Small Wars Journal

Patton as a Counterinsurgent?: Lessons from an Unlikely COIN-danista

Sat, 01/25/2014 - 9:09am

Patton as a Counterinsurgent?: Lessons from an Unlikely COIN-danista

J. Furman Daniel, III

Abstract: This essay argues that General George S. Patton Jr. was a surprisingly proficient practitioner of small wars in three different contexts−the 1916-1917 Punitive Expedition to Mexico, the 1942 North Africa campaign, and in 1945 as Pro-Council to occupied Bavaria. While these lesser known campaigns will always be overshadowed by Patton’s other exploits, this essay attempts to accomplish three goals: first, to provide an alternative and more nuanced view of General George Patton; second, to underscore elements from these campaigns which may be of use to modern counterinsurgents; finally, to identify the elements that allowed Patton to succeed as an unlikely counterinsurgent despite his lack of formal training or practical experience. To this end, this essay will first briefly examine Patton’s role in each of these campaigns and will then proceed to an analysis of the factors that made Patton successful and the lessons which can be learned from this unlikely Coin-danista.

Nearly seventy years after his death, General George Patton still evokes many powerful images.[i] Patton is known as a prophet of mechanized warfare, a stubborn adherent to the value of horse cavalry and the sabre, an Olympic athlete, a contradictory mix of prayerful and profane, a mystic believer in atavistic reincarnation, a lifelong student of military history, and one of the most successful and dynamic commanders of the Second World War.[ii] Truly, George Patton is a unique figure in American history and, as such, means many things to many people.[iii]

One thing that Patton is almost never called is a counterinsurgent. Indeed, in many ways, such a label would be misleading. While the US military was heavily engaged in a series of small wars and pacification campaigns during his youth and early career, these experiences were generally denied to Patton. In fact, Patton was never formally trained in counterinsurgency techniques and the closest he came to being educated in these arts was his time as a cavalryman on the Western Plains. Although these deployments were formative experiences that helped Patton develop his leadership style and impressive horsemanship, they were more anachronistic reminders of the battles of the Little Big Horn or Wounded Knee than training for counterinsurgency.[iv] Furthermore, Patton missed opportunities to acquire these skills on the job. Despite a powerful desire to see action, he did not participate in the campaigns in the Philippines, Nicaragua, Panama, Haiti, Russia, or China. These campaigns largely defined the US military during the period and had a profound impact on other future American Generals such as Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower.[v]

Given this lack of formal training or practical experience, how can Patton possibly be considered a counterinsurgent? This essay will argue that Patton exhibited these unlikely talents as a counterinsurgent in three distinct campaigns: The 1916-1917 Punitive Expedition to Mexico; the 1942 Campaign in North Africa; and during his brief and controversial tenure as Military Pro-Council to Bavaria in 1945.[vi] While these efforts are less well known than Patton’s Invasion of Sicily, the Cobra breakout, his subsequent attempt to close the Falaise Pocket, or his dramatic relief of Bastone during the Battle of the Bulge, they contain potentially powerful, and overlooked, lessons for students of history and practitioners and the military art.[vii]

By developing this unconventional view of the great general, this essay attempts to accomplish three goals: first, to provide an alternative and more nuanced view of General George Patton; second, to underscore elements from these campaigns which may be of use to modern counterinsurgents; finally, to identify the elements that allowed Patton to succeed as an unlikely counterinsurgent despite his lack of formal training or practical experience.[viii] To this end, this essay will first briefly examine Patton’s role in each of these campaigns and will then proceed to an analysis of the factors that made Patton successful and the lessons which can be learned from this unlikely Coin-danista.

Punitive Expedition to Mexico 1916-17

While the Punitive Expedition in Mexico from 1916-1917 is not one of the more celebrated chapters of US military history, it was an extremely influential episode in the early career of then Lt. George Patton. After initially being tasked to stay behind the expedition at Ft. Bliss, TX, Patton eventually persuaded his friend and mentor General John Pershing to include him as his personal aid during the expedition. In this role, Patton was indispensable to Pershing. Patton was energetic and thirsty for action and he quickly expanded the scope of his duties beyond the typical tasks assigned to a general’s aid.[ix] In addition to delivering messages, clerical work, and personal assistance, Patton served as a scout, an intelligence analyst, an operational planner, an interrogator of prisoners, a forward air observer, a liaison with the local population, and led multiple raids into enemy controlled territory. In essence, Patton was learning the rudiments of low-intensity warfare through an intense inside look at the center of Pershing’s headquarters and by personally leading and directing many of the essential tasks of this unusual mission.

Patton’s most famous exploit of the campaign was on May 14, 1916 when he used three Dodge touring cars to lead a raid on a house which contained rebel leader Julio Cárdenas and two of his men. In a swirling gun fight that recalled scenes of the mythic American West, Patton and his men killed Cárdenas and his two associates as they attempted to first fight and then flee on horseback, strapped their lifeless bodies to the hoods of their cars, and beat a hasty retreat as more of Villa’s fighters arrived on the scene and threatened to overrun their position.

This engagement is notable for more than its dramatic blend of the Army’s horse drawn past and a harbinger of its mechanized future. In addition to being the first mechanized assault in American military history, it was one of the few American successes in an otherwise frustrating and inconclusive campaign. By removing Cárdenas from the insurgent chain of command, this raid greatly curtailed the banditos’ freedom of action in the local area and singled to the local population that the US Army was able to act on local intelligence and mount bold strikes deep into hostile held territory. On a more personal level, this success gained Patton a large amount of favorable press and helped establish his growing reputation as a bright young officer within the US Army. In addition to these laurels, this successful raid was a microcosm of Patton’s early effectiveness at conducting counterinsurgent campaigns.

Patton was successful in this tactical-level counterinsurgency mission for a number of practical and theoretical reasons. First, Patton used his contacts with the local population to gather timely information regarding the whereabouts of the Mexican forces. He then combined this knowledge of the human terrain with his rapid reconnaissance of the geographical landscape. Patton then acted quickly and decisively, traveling as light as possible and making use of the mobility provided to him by his primitive Dodge touring cars. Next, Patton bravely engaged the hostile forces, but was careful to avoid potentially hurting local civilians who were busy cleaning a cow carcass. With a great degree of tactical skill and personal initiative, Patton was then able to fix the enemies’ position and to bring his superior firepower to bear on the insurgents. As the beleaguered bandits attempted a desperate escape on horseback, Patton remembered the old wisdom that he had heard from the Confederate raider John Singleton Mosby to shoot at horse of a fleeing rider and not the man himself. This adage proved accurate, as Patton and his men were able to first drop the horse and then silence the fleeing rider. Once they neutralized their targets, Patton and his forces tied the bandits to the hoods of their vehicles and made a hasty retreat as forces loyal to Cárdenas began to arrive on the scene.

Patton’s first taste of action highlighted his ability to succeed across a wide range of different environments, including a low-intensity counterinsurgency campaign. As will be discussed in greater detail in the Lessons and Conclusions sections of this work, Patton was able to combine his knowledge, cultural skills, leadership, initiative, and his political acumen to achieve tangible tactical results. While this early adventure is often forgotten, it is impressive that as a young and inexperienced officer, Patton could quickly master his tactical situation and harness his impressive array of talents to achieve success in a mission that he was not formally trained to conduct.

Administration of Morocco, 1942-43

While Patton’s campaigns in North Africa have been thoroughly studied, one element that has been overlooked was Patton’s skill at administrating and managing a complex set of political, tribal, cultural, and military alliances during the campaign.[x] Despite the potential volatility of the situation, Patton’s managerial skills and appreciation for the cultural and political history of the region helped prevent an unwelcome insurgency from developing in the Allies’ rear. This insurgency that never was could have potentially derailed the already tenuous success of Operation Torch and could have prevented the later successes of the Americans and British in surrounding and destroying Rommel’s Africa Korps.

Although Patton was already well versed in history and literature, he prepared for the North Africa campaign by reading the Koran. During the long passage to North Africa, Patton fervidly studied the religious text hoping to gain some wisdom about the peoples and culture he was to encounter. Patton, a devout (if profane) Christian greatly enjoyed the book and declared it, “a good book and interesting.”[xi]While it is certainly possible to infer too much from Patton’s reading habits, this clearly appears to be one of many cases where Patton had dedicated significant time and effort to “knowing the enemy.”

Patton’s first task in Operation Torch was to neutralize Vichy French opposition in the landing zones and to establish a beachhead. Once Patton secured safe access to the beaches and ports in his zones, his mission was to establish relations with the French colonial leaders and to attempt to persuade them to peacefully surrender. Patton used his own authority to negotiate a settlement with the French defenders which somewhat exceeded his authority from Washington, but was successful in rapidly ending French resistance and preserving French honor and dignity. In Patton’s own words, “[it was] no use kicking a man when he’s down.”[xii]

Although Patton was privately very dismissive of the French leadership, he understood that amicable relations with the colonial authorities were essential for the success of the mission. Accordingly, he ordered his troops to extend full military courtesies to the captured French forces which fell under his command. By maintaining French honor, Patton was able to use these colonial troops to secure his rear areas, guard against sabotage, and help maintain local law enforcement. This corporation with the French allowed Patton to use his own force more effectively in the primary mission of defeating the Axis armies rather than having it attired by troubles in his rear.[xiii] By Patton’s own estimation, the use of French forces to maintain order in his rear and to avoid potential insurrection was necessary at achieving his goals, and “I have never had reason to regret that decision. Had I done otherwise, I am convinced that at least sixty thousand American troops would have had to occupy Morocco; thereby preventing our using it to the maximum and reducing our already inadequate forces.”[xiv]

Patton was similarly adroit at managing relations with local Arab leaders and their people. During his time in Morocco, Patton met frequently with the local Arab leaders including the Sultan of Morocco as well as his relatives, advisors, and Viziers. These contacts were essential for Patton to help pacify the local population and ensure their cooperation with Allied efforts. Patton’s December 8, 1942 meeting with the Sultan’s principal advisor, the Grand Vizier, set the tone for Patton’s relations with the local authorities and his account of the meeting is worth quoting at length:

“I talked practically directly to the old man. He said that His Majesty was very anxious for me to know that the whole life of Morocco depended upon maintaining peace. I assured him that I was a profound student of history; that since my earliest infancy my whole idea had been to maintain peace in French Morocco, and that I intended to do so by consulting the wishes of His Majesty…He said that when His Majesty heard these remarks from me he would be overcome with joyous emotion. He then talked about race antipathies…I understood perfectly about race antipathies, and therefore I would do nothing about it because…the Sultan’s ancestors have handled such questions for thirteen hundred years, they were better fitted that I was to continue their management. He said that this was completely to his way of thinking and that no racial or tribal troubles would ever stick their heads above the surface…I then told him that, in spite of my most diligent efforts, there would unquestionably be some raping, and that I should like to have the details as early as possible so that the offenders could be properly hanged. He said that this was a splendid idea, and that the hanging of such miscreants would unquestionably bring great joy to all Moroccans. This conversation took about fifteen minutes, at the end of which time the Grand Vizier assured me that the complaisance had given him the happiest fifteen minutes of his life.”[xv]

Through this conversation and others like it, Patton was able to build trust with the local Arab leaders. While this trust was not sufficient for destroying the Axis forces, it was certainly necessary for avoiding a potentially hostile and debilitating insurgency in the Allies’ rear. Indeed this quiet success is a model for future leaders and clearly demonstrates the importance of working with local leaders even during a high-intensity campaign such as Operation Torch.

Military Pro-Council to Bavaria, 1945

Patton’s last major military assignment was to serve as military Pro-council to post-war Bavaria.[xvi] This was a task which held minimal interest for Patton who had strongly lobbied for a command in the Pacific Theatre. Once his requests for transfers were officially denied, Patton reluctantly settled into the task of reconstructing his sector of occupied Germany. His primary motivation for the task was his genuine belief that Germany needed to be rebuilt to serve as a bulwark against potential Soviet aggression in Europe.

To this end, Patton was able to enlist the willing corporation of the German population, a fact that facilitated physical reconstruction of German infrastructure, but ultimately undermined Patton’s own political support.[xvii] While Patton may have appeared too willing to collaborate with the defeated Germans, and his buffoonish remarks to the press certainly did him no favors, his overall plan was sound and entirely consistent with the principles of counterinsurgency doctrine. At its core, Patton’s plan was to provide basic food, shelter, and government services to a German civilian population that had been devastated by six years of war.

To achieve this admirable task of protecting the civilian population and reviving the German economy, Patton believed that it was necessary to allow local officials who had been tangentially affiliated with the Nazi regime to retain their posts provided that they cooperated with the Allied occupation forces. Despite his benign intentions, Patton’s end and means were very much at odds with the initial American policy for post-war Germany which emphasized the so called “3-D’s”−demiliterization, denazification, and deindustrialization.[xviii]

While Patton’s intentions were pure, his administration of Bavaria was in a clear violation of US policy, a problem he exacerbated by making a series of ill-considered statements to reporters. Of these self-destructive statements, the most egregious and high-profile were those given at a press conference on September 22, 1945. Here, Patton defended his denatzification policies by claiming that the US, “would get better results if it employed more former members of the Nazi Party in administrative jobs and as skilled workmen.” Patton exacerbated this explosive claim by agreeing to a question from a reporter that, “most ordinary Nazis join their party in about the same way that Americans become Republicans or Democrats.”[xix]

In a press conference on September 25, 1945 Patton attempted to repair his tarnished image and explain his policies as:

in Germany practically all, or at least a very large percentage, of the tradespeople, small businessmen and even professional men, such as doctors and lawyers, were beholden to the party in power for patronage which permitted them to carry on their business or profession and that, therefore, many of them gave lip service only; and I would extend this to mean that when they paid party dues, it was still a form of blackmail. These are the type of people whom, while we will eventually remove them, we must put up with until we have restored sufficient organization to Bavaria to insure ourselves that women, children, and old men will not perish from hunger or cold this winter. I believe that I am responsible for the deaths of as many Germans as almost anyone, but I killed them in battle. I should be un-American if I did not do my utmost to prevent deaths after the war is over.[xx]

While this statement did nothing to repair Patton’s image and was short of the full and complete apology that was expected, it candidly expressed Patton’s views on the subject. In his assessment, the practical considerations of protecting the civilian population through building local capacity outweighed the politically expedient policy of denazification. Patton’s fate was sealed after a personal meeting with his old friend General Eisenhower on September 28, and he was officially relieved of his command and reassigned to the Fifteenth Army October 7, 1945.

Despite this ignoble end, Patton’s approach did have some merit despite its political incorrectness. By focusing on providing for the practical needs of the civilian population, Patton was able to avoid significant disruption in his occupation zone and was able to kick-start the German economy two and a half years prior to the advent of the Marshall Plan. Furthermore, despite being a traditional hotbed of radical German nationalism, Patton’s Bavaria was relatively immune to the partisan attacks in the years following the formal end of hostilities.[xxi] While Patton’s post-war legacy is unfortunate, his denazification policies were fitting with the larger goal of building a stable German ally and grimly foreshadowed the troubles with de-Bathification that the US Collation encountered in Iraq in 2003.


Throughout his life, George Patton studied the military arts with a tenacious passion and dedication for distilling the lessons of the past.  This drive was so all-consuming that he even took time off from his honeymoon to survey the French transportation network and to map out the best ground to fight wars in the future. Through a seemingly preordained twist of fate, some of these very fields and roads were the setting of Patton’s battles in both of the World Wars, thus adding to the Patton myth and underscoring the need for planning for a wide range of future contingencies. In this same spirit, it is appropriate, therefore, to briefly analyze the examples from Patton’s own career as an unlikely practitioner of counterinsurgency and to make some brief connections between these lessons of the past and the conflicts of the present. In brief, these lessons are: 1) The value of learning; 2) The value of broad cultural knowledge; 3) The value of active leadership; 4) The value of (appropriate) risk taking; and 5) The value of understanding the political elements of the mission.

Lesson #1: Internalize learning, academic curiosity, and military history

Perhaps no other General in American history has had the breadth and depth of study in military history as General George Patton. Before he could read for himself, Patton was an active consumer of military history. Family members and friends such as the Confederate partisan leader John Singleton Mosby recounted countless tales of ancient and modern conflicts to the enthralled boy who seemed to have an unquenchable thirst for the military art.[xxii] Patton’s atavistic passion for the lessons of the past helped shape his persona and led him to choose a career in the military.[xxiii]

Patton carried this passion for studying the military profession throughout his life and this genuine fascination and curiosity would serve him well. Although he was not an academic, Patton was a dedicated reader of military history who distilled practical understanding from his study. At his own expense, Patton purchased an extensive library of military texts which he carried with him to various posts throughout his career. In these volumes, he made extensive notes in the margins and attempted to summarize and integrate many of their lessons on a series of note cards which he kept for quick reference.[xxiv] Although he left many projects incomplete, Patton also wrote extensively on military subjects and published numerous articles on a wide range of military subjects. While Patton is known as a man of action, it is important to realize that he was a deeply self-reflective student of the military profession.[xxv]

In each of the three cases discussed here, Patton was able to succeed because he has learned lessons from the past. In Mexico, he used lessons from Confederate partisan raiders and the Indian Wars to scout, to glean information from the local population, and to travel as lightly and as quickly as possible. In the heat of battle, Patton even remembered the tactical lesson to shoot for a mounted riders’ horse rather than the rider himself and was able to drop one of Cardenas’ men as he tried to escape. In North Africa, Patton used his knowledge of the Koran and the histories of the Crusades and the French occupation to help liaise with the local leaders and implement a smooth transition to Allied rule claiming, “It took me a long time to realize how much a student of medieval history can gain from observing the Arabs.”[xxvi] In post-war Bavaria, he remembered the deprivations of Weimer-era Germany and the Reconstruction-era South and was careful to avoid wrecking the local economy and infrastructure, thus protecting the civilian population, earning goodwill, and accelerating the economic revival of the region.

In each of these cases, Patton was able to use historical knowledge and analogies to help guide his command decisions and to create a successful outcome. The lesson here is clear―the study of military history pays unexpected dividends across a wide range of divergent scenarios.[xxvii] Although it is unreasonable to expect every soldier to equal Patton’s unique mastery of these subjects, it is essential to make study and reflection on military practice part of training and career development at every level of the US military.[xxviii]

Lesson #2: Cultural knowledge, sensitivity, and engagement are essential

Although General Patton is typically remembered by his moniker “Old Blood n’ Guts,” he was actually much more subtle and complex than this one-dimensional view would suggest. Indeed, in both his personal and professional life, Patton could be surprisingly urbane and sophisticated.  Patton used this cultural acuity to advance his career within the Army and to affect tactical and operational outcomes during numerous campaigns.

Patton’s cultural understanding built upon his impressive knowledge, education, and motivation. His language skills, broad travel experiences, and knowledge of history enabled him to quickly understand the local situation and to engage with the indigenous populations. This knowledge allowed Patton to have an advantage over his opponents in a wide range of situations. In Mexico, this insight allowed him to obtain actionable intelligence regarding the location of Villiaists which led to his first taste of combat and glory. In North Africa, his language skills, historical knowledge, and diplomatic sensitivity help maintain peaceable relations between the French and Muslim population in Africa, build effective relationships with local tribal leaders, and avoid a potentially debilitating resistance and revolution from the Islamic population. In Germany, Patton’s record was more mixed, but he did use his knowledge of the failures during the Weimar period to address the practical needs of the local population and to help ensure that a competent, if politically dubious, local elite was in charge of revitalizing the German economy and social order.

For Patton, this cultural acumen was an active process that required continued work and dedication. Much like modern counterinsurgents, Patton was constantly learning and adapting to the needs of the moment. An illustrative example of this was Patton’s decision to read the Koran on his voyage to North Africa. Although it is impossible to know exactly how this reading impacted the campaign, the very fact that a senior echelon commander such as Patton would take the time from his busy schedule on the eve of battle to read a complex religious text speaks to Patton’s willingness to learn about different cultures and his belief that this type of knowledge could be potentially useful to the conduct of the campaign. Here again, Patton was unusual, but his dedication to learning softer cultural skills is an important lesson for all contemporary counterinsurgents.

Lesson #3 There is no substitute for active, charismatic, and hands-on leadership

If nothing else, General George Patton was an effective leader. His active, charismatic, and hands-on leadership style has been well documented elsewhere, but it does translate to success in counterinsurgency operations as well. While Patton is best known for his fiery advocacy for the maximum use of force in high-intensity campaigns, here, his leadership was more subtle and restrained, but no less active. Patton was successful in these operations because he worked hard and inspired others to do likewise. He personally lobbied General Purshing to be included on the Punitive Expedition to Mexico, and once there he displayed indefatigable drive in seeking out active missions, engaging with local sources, training his men, and keeping them prepared for action. In North Africa, he actively cultivated personal relationships with local power brokers and rigorously instituted discipline in regards to the personal conduct of his troop two leadership choices which cultivated good will and cooperation with the local inhabitants. In post-war Germany, Patton initially exhibited his active leadership style but quickly became frustrated and bored. Patton’s failings in post-war Germany were a direct result of his failure to adhere to his own high standards of proactive leadership. The events that would ultimately tarnish Patton’s reputation were the result of lack of leadership, thus underscoring the need to continually exercise command authority. Patton once famously remarked that he had leadership, but would be “damned if I can define it.”[xxix] While there is no substitute to effective leadership in all human endeavors, Patton’s exploits in these understudied campaigns further underscores the role that leadership must play in a successful counterinsurgency or peacekeeping campaign.

Lesson #4 Reward initiative and an appropriate willingness to take risks

Throughout his life, Patton was an active risk-taker. This willingness to seize the initiative of the moment and to accept personal and professional risks was closely linked to his belief that he was destined to achieve some unknown, but great task in his life. [xxx] Although it would be easy to dismiss his willingness to accept risks as an element of the active leadership style described above, Patton’s actions reveal something deeper about his military and personal philosophy and are instructive for potential practitioners of the military art.

For Patton, success and action were inseparable. He lobbied hard to be included on the Punitive Expedition to Mexico, and once there was a torrent of initiative and energy. He volunteered for as many raids and scouting parties as possible and was quick to adapt mechanized technologies such as automobiles, and light aircraft to broaden his reach and tactical influence. In the famous firefight in Mexico Patton again used his bravery and initiative to lead an assault on the ranch yielding one of the few tactical successes of the entire campaign and, in the process, became the first American to conduct a mechanized assault in combat.  In Northern Africa, Patton took risks by being seemingly everywhere at the front and purposely exposing himself to enemy fire as a means of inspiring his men.  Finally, in Bavaria, Patton risked (and ultimately tarnished) his reputation by choosing to be more accommodating to the local government officials in an effort to cultivate support from the local population.

More recent counterinsurgents have similarly acknowledged the necessity of taking appropriate risks. Indeed, much of the success of the “surge” in Iraq can be directly attributed to the acceptance of an increased degree of personal, professional, and strategic risk by General David Petraeus and the senior American leadership.[xxxi] The decision to more actively employ a counterinsurgency strategy and to accept potentially greater losses in the short-term, was exceedingly difficult, but was an appropriate and considered gamble that ultimately paid handsome dividends. Much like Patton, this was not a reckless gamble, but rather and acknowledgement that positive action required an acceptance of certain necessary and calculated risks.[xxxii]

Lesson #5 Appreciate the intensely political nature of counterinsurgency and peacekeeping missions

Although it may appear obvious, Patton’s experiences as a participant in these missions underscore the political elements of counterinsurgency and peace keeping. Patton internalized Clausewitz’s dictum that war is an intensely political act, through his repeated study of the Prussian theorist’s work.[xxxiii] Patton was particularly sensitive to this maxim, during the campaigns in Mexico and North Africa. In both of these cases, he skillfully manipulated political audiences in both the host country and back in the United States thus contributing both to the success of the mission and to public support for Patton’s career.

Despite these successes, Patton failed to properly manage the political situation as Military Proconsul to Bavaria. Through a series of decisions which included a refusal to punish low-level Nazi Party members, unwise political appointments to the new local government, ill-considered statements at press conferences, and an inability to communicate his vision for rebuilding Germany, Patton lost control of the political narrative and was unable to recover his political legitimacy. Patton’s inability to control the political context is quite unfortunate because he was actually doing an admirable job at several key counterinsurgency and rebuilding missions such as rebuilding the local economy and providing for the health and welfare of the host population.

Patton failed to maintain necessary political support because he focused too much on local conditions and ignored the border political context. Lacking specific guidance, Patton focused his attention on revitalizing Germany so that it could act as a counterweight to the Soviet Union. To this end, he concentrated on ends of revitalizing the German industrial base and civilian infrastructure and was often insensitive to the means he employed to achieve them. While Patton was doing a superior job in providing for the needs of the German inhabitants under his control, he seemed to miss the fact that denazification was an essential element of this mission and was a political third rail for the victorious Allies. Despite his reputation and success, the very appearance of a pro-Nazi policy was unacceptable.

For a figure as calculating and as jealous of his public image as Patton, this miscalculation was unfortunate because it effectively ended his career and interrupted some of the progress he was making rebuilding Germany. While some similarities can be drawn between Patton’s denazification policy, and the de-Baathification policies during the early stages of the 2003 Iraq War, this analogy is imperfect at best. What is clear is that success in these missions demands sustained political support from both the American people and the host population and that losing either one is potentially fatal.


This essay has advanced the argument that Patton was an “unlikely” but ultimately successful “Coin-danista.” Although Patton was never formally trained or indoctrinated in the art of counterinsurgency, he was able to apply his encyclopedic knowledge of history and learn from and adapt to the situation on the ground. This flexibility of both mind and operational focus should give us pause to reconsider both the established view of “Old Blood n’ Guts” Patton and the US Army. Indeed, despite the image of Patton as an unyielding force of nature, his true genius was his ability to step beyond this carefully crafted persona and to grasp the critical elements of the particular strategic situation.[xxxiv] While Patton’s more conventional exploits will continue to dominate our image of the general, there are many lessons to learn from these more obscure chapters from the great General’s career.

End Notes

[i] Perhaps the most enduring popular image of all is the 1970 film, Patton starring George C. Scott. Although this film is cinematically excellent and generally historically accurate, it focuses almost exclusively on Patton’s exploits during WWII thus provides a somewhat limited view of the legendary general. For a fascinating work on the making of the film, its accuracy, and its legacy, see: Nicholas Evan Sarantakes, Making Patton: A Classic Film’s Epic Journey to the Silver Screen. Lawrence, KS: The University Press of Kansas, 2012.

[ii] In 1913 George Patton redesigned the US Army cavalry sword and quite literally wrote the manual on sword drill and use in battle. The redesigned sabre, the Model 1913 Cavalry Sabre, became affectionately known as the “Patton Sword.” Because this new weapon was designed primarily for stabbing rather than slashing, it necessitated a complete revision to the manual of arms, which Patton wrote. See: George Patton, War Department Document No. 463. “Saber Exercise.” Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1914. This preference for stabbing over slashing has deep roots in military thought, see: “Not to Cut, but to Thrust with the Sword” in Flavius Vegetius Renatus, On Roman Military Matters: A 5th Century Training Manual in Organization, Weapons and Tactics, as Practiced by the Roman Legions. St. Petersburg, FL: Red and Black Publishers, 2013. pp. 15-16.

[iii] Although generally critical of Patton and his mythology, Stanley P. Hirshson summarizes Patton’s uniquely American spirit as: “More than any other prominent general, Patton encompasses America and its regions. On his father’s side his forebears came from the South. He grew up in the Far West and was educated in the East. And he eventually settled in New England. British generals saw him as a totally American product, encompassing his country’s contradictions, and referring to him in 1943 as  ‘chewing gum’ and ‘cowboy.’ …Patton indeed personified the American version of his ideal, ‘the warrior soul.’” Stanley P. Hirshson, General Patton: A Soldier’s Life. New York: Harper Collins, 2002. p. 706-707.

[iv] One example of Patton’s development as both a horseman and an inspirational leader occurred in 1909 at Fort Sheridan outside of Chicago. While performing drill with his men Patton was twice thrown from his horse and sustained a significant blow to his legs as well as a gruesome cut above his eyebrow. Despite profuse bleeding, Patton mounted his horse for a third attempt, spent approximately 20 minutes completing the drill, then taught a class for non-commissioned officers, and then attended a class for junior officers before finally cleaning off the wound and seeking medical attention from the fort’s surgeon. Alan Axelrod, Patton: A Biography. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006. p. 27.

[v]For two excellent overviews of the role that these campaigns played in shaping the American military, see: Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. New York: Basic Books, 2002. and Brian McAllister Linn, The Philippine War, 1899-1902. Lawrence: The University Press of Kansas, 2000. For an alternative thesis that argues that the Indian Wars were the formative experience for the American military, see: Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Strategy and Policy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1960.

[vi] One could potentially add the case of Patton’s role in suppressing the Bonus Marchers during the Great Depression. This is problematic on a number of levels. First, despite the grievances, petitions to the government, and occasional violence it is difficult to classify the Bonus Marchers as insurgents. Second, the active operations against the Bonus Marchers were very brief in their duration, lasting less than one full day. Finally, the actions against the Bonus Marchers are difficult to classify as an officially sanctioned military action. While the eviction of the Bonus Marchers remains a particularly bitter and contentious chapter in American history, it is not included in this study.

[vii] For an overview of the potential lessons from these various campaigns, see respectively: Carlo D’Este, Bitter Victory: The Battle for Sicily. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1988., Martin Blumenson, Battle of the Generals: The Untold Story of the Falaise Pocket and the Campaign The Should Have Won World War II. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1993., and John Nelson Rickard, Advance and Destroy: Patton as Commander in the Bulge. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2011.

[viii] Indeed, it has been argued that in the post-Cold War World, the lessons of counterinsurgency and not those of conventional wars such as World War II are in fact the most relevant. For an intriguing argument which claims that unconventional warfare has always been the dominant form of warfare, see: Max Boot, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013.

[ix] Patton’s role as Pershing’s aid is in many ways analogous to that of a young Robert E. Lee who served as General Winfield Scott’s aid during the campaigns in Mexico from 1847-1948. See generally: Martin Dugard, The Training Ground: Grant, Lee, Sherman, and Davis in the Mexican War, 1846-1848. New York: Little Brown, 2008.

[x] For an excellent account of the North African Campaign and its role in shaping the fledgling American Army, see generally: Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn The War in North Africa, 1942-1943. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2002.

[xi] George S. Patton Jr. War as I Knew It. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1947, p. 5

[xii] George S. Patton Jr. War as I Knew It. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1947, p. 10

[xiii] Martin Blumenson, Patton: The Man Behind the Legend, 1885-1945. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1985.  pp. 173-175.

[xiv] Alan Axelrod, Patton on Leadership: Strategic Lessons for Corporate Warfare. Paramus, NJ: Prentice Hall Press, 1999. p. 250.

[xv] George S. Patton Jr. War as I Knew It. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1947, pp. 22-24.

[xvi] Patton’s last official command was as head of the 15th Army a small “paper army” tasked with writing the official history of the war in Europe. In certain ways, this was actually a good fit for Patton who loved military history and believed that lessons could be learned from its study.

[xvii] Although the willingness of former Nazis to work with their American occupiers presented many challenges and pitfalls for Patton, on balance, the compliance of the German population was extraordinarily helpful for the American occupation efforts. The willingness of the Germans to help the Americans and British was primarily motivated by a visceral fear of the Soviet Union. For a sobering description of the horrors inflicted by the advancing Red Army, see: Antony Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945. New York: Viking, 2002. For a theoretical study about the role of external threats in promoting successful military occupations, see: David M. Edelstein, Occupational Hazards: Success and Failure in Military Occupation. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008.

[xviii] Ladislas Farago, The Last Days of Patton. New York: McGraw Hill, 1981. p. 67-68.

[xix] Ladislas Farago, The Last Days of Patton. New York: McGraw Hill, 1981. p. 178.

[xx] Ladislas Farago, The Last Days of Patton. New York: McGraw Hill, 1981. p. 186.

[xxi] For an account of the Nazi underground resistance movement, see: Perry Biddiscomb, Werwolf!: The History of the National Socialist Guerrilla Movement, 1944-1946. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

[xxii] Harry Yeide, Fighting Patton: George S. Patton Jr. Through the Eyes of His Enemies. Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press, 2011. p. 5.

[xxiii] On Patton as an atavistic warrior, see generally: Alan Axelrod, Patton’s Drive: The Making of America’s Greatest General. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2009.

[xxiv] For a superb and often overlooked work detailing Patton’s lifelong dedication to the study of the military art, see: Roger H. Nye, The Patton Mind: The Professional Development of an Extraordinary Leader. Garden City Park, NY: Avery Publishing Group Inc., 1993.

[xxv] In many ways, Patton’s writings appear to be the result of boredom, inaction, and a creeping belief that he was missing his opportunity to contribute to the military through warfighting. For an extensive collection of Patton’s work, see: Martin Blumeson Ed. The Patton Papers. (2 Vols.) Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974.

[xxvi] George S. Patton Jr. War as I Knew It. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1947, p. 46.

[xxvii] Given the poor track record of US military planners at accurately predicting future conflicts, this big tent approach appears particularly apropos. On the failure of planners to predict future contingencies, see:

[xxviii] On the importance of learning and the dire consequences of failing to adapt, see: Eliot A. Cohen and John Gooch, Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War. New York: Free Press, 1990., Robert Higham and Stephen J. Harris Eds., Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006., and  John A. Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

[xxix] Dennis Showalter, Patton and Rommel: Men of War in the Twentieth Century. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2005. p. 399.

[xxx] For two thematic works detailing Patton’s own intense motivations and willingness to accept great personal and professional risks, see: Alan Axelrod, Patton’s Drive: The Making of America’s Greatest General. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2009. and Michael Keane, Patton: Blood Guts and Prayer. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2012.

[xxxi] For three very different works that all highlight similar points regarding the significant risks General David Petraeus took in implementing the US surge in Iraq, see: Paula Broadwell and Vernon Loeb, All In: The Education of General David Petraeus.  New York: Penguin Press, 2012., Fred Kaplan, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013., and  Thomas E. Ricks, The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008. New York: Penguin Press, 2009. Alternatively, for a discussion of extreme risk aversion and the failure of military leaders to accept risks during a different limited conflict, see: H. R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies that Led to Vietnam. New York: Harper Collins, 1997.

[xxxii] For an example of reckless and ill-considered risk-taking in American military history, it is worth analyzing General John Bell Hood’s disastrous conduct during the battles of Atlanta, Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville. For an excellent narrative of these failed campaigns, see: Wiley Sword, Embrace and Angry Wind: The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah: Spring Hill, Franklin, and Nashville. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

[xxxiii]Throughout his life, Patton read and reread Clausewitz’s On War to distill its lessons. He bought multiple translations of this work but like many readers of the work found its dialectic style difficult.  Roger H. Nye, The Patton Mind: The Professional Development of an Extraordinary Leader. Garden City Park, NY: Avery Publishing Group Inc., 1993. See generally: Carl Von Clausewitz. On War. Ed. and Trans. Michel Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976. For two contemporary adaptations of Clausewitz’s work, see: Emile Simpson, War from the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012., and General Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

[xxxiv] Throughout his military career, Patton deliberately cultivated a strict military demeanor and personal style. As a cadet at VMI and West Point, this persona frequently annoyed his fellow cadets, who judged him as, “too damned military.” Another example of Patton attention to his image was that, throughout his career, he would stand in front of mirrors to practice his “war face.”  Carlo D’ Este, Patton: A Genius for War. New York: Harper Collins, 1995. p. 816.


About the Author(s)

J. Furman Daniel, III is a Visiting Assistant Professor of International Affairs in the George Washington University Security Policy Studies Program. His research focuses on a wide range of topics including: covert balancing; technological innovation and arms races; the problems of human agency and highly improbable events in international relations theory; the theoretical legacies of Edmund Burke and Carl Von Clausewitz; the bureaucratic politics of the early-American Navy; and the impact of the naval blockade on the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Dr. Daniel may be reached via e-mail at or



Tue, 01/28/2014 - 8:17am

Patton as a counter insurgent SME... Probably pushing it a bit. However, he clearly understood tactics and the repercussions of dead civilians, and therefore politics, though he was no politician! That being said, he is a house hold word... How many of our counseling statement loving senior brass, can hold a candle to him? Nobody recently that's for sure. But I think these above examples do illustrate him as being capable of fighting and winning one. So he believe the horse cav still had a place, so what. It's a capability we had to go back and learn, and probably should expand. I would rather have a saber than no secondary weapon.

I appreciate original thought, but think the author is stretching a bit by using Patton as an example of a counter-insurgent.

Patton was one of those megalomaniacs that come along that do possess
undisputed talent. But for every intelligent, imaginative and
thoughtful action they undertake they also seem to even the score with some
thoughtless, stupid and careless action.

My belief is Patton's temperament wasn't suited to anything that was a slow going results oriented endeavor which counter-insurgency certainly is on its best day.

Dave Maxwell

Sat, 01/25/2014 - 10:25pm

Reference coindinista and cointra at an NDU panel a week or so ago Conrad Crane, perhaps half in jest, used the term "COINfused." On the one hand it can be interpreted with some humor as in confused about COIN but upon reflection I thought it could also mean the fusion of both the so-called and mythical coindinistas and cointras fusing the important and valuable ideas from both sides of the debate so that we can capture best practices that can be incorporated into doctrine and training that will support campaign planning and ultimately support good policy and strategy.