gets in the way of the story. And this is quite a story—of heroism and posturing, of honor and self-serving, of courage and betrayal. It depicts two complex personalities in the contexts of their military cultures and the countries that sustained them. Focusing on the generals, it compares the U.S. Army and the Wehrmacht as military instruments, and American and German ways of war.

Patton and Rommel were in part their own creations. Each man was his personal construction of what a soldier should be. They are also constructions of their enemies. In the middle of the North African campaign, Winston Churchill, the last great romantic, paid tribute to Rommel in the House of Commons. The Desert Fox was so admired by British soldiers and officers that “doing a Rommel” came to be a synonym for anything executed competently and with flair. Long before the end of the war, Rommel became for British and Americans alike an embodiment of the general who led from the front, saw for himself, and shared the hardships of his men. In America’s service academies, he remains for cadets an archetype of what a leader should be: what contemporary military analyst David Hackworth calls a “warrior stud,” a general with muddy boots and operational genius.

Rommel is also an enduring symbol of the “good” German: the man who fought a clean, honorable war, untainted by the ideology or the institutions of National Socialsim. His forced suicide in 1944 did not make him a martyr, but it did link him to the German resistance and give him status as one of Hitler’s victims. That made him an iconographic figure in an emerging Federal Republic, which adopted the Rommel mythos with enough enthusiasm to name one of their navy’s major ships after the army general! The other side of the story is that German soldiers and military analysts have no particular regard for Rommel as a general—“a good division commander” is the phrase I have most often heard in forty years of discussing the subject. To men trained in the schools of Clausewitz and Moltke, the qualitites Americans admire in Rommel are exactly those that merit criticsm: acting on impulse, favoring spontaneity over planning, trusting to luck for logistics.

For the German professionals, on the other hand, Patton remains a general who understood how to wage modern war and whose system gave him the tools he needed. Patton was imaginative, aggressive. Patton understood operational art. Patton saw that the tank made it possible to paralyze an enemy, then destroy him at low cost. “Patton!” the old Wehrmacht hands and their successors of the Bundeswehr reflect. “There was a true master of mobility. Had he been given a free hand by your Eisenhowers and your Bradleys, the war would have been over by November. Shermans would have been rolling down Unter den Linden before the Russians ever saw the Oder.”

Americans are less comfortable with Patton. Sixty years after his triumphs he remains the bad boy become general—the profane, posturing, soldier-slapper whose extroverted lack of self-discipline made him a loose cannon to his superiors and constantly landed him in hot water with the media. To an American people still reluctant to acknowledge the role of war in American society, Patton’s ebullient enthusiasm for conflict makes him disconcerting—a figure to respect but not to identify with. He is like an athlete admired for performance but not judgment—a uniformed cross between Barry Bonds and Dennis Rodman.

The horse cavalry had a song about a resting place called Fiddler’s Green, where the grass is always lush and the beer is always cold. It stands along the trail to hell, but no trooper ever reaches that grim destination. Instead, he stops off at Fiddler’s Green and stays to drink with his friends. Patton and Rommel never faced each other in battle. But surely Fiddler’s Green must have made room for tanks and those who ride them. And just as surely, two old tankers hold court eternally under the trees.

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