There’s only one proper way for a soldier to die: from the last bullet, of the last battle, of the last war.
I’ve just taken the time to watch the film Patton for the first time, the biography of the controversial US Army General, based on his memoirs and those of Omar Bradley. Bradley fought under Patton in North Africa, but later became his commanding officer; Patton’s career was hampered by an inability to think politically and a propensity for speaking his mind.
If the film is correct in its analysis, Patton was so feared by the Germans – one general describes him as a “glorious anachronism” – that his non-involvement in the Normandy landings, for political reasons, made him more useful as a decoy. He could not be kept back indefinitely, of course, and was soon back in action in command of the 3rd Army. The irony in the quote stems from the fact that Patton died, from injuries sustained in a car crash, before the end of 1945. The unpretentious “GI General” Bradley went on to become the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and had a “fighting vehicle” named after him.
How many times have I been criticized, at work, for speaking my mind? For ignoring political considerations in favour of the realities of the situation? For neglecting the expedient in favour of the essential? More generally, how important is it to be liked? If you’re running for US President today, it’s crucial. That wasn’t always the case: just ask Abraham Lincoln, who said: “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing”. He understood the distinction clearly, and once said about someone: “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better”. By the 20th Century, however, Adlai E Stevenson III could say “A free society is one where it is safe to be unpopular”… and go on to lose two elections to Eisenhower (1952 & 56).
I guess that makes me an “unglorious anachronism”, then; someone all too aware of the advocracy* in which we live, where what we say is more important than what we do, where a gesture is more important than action. Yet I am tolerated, to a point, at least partly because I understand the importance of action; both by myself and those who come to me for advice. A more extreme example is the soldier, whose clash with modern civilzation is the subject of much modern debate and fiction, from The Red Badge Of Courage, through to The Seven Samurai and Apocalypse Now.
Nowhere do I see this more expressed clearly today than in Tom Clancy’s books, where lawyers and politicians practice “plausible deniability” while soldiers deal with the reality of force at the sharp end. His protagonist, Jack Ryan, has been occasionally forced to cross the divide, and take actions that haunt him later. By those standards I have it easy, and generally get on well with people without the need to resort to physical violence, though it can get a bit verbal at times.
My point is: politics may be defined as “the art of the possible”, with an emphasis on keeping up friendly relations with others, but if “the possible” is not enough, politics alone will not get the job done, and someone, somewhere, is going to be offended. To me this a crucial insight, with value in a typical business environment; it may be arrogance to think you know better than someone else, but if you do, then you need to have enough belief in yourself to go beyond the polite, and risk offence. If you get it wrong, there will be consequences, but get it right, and it’s worth the effort.
* advocracy: a society ruled by lawyers