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The zen of General Patton (II): as noted in the previous article, all stories about General Patton take on a koan-like quality—become little parables. The stories are properly mythological, hence I read a story that a military lawyer who served Patton in WWII had discovered “really happened”—he collected many stories about Patton, had his own stories, and yet with many stories you could not tell if they were true or not, so he was pleased to find out this particular story was true.


You immediately notice how around figures like Patton there is always an “apocryphal gospel”, a series of unofficial stories that many people think happened—or think should have happened (and which, in a sense, it does not matter whether or not they happened—so much as they sum up the spirit of Patton, or the figure under discussion).


So this story the lawyer had confirmed to him ran that Patton entered a tent where his map-makers were trying to work out the best place to cross a river. They had many options worked out, many arrows and circles—but none was satisfactory. Patton pointed to a bend in the river and said, “Why not here?”. The chief map-maker replied, “We don’t have any hydrographic information about the depth of the river at that point, or how fast it flows, or the condition of the river bed.”


Patton said, “We’ll cross there—the banks are not too steep, nor is the water very swift; and the river bed is soft but firm enough to take our vehicles—but send a single tank ahead to check first.” “But how do you know it’s not too deep?” asked the chief map-maker. Patton pointed to his trousers, which were wet up to his knees, “Because I just walked across it,” he replied.


The commonality in these stories is a kind of dead-pan literalness that reveals a disjunction between reality and the assumptions people have made—the sudden reversal of expectations produces humour. At core, these parables are about experience—and often come at the expense of people caught up in regulations or, as in the case above, a techno-science worldview.


It could be summed up in the gnomic phrase, “While the map-maker is in the tent, the general is in the river,” which, in time, could become incomprehensible—or even a liturgy which is chanted without anyone understanding what it means (at which point it would be time for the religion to die).


People often note that, at the war’s conclusion, Patton started to reach the same conclusions as Hitler—that the Americans shouldn’t have fought the Germans, that the Jews dominated the American media and used it to promote Communism, that Germanic businessmen in America were thrown out of their positions by Jewish cabals, and that the war had thrown half Europe over to the Communists (who were very savage).


Was that because he was Germanic himself? No—Eisenhower was as Germanic but didn’t reach the same conclusions. Was it because he was violent and vicious? In fact, Patton did not relish violence—he just didn’t lie about what war is; and because he didn’t lie about it, like more diplomatic generals, he was perceived as “vicious”.


The reason Patton reached similar conclusions to Hitler is that both were self-taught men who worked from their experiences, not from “official doctrine”. As noted, Patton was dyslexic—and, while he read a lot, reading wasn’t his strength; and this meant that rather than relying on official doctrine he used his own experiences and ingenuity to solve problems.


So he was more “self-taught” than most American officers, even though he went through the various officer training schools. This is also why he is a memorable character while other American generals are forgotten—he was more individuated, more honest and so more distinct. Because he was more “self-taught”, he was more like Hitler—who was someone who drew his own conclusions about his experiences, rather than taking doctrine to experience.


People say “you didn’t think it through”, but, as I often say, it’s not really about “thinking it through”—when people are chastised about “not thinking it through” their deviation from reality is often quite well thought out. What people really mean by “you didn’t think it through” is you’re not very perceptive. If people stopped and noticed things then the “thought” would be less relevant—just like the map-makers didn’t notice Patton’s legs.


The same could be said for morality—people like to talk a lot about morality, but if you’re perceptive then the moral implications of a situation follow clearly from reality. The problem is that most people are too busy thinking “Is this true or false?” or “Is this right or wrong?” to notice anything—but reality itself is enough.


Of course, Hitler is a quasi-religious figure, a shamanic figure, as Jung said, and that is why he continues to resonate today—and, in the same way, Patton is also a religious figure; to say Hitler was “a mid-20th-century politician” doesn’t capture the actuality, to say Patton was “a WWII general” again doesn’t capture the actuality.


People who become very perceptive and very true to their experiences take on both a religious and an artistic character—with Hitler and Patton both being known as artistically temperamental—and this is because religion and art are interlinked; both are holistic, not moralistic, and aim to perceive reality as it is—which is beautiful. The beauty is its own justification—and it is not right or wrong, nor is it true or false. It just is.


The actuality is obscured, if we take a Christian register, by men like the Pharisees—who, like the map-makers, are lost in abstractions about words or representations of reality and so have lost the river itself. Men who notice the actuality are often martyred—just as Patton was killed, crucified, in a mysterious crash at the war’s end (when he started to notice too much).

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