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Patton: A Genius For War

by Carlo D’Este
977 pages
HarperCollins
Published: November 1995

Patton: A Genius For War” was published in 1995 and is the biography for which Carlo D’Este is best known.  He is an author, military historian and a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. Three years ago I read and reviewed his 2002 biography of Dwight Eisenhower as part of my journey through the best presidential biographies.

There are few better pairings in the world of biography than George S. Patton – a wickedly complicated, imperious and colorful military mind – and Carlo D’Este. With 820 pages of text and a treasure trove of uncommonly illuminating notes and bibliography this book is comprehensive, balanced, unfailingly attentive and the product of meticulous research. What it is not, however, is efficient.

Published 50 years after Patton’s death, this book features an excellent prologue and interesting early chapters which reveal his larger-than-life personality and delineate the courage-laden family tree which propelled him forward with such passion and fervor.

D’Este provides an appropriate balance between observation and analysis and makes frequent use of Patton’s letters and diary entries to underscore important points. While the author’s writing style tends to be dense, the narrative is well-paced, straightforward and often quite interesting. And despite frequent contradictions between Patton’s public and private lives, D’Este valiantly attempts to get inside the mind of his subject in an effort to uncover what makes him tick.

Important supporting characters are always well-introduced and D’Este does a nice job comparing and contrasting Patton’s personality and style to those of Dwight Eisenhower, John Marshall, Omar Bradley and Bernard Montgomery. And in a particularly fascinating way, the book’s last chapters detail the tragic, final unraveling of Patton’s professional career.

It is hard to imagine a more exhaustive or well-sourced biography of Patton, but many readers are likely to find the experience exhausting. Although this biography paints a compelling portrait of its subject, it does not make for light reading. The book could have been abbreviated substantially without losing much of its magic or its magisterial patina.

Chapters dedicated to Patton’s life during World War I and World War II, in particular, can be cumbersome. This is not a book designed to shed clarifying light on those conflicts so readers unfamiliar with them will view them rather narrowly from Patton’s perspective and may find them tedious to follow. In addition, D’Este is prone to frequent use of hyperbole (would General Pershing’s intense work habits really “kill an ordinary man”?)

Overall, however, Carlo D’Este’s “Patton: A Genius For War” is an extremely thorough and insightful review of one of the towering military minds of the 20th century. Fans of military history – or of Patton in particular – will find this assiduously assembled and authoritative biography excellent in nearly every respect. Other readers are likely to appreciate almost everything about this book…except its seemingly interminable length.

Overall rating: 4 stars