Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The "Pattonization" of American Life

One of the most fascinating movies ever made is “Patton”. I recently rewatched it, and though the style is a little different than what we are used to today, for the most part it holds up, especially the tour de force performance of George C. Scott. The movie gives a very objective picture of the general, as one of those responsible for the Allied victory in Europe, but also as a greatly flawed man, who himself vacillates between dreams of greatness and awareness of his shortcomings.

The film begins with Patton facing an audience of soldiers, who we never see only hear, as the camera gives a POV shot of the general speaking to the audience. If all you did was watch that speech, you would get the essence of the movie and of Patton, the man. It strikes me, as an American who grew up abroad, and at times looks at America’s character as an outsider, that you get the essence of America’s internal struggle with itself from that very speech, and that that speech and Patton himself is a stand in for America writ large.

One of the most central points in both the speech and the movie, is Patton’s contention that “all real Americans love to fight,” and that we “love a winner,” and “abhor a loser.” It is clear and explicit that he believes that this is true in all instances, at peace or at war. General Omar Bradley, tells him that the difference between them is that while he, Bradley, does what he does because he was trained and he is good at it, Patton does it because he loves war. What we see in the film is that because of this approach, Patton is the perfect blunt instrument in the careful hands of his commanders on the battlefield, but an utter failure in almost every other situation.

Why is this? Why is Patton’s approach so patently wrong? Simply put, it is because except if you are fighting fascism (where ironically war is the lifeblood of society), you really don’t want to “fight”. You really don’t want there to be a winner and a loser. What you really want is to create as many win-win situations for everyone. That is what leads to success and happiness for as many people as possible, which should be the purpose of a democratic civilized society.

What we see today, as opposed to the war and post war period, is that all too often Patton’s erroneous approach is put into practice in our society, particularly in the economic realm. The examples are all around us. Corporate tycoons paying a smaller percentage of their income in taxes than their workers do; companies never getting off the dole, while the social safety net is gradually shredded; a small percentage of our population controlling more and more of the wealth, while on the opposite end of the spectrum poverty grows, and with it another generation laid to waste.

Patton’s old commander, Eisenhower, warned us in his parting words to the nation to beware the military-industrial complex. He told that if we did not pay attention, this faceless menace would overpower us. In fact, much worse has happened, we have adopted a military thinking, that tells us that if others don’t lose, we have not really won. We can do better. We must.

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