I work with veterans all the time, and one question invariably comes up: How do I think my grandfather, WWII general George S. Patton Jr., would have done in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Since my grandfather died twenty years before I was born, my experience of him came primarily through my dad, George S. Patton IV. Like a lot of people, I've also watched the movie with George C. Scott. I do think my grandfather would have been an effective leader in today's conflicts, but not for the reasons you might think.
He was accustomed to a different kind of combat, so it's reasonable to wonder whether his skills, honed in tank warfare in WWI and WWII, would translate to modern-day guerrilla conflicts. Some people even question whether his brand of general -- the hard-charging, damn-the-torpedoes type of offensive-minded warrior -- is still needed.
What these critics miss is the fact that my grandfather was an epic tactician and student of history. He read obsessively about past wars and successful military leaders, from Julius Caesar to Frederick the Great to Stonewall Jackson. He always looked back to what worked, and then adapted it based on the culture of his current opponent. He might be unequalled in the art of mobile warfare, which would be an asset in any conflict. But I think what really made him great was his ability to understand and outsmart the enemy.
For some idea of how my grandfather would have dealt with guerilla warfare, you might look to my father, his only son and namesake. Dad fought in Korea and Viet Nam and ended up being just as highly decorated as his old man. As I explore in my new book, Growing Up Patton (Berkley, $26.95), my grandfather taught my father everything he knew about war, practically from infancy.
Dad joked that growing up, breakfast consisted of cornflakes and military history. And my father did adapt to guerrilla warfare in the Vietnam jungle. For instance, he frequently used his command-and-control helicopter as a low-flying death ship to scare up action, much to the horror of his superiors. The unit he commanded in Viet Nam, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, known as "Blackhorse," was considered one of the most effective in the war. Like my grandfather, my dad also had an old-fashioned respect for the enemy, and worked hard to beat opposing forces in the field while winning over the locals. I'm sure he had my grandfather's words in mind: "Weapons change, but the man who uses them changes not at all. To win battles, you do not beat weapons, you beat the soul of the enemy."
The other question I get most often is why I didn't join the family business. During my senior year of high school, when I was trying to decide whether or not to attend the Naval Academy, my father drew up a list of pros and cons. Under cons, he wrote, "have to be away from family a lot" and (worse for a lazy 18-year-old) "have to turn yourself into a morning person." The pros column, which was far longer, included "loves history, a good sailor, likes to fly, enjoys the camaraderie of soldiers, familiar with military life."
Ultimately, I chose not to enter the Navy -- mostly because I knew I didn't have the necessary passion to attack it with abandon, like an NFL running back charging a defense, and make a 10-year commitment at the age of 17. But as it turns out, many of the "pros" on that list apply to the life I believe I have now. I'm an early riser. I spend a lot of time with soldiers. I have my pilot's license. But instead of serving in the military, I spend much of my time creating film workshops for soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress, or PTS.
Yes, this is more than a little ironic, considering that my grandfather's career was nearly ended when he slapped a shell-shocked soldier. My dad was of a similar mindset. My grandfather and father cared deeply about their soldiers and went to great pains to make sure that they had proper uniforms and gear, got their mail, and whenever possible, ate at least one hot meal a day.
But that compassion had its limits. Both of them were career soldiers -- not citizen soldiers like National Guardsmen and reservists. They couldn't fathom the idea of coming back from war and returning to a civilian household. I don't know if either of them would have understood post-traumatic stress. Back in their time, the term wasn't even in the lexicon. As a member of this generation, however, I appreciate that fully half of soldiers now entering the VA hospital system are being treated for mental health issues, and that nearly a third have been diagnosed with PTS.
One big reason is that modern wars are more oriented toward injuries, a trend that started in the Vietnam War. If you stepped on bungee tripwire and a piece of knife-sharp bamboo tore through your foot, you'd need another person or two to take care of you; that's two or three soldiers out of action. Today, IEDs and sniper attacks have become the major threat on the ground. And while the number of traumatic brain injuries among soldiers has skyrocketed, the injuries aren't all physical.
Soldiers with PTS and/or mild to moderate brain injuries -- like the veterans we work with at the Army's Warrior Transition Units -- often have harrowing memories that jumble together and become overwhelming or even crippling. As filmmakers, my partner Scott Kinnamon and I help soldiers organize those memories in a way that is manageable and makes sense to them. Each soldier can keep his or her film private, or share it with family, colleagues and therapists. Soldiers often say that the only thing that really helps them is being able to tell their stories.
So far, the program shows promise. One sergeant, a man who'd received a brain injury while rescuing two of his men after a roadside ambush in Iraq, had become violent and unpredictable at home, leading his teenage son to move out of the house. After the son watched the short film that the sergeant had made, they began talking again. Another soldier suffered from a recurring nightmare.
In her movie, she changed the ending of the dream to give herself a chance to confront her attacker. After playing the film before bedtime following the workshop, she told that recently that she no longer has that terrifying dream -- and that's the kind of validation that keeps me going. Just as my grandfather threw everything he had at liberating western Europe, we need to throw everything we have into exploring new ways to help our soldiers recover.
They've earned it.
Images of General Patton and family: