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There are many stories about General Patton and they all take on this Zen koan-like quality—it’s because Patton was both a spiritual and a military leader; for example, he always spoke off-the-cuff, my preferred method, and never had a prepared speech like other generals—so he spoke “as the spirit moved him”, the best way to speak.

It’s not about formal piety, it’s about when you let the spirit speak through you—similarly, Patton used much profanity; and that recalls Timothy Treadwell, whom I did a post on a while back, which you can search for, who managed to summon divine intervention through swearing at various gods (Jesus, Ganesh, Muhammad). It’s a mistake to think you cannot summon divine intervention by swearing at the gods.

There’s a story that Patton was on an inspection tour round his desert camp. He asked the junior officer with him to go and ask a sentry if he knew his duty. The officer got down from the jeep and ran over to the sentry. He asked the man, “Where do you expect trouble from?”. The man pointed back towards the camp he guarded, towards his own side. The officer began to dress him down, “The enemy is over there!” he shouted—pointing out into the desert. “I know the enemy is over there,” replied the flustered soldier, “but you asked me where I expected trouble from—and I expect trouble from our camp! That’s where all the trouble comes from!”. This caused Patton to burst into laughter as he listened to the exchange—he concluded the soldier knew his duty well enough.

The koan-like element lies in the way humour derives from dead-pan literal take on communication—yet the dead-pan literal take actually reveals a concealed truth about the situation. In this case, as in all cases, that you should expect trouble to emanate from your own side. That is where you will face all the trouble in your attempts to achieve your goals, by contrast the enemy is a relatively minor distraction. This applies in many situations—politics, business, and life in general (where your greatest troubles come from within your family).

Of course, the soldier also saw “home camp” as a source of trouble because that was where Patton was headquartered—and Patton liked to drive about testing his men and making observations about their readiness. There was nothing he could do about the enemy, but he could point out deficiencies on his own side and correct them. It’s related to the Heraclitean idea that harmony comes from strife—obviously, people say “metal sharpens metal” but often they don’t mean it; and Patton was acute in his observations, so as to be offensive.

Notoriously, he once slapped a soldier—and was forced to apologise. But this also has Zen tones—for the Zen master will often slap the pupil to achieve “sudden enlightenment”, a case where “the sound of one hand clapping” is the sound of the open palm as it hits your cheek. It is the very fact that he went about and made these observations that made Patton “legendary”, but at the same time he was also considered to be “very rude” and “very vicious”—though he himself only sought to conclude wars as quickly as possible, which means with as much applied force as possible.

Indeed, Patton used much profanity—but it was not without reason. He used profanity because it helped his message stick in the minds of his men. Once his speech was delivered he became very mild-mannered, some say like a parson, as he went back to his maps. “The envelope is not the message”—people always mistake the envelope for the message. So they talk about the profanity Patton used as if it were an indulgence or as if he were a naughty schoolboy—but he knew that ordinary soldiers would not listen otherwise. So there was nothing excessive about it.

It also helped that he was dyslexic. Although he read constantly, especially the Bible, the fact he couldn’t become overly absorbed in documents meant that he had to use his own ingenuity and experience to solve problems. That was why he preferred to speak off-the-cuff, because he would have found it hard to read a prepared speech. If you read his quotes, quite a lot of what he says doesn’t make sense from a rational perspective—because he speaks in paradoxes, rather like Jesus, and so his speeches have a magical quality to them.

Indeed, some people who listened to Patton had the impression that Patton commanded God to help them—and that God had better pay attention, or else he would be in trouble. This is a perfectly acceptable attitude, if you have broken from the very submissive relationship to God found in Christianity and Islam—here the divine is seen more like a force that can be bound or ordered, as magicians have always said.

For Patton, this approach grew out of the fact that he was more self-taught than other officers—because his dyslexia made it harder to make him into a “standard issue” army man who would have had a conventional and deferential attitude to God. Similarly, he read the Bible as a book about battles, not a book about God per se—so that he brought his own nature to the material entirely, so that God became another soldier to be commanded (or respected, if of higher rank).

Patton was also noted for his remarkable honesty and forthrightness—he gave his view in a very direct way. That might be more common in the military than other places, but generals are very like politicians in most respects—and some, like Eisenhower, go on to be actual politicians. So to be candid is not necessarily intrinsic to the military character. This is why Patton is more memorable than other American generals, he was more individuated—he was a genuine individual, a process that is both alchemical and religious.


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