Patton & Preferences Ii
Competence is colorless.


Peter Kirsanow

Immediately after “Patton & Preferences” was posted earlier this week, some readers asked what Patton would’ve thought of preferences and whether he’d have signed onto the amicus brief filed by a number of retired military officers in Grutter v. Bollinger.

Speculating about how great figures in history would react to contemporary issues is often fun, usually frivolous and entails little risk (the subject, if deceased, can’t refute you). It’s also fraught with numerous opportunities for mischief. Wildly different camps can enlist the legend in support of their respective positions.

For example, liberals and conservatives alike regularly invoke Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to support opposite positions on the matter of preferences. Conservatives point to King’s dream that his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” and conclude: Res ipsa loquitur. Clearly, he’d abhor preferences.

On the other hand, intimates of Dr. King insist that he’d support preferences were he alive today. This position is entirely plausible. If many of King’s associates now embrace preferences, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that he might also.

But so what? The power of that memorable phrase transcends any second thoughts its author might’ve had about the meaning of equal treatment, rendering it virtually immutable. And it certainly trumps Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s dispiriting suggestion that we’ll need to judge people by the color of their skin for at least another 25 years.

Figuring out where Patton would stand on preferences is a little different. This is a man who didn’t paint in pastels. A review of his major biographies–by Blumenson, Farago, Essame, Hirshson, and D’Este–reveals an extraordinarily complex man who nonetheless left little doubt about where he stood on an array of topics. He had opinions on everything, but since he died 25 years before the advent of affirmative action we have to guess about how he’d have reacted to preferences. (Yes, yes, pro-preference wags would say he’d have loved them because he and all white males were beneficiaries of preferences.)

It’s fairly clear that regardless of where he’d stand on preferences, Patton never would’ve signed onto an amicus brief in Grutter (not that there’s any problem with the officers who did). Patton avoided public participation in anything even remotely “political.” Although in private he’d excoriate Wilson’s equivocation toward entry into World War I or lament what he considered the enervating socialism of FDR’s New Deal, he refrained from public comment on matters he believed were properly left to civilians.

As for the substance of preferences–Patton didn’t abide nonsense, and the circuitous reasoning in Grutter is nothing if not nonsense. Beyond the inelegance of the Grutter opinion, it’s unlikely Patton would’ve had much use for the concept of preferences. Of course, some might say that’s because Patton was a racist–such pronouncements being fashionable in certain quarters where it’s believed that dinosaurs who rigorously hew to the martial virtues can’t be anything more than bigoted martinets.

In truth, Patton’s propensity for inflammatory statements does provide plenty of support for the sentiment that he was anti-Semitic and racist. A closer examination, however, reveals that at one time or another Patton made incendiary comments about nearly every group imaginable: the British, Italians, blacks, Russians, Arabs, Germans, Mexicans, Jews, and Japanese were all, at one time or another, subjects of Patton’s diatribes. Patton’s attitude towards race and ethnicity recalls Green Bay Packer great Willie Wood’s response to a reporter’s question about whether Vince Lombardi discriminated on the basis of race: “No. He treats us all the same. Like dogs.”

And that’s the key to understanding Patton and preferences–how he acted, not what he said. He treated people as individuals, not ethnicities. He lowered standards for no one. Instead, he raised them, sometimes to seemingly impossible heights, and applied them equally to all.

Patton didn’t care about your race or ethnicity provided you produced. He circumvented the Army’s policy of racial segregation and was the first to integrate black and white troops in rifle companies, nearly ten years before Truman officially integrated the armed forces. As D’Este notes, Patton’s attitude is best captured in his remarks welcoming the troops of the 761st Tank Battalion to Third Army:

Men, you are the first Negro tankers ever to fight in the American Army. I would never have asked for you if you weren’t good. I have nothing but the best in my army. I don’t care what color you are, so long as you go up there and kill those Kraut sonsabitches! Everyone has their eyes on you and is expecting great things from you. Most of all your race is looking forward to you. Don’t let them down, and damn you, don’t let me down!
Not very “sensitive.” Not politically correct. But I’d wager most people would rather be held to the profane Patton’s unyielding high standards than be patronized by racial bean counters who treat “disadvantaged minorities” as delicate greenhouse specimens who can’t quite compete on their own merit.

If there’s such a thing as a true meritocrat, Patton was as close as they come. He didn’t award extra points for anything but results. Without taking it too far, there’s a lesson for employers who might otherwise resort to (legally suspect) preferences to achieve a diverse work force (the same lesson applies, to a more limited extent, to college admissions offices). Employers who apply the highest of standards equally will have little trouble attracting the best, regardless of ethnicity. People intuitively seek out those who don’t condescend. Everyone wants to work for a winner.

Patton didn’t stop at just seeking the best. After finding them he trained them relentlessly. He maintained perhaps the most exacting standards in the entire ETO and pushed his troops as hard as anyone. Many of the troops hated the grueling conditions under which they served but gloried in serving under Patton. The pride of those who served in the Seventh and Third Armies was unmatched by any army in the world. D’Este notes that although troops often cursed their tough commander bitterly, one of the refrains most often heard after the war, even from the most taciturn, was a boastful “I was with Patton.”

General Sir Harold Alexander noted in his Memoirs:

In spite of all his bravura and toughness and terrific drive General George Patton was a very emotional man. He loved his men and they loved him. I have been with him at the front when he was greeted with demonstrations of affection from his soldiers, and there was–as I saw for myself–tears running down his cheeks.

The troops who measured up were rewarded by Patton with promotions and unwavering loyalty. As opposed to most other army or army group commanders, Patton rarely sacked anyone. Instead, he worked tirelessly to correct a subordinate’s deficiencies–provided the subordinate worked just as hard (as they always did. Everyone wanted to make the grade under Patton because if you did, it was a real achievement).

The legions of Patton subordinates who went on to become prominent corps or army commanders is astonishing–among them eventual Army Chief of Staff Creighton Abrams. The reason for this is not just the quality of the troops and training received under Patton, but a realization by higher-ups that anyone serving under Patton was the real deal, i.e., Patton subordinates were treated with a presumption of competency rather than a suspicion of incompetency.

O.K., this was light entertainment. The Patton model may not quite be suitable for use by today’s enlightened college-admissions officers or human resources personnel. But the model’s enduring verity is that high standards and equal treatment are not mutually exclusive; rather they’re a winning combination. It reflects a rugged, confident idealism. Indeed, were he alive today, the colorful cavalryman would probably be considered–in the non-redundant sense of the term–a “compassionate conservative.”

Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.


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