Right Stuff Patton
The Right Stuff: As Observed in General Patton
The characters in Tom Wolfe’s 1979 novel, the Right Stuff, based on the real and documented efforts of the United States to craft a meaningful space program, would be postured as American icons. Within the individuals described, there are qualities both tangible and intangible which have identified them as leaders, heroes and representative cultural figures. The so-called ‘right stuff’ which drives our discussion of these figures and the various indicators that they were indeed quite special in the personas and roles adopted, may be applied to a litany of figures in the nation’s history. Indeed, if the qualities which so elevate the early astronauts of the space program may be said to take their roots in America’s culture of iconography, it must be deduced that they are rendered by an existing tradition. As figures of military import, we might find in them a reflection of such predecessor as General George S. Patton. Leading the troops to victory as a General in the European and North African theatres of World War II, Patton is in many ways an ideal template for possessing and demonstrating ‘the right stuff.’
According to a biography offered by General Patton’s official website, by CMG Estates (2006), one of the great and American strengths which he uniquely brought to those under his charge was a balance of leadership. Strong, vocal and intimidating, he nonetheless excelled through the power of effective delegation. His leadership was underscored not simply by the capacity to give orders and to directly manage every detail of the success of his subordinates, but importantly, to provide those serving beneath him with a competence equal to his own. CMG notes that “he continually strove to train his troops to the highest standard of excellence.” (CMG, p. 1) the implications to this approach are nothing less then central to his greatness as a leader, dictating that as with the astronauts in Wolfe’s narrative, his heroic stature was tied into his service to the greater good. A towering figure, he nonetheless gave of himself to the goals and dreams of the whole of America.
By ensuring through his own abilities that he could with confidence, allow units and individuals ranked beneath him operate independent of his immediate oversight, Patton would succeed in disseminating his own resolve and skill to those around him. Such an approach, Patton’s history shows, has the capacity to magnify one’s ability to serve the role of a leader, marking an interest in sharing the intangible reflection of the ‘right stuff.’ This type of leadership approach would require great balance. In an autobiographical text by General Patton (1947) himself, the military icon and philosopher suggests that it is necessary both to assume a strong, almost absolute central authority and to demonstrate a quality of intimate engagement of goals. Patton offers us, in his admiring remarks of another man, a clear insight into what he personal felt constituted leadership and demonstration of the ‘right stuff.’ Describing the other man, he notes that “the idea of his superiority is so inbred that he does not have to show it. Wherever he passes, the Arabs bow and give him a modified Hitler salute. So far as he is concerned they do not exist, and yet he will help clear off a course and pick up the crumbs.” (Patton, 38) Patton demonstrates in these comments an ideology which would be clearly applied to his accomplishments in the United States military. Indeed, the cantankerous and authoritarian general would operate with what was necessarily a sense of his individual capacity to lead his men into battle. To Patton, leadership does require some degree of extraordinary confidence, if not outright vanity, if one is to engage organizational goals with the sense of entitlement to exact decisions impacting the lives of so man. Such is also true if one is to contend with the constant challenges, setbacks and opponents inevitable when in command of so many people and policies. However, as his comments show, it is Patton’s position that the leader should never view himself as removed from any degree of labor relevant to these goals. As it were, he suggests that the great and natural leader will take as much proprietary pride in getting his hands dirty as in offering administrative oversight. This is the equation that figures into the ‘right stuff,’ with a sense of his importance measured by an understanding of the physical and actual responsibilities demanded of him. Like the astronauts, his vanity as a leader would be justified by his bravery in taking a mantle many might consider unenviable.
And certainly, returning to the CMG biography, there is evidence to believe that Patton practiced what he preached. Accordingly, Patton’s early service as a tank brigadier general in France during World War I showed him to be an intimately engaged authority, whose innovate leadership techniques reflect the balance noted above. In September of 1918, entering into battle operations, “Patton had worked out a plan where he could be in the front lines maintaining communications with his rear command post by means of pigeons and a group of runners. Patton continually exposed himself to gunfire and was shot once in the leg while he was directing the tanks.” (CMG, 2) to this extent, it is clear that Patton’s leadership was all the more credible by his willingness to take on the same risks as those at the hierarchical bottom of his charge.
Still, importantly to the philosophy evident in Patton’s approach, there is something crucial to distinguishing one’s self in the role of leadership. For Patton, according to some who knew him, this was a natural outcome of his singular personality. Certainly, in our understanding of Patton and of his accomplishments, it seems apparent that in some, the proclivity toward leadership is a natural outcome of certainly personal dispositions. Campbell (2006) writes about an interview with a veteran who served under Patton. According to the man who fought in the Battle of Bulge under Patton’s command, “He was a real showboat, that guy, crazy, a show off, but he knew what he was doing… He talked to the group, said ‘Hello,’ but he was tough guy to get near.” (Campbell, 1) Again, in Patton we can see that difficult balance where the distance and individuality required to be considered heroic in duty and remarkable in leadership is attained effectively. It is here that his claim to the ‘right stuff’ should be considered influential and exemplary.
Campbell, Al. (2006). Still Secure, Patton’s Christmas Day Fair Weather Prayer of ’44. General George S. Patton, Jr. Online at http://www.generalpatton.com/viewheadline.php?id=4164.
CMG Estates. (2006); Biography of General Patton. General George S. Patton, Jr. Online at http://www.generalpatton.com/biography.html.
Patton, George S.. (1947). War as I Knew it. Houghton-Mifflin.
Wolfe, T. (1979). The Right Stuff. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.