Lessons For Trump From General Patton

Joanne Butler Contributor
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When Donald Trump invoked General George S. Patton, Jr. yesterday as a sidebar in his attack on Hillary’s fitness for the Presidency, he was right on the mark, even if he didn’t realize it. When Trump said generals ought not to talk to the media, Patton was the perfect example. Patton’s brilliance in the European theatre in World War II was dimmed by his tic of blabbing to the press. But there are other lessons Patton can teach Trump – especially when it comes to dealing with Mexico.

Sadly, if Patton is remembered at all, it’s due to his slapping two shell-shocked soldiers in 1943, accusing them of cowardice. General Dwight Eisenhower (Patton’s ultimate boss) tried to downplay the incident by having Patton apologize, but the press blasted Patton anyway. The end result was Eisenhower sidelined Patton from combat action for eleven months, while promoting Patton’s junior officer, Omar Bradley – having him outrank Patton and forcing Patton to report to him.

It’s thought that Eisenhower viewed Bradley as the steadier man, versus Patton – a brilliant tactician, but an erratic human.

Then came the Knutsford Incident in April 1944 when Patton was the ribbon-cutter for a GI’s welcome center. In his remarks, he was reputed to say that the Britain and America would rule the world, but omitted the Soviet Union – our eastern front allies at the time. Some say he did indeed mention the Soviets, but the widespread impression (as depicted in the 1970 film “Patton”) is that he did not. Yet again, Patton caused a public relations disaster for Eisenhower, as the Soviets construed Patton’s remarks as disrespectful.  

Patton’s saving grace was that he indeed was a brilliant tactician, with a passion for and a record of success for victory over the Nazi army.

Thus, Trump was absolutely right to mention General Patton as a man who was better engaged in fighting battles than dealing with the press. Dwight Eisenhower would agree with that.

But Patton the young second lieutenant also is relevant today.

Few Americans are aware that a hundred years ago, in 1916, we were engaged in a border dispute with Mexico – an incident that was to make Patton’s reputation as a young officer.

Mexico’s Revolutionary War General Pancho Villa led a raid on the New Mexican border town of Columbus in March 1916. A U.S. Army unit was stationed there, but Villa’s troops inflicted much damage. Although Villa’s troops suffered major casualties (at least 90 killed versus seven U.S. servicemen), he treated the invasion as a success.

It was Villa’s hanging of six captured Americans that roused President Woodrow Wilson (who, meanwhile, was remaining neutral regarding the U.S. entering WWI).

Wilson called upon General John J. Pershing to go after Villa. Patton happened to be an aide to Pershing.  

By May 1916, Pershing’s troops had fought numerous skirmishes with Villa’s forces. But it was Patton who conducted the first motorized attack in a war – using fifteen men and three Dodge sedans.  

On a foray into Mexico to obtain food, Patton located a ranch belonging to one of Villa’s leaders, and decided to attack it. Caught by surprise, he and his men killed the leader and two others. In a flamboyant move, he had the bodies of the three dead men strapped on to each of the cars and drove back to Pershing’s headquarters. (I saw Patton’s Dodge at the Fort Bliss Army Museum in El Paso, Texas, where the sergeant on duty gleefully recounted this story.)

Pershing liked Patton’s style, and they served together in WWI.

While the rest of America has forgotten this little war, it seems Mexicans have not. Pancho Villa believed that chunks of the United States belonged to Mexico. President Obama’s nod-and-wink open-borders policy has served to reinforce that belief among the Mexican people.

While I don’t advocate a policy of strapping dead Mexicans to Dodge sedans, I think Patton’s example is worthwhile. That is: U.S. border enforcement is serious business and border violations have consequences.

Thus, Trump was right to invoke Patton’s name about generals not speaking to the press – but he should dig deeper and look at Patton’s involvement in a 1916 war with – Mexico. He’ll find some lessons there too.