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Lessons on Fatherhood From General Patton

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For those of you who are up on your U.S. military history, you know about General George S. Patton:  He was a complicated, mercurial man with delusions of grandeur, severe dyslexia and bipolar disorder.  He was also one of the finest military minds that history has ever produced.

He graduated from West Point, competed in the Olympics, and was a master swordsman.  He fought in Mexico in 1915, won the world’s first major tank battle in World War I, and engineered the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.  He had quite an impressive resume.  But even though he spent most of his life forward-deployed, he was a dedicated, loving father.

Over at The Art of Manliness, one of my favorite sites, they’ve posted a wonderful letter from General Patton to his son, written on the morning of D-Day – the invasion of France that led to the defeat of Hitler’s regime.  It contains some amazing philosophy, and many beliefs that General Patton wanted to pass on to his son.

I’ve edited General Patton’s letter for length (and AoM edited some of the grammar and spelling for clarity) but you can read the full text here:

Dear George:

At 0700 this morning the BBC announced the landing of Allied Paratroops and of large numbers of assault craft near shore. So that is it.  This group of unconquerable heroes whom I command are not in yet but we will be soon—I wish I was there now as it is a lovely sunny day for a battle.

I have no immediate idea of being killed but one can never tell and none of us can live forever, so if I should go don’t worry but set yourself to do better than I have.

All men are timid on entering any fight; whether it is the first fight or the last fight all of us are timid. Cowards are those who let their timidity get the better of their manhood.  Your knees may shake but they will always take you towards the enemy. Well so much for that.

There are apparently two types of successful soldiers. Those who get on by being unobtrusive and those who get on by being obtrusive. One has to choose a system and stick to it; people who are not themselves are nobody.

To be a successful soldier you must know history. Read it objectively. War is simple. Decide what will hurt the enemy most within the limits of your capabilities to harm him and then do it.  You cannot make war safely but no dead general has ever been criticized so you have that way out.  I am sure that if every leader who goes into battle will promise himself that he will come out either a conqueror or a corpse he is sure to win.

The most vital quality a soldier can possess is self confidence – utter, complete and bumptious. You can have doubts about your good looks, about your intelligence, about your self control but to win in war you must have no doubts about your ability as a soldier.  What success I have had results from the fact that I have always been certain that my military reactions were correct. Many people do not agree with me; they are wrong.

The intensity of your desire to acquire any special ability depends on character, on ambition. I think that your decision to study this summer instead of enjoying yourself shows that you have character and ambition—they are wonderful possessions.

The troops I have commanded have always been well dressed, been smart saluters, been prompt and bold in action because I have personally set the example in these qualities. The influence one man can have on thousands is a never-ending source of wonder to me. You are always on parade. Officers who through laziness or a foolish desire to be popular fail to enforce discipline will fail in battle, and if they fail in battle they are potential murderers. There is no such thing as: “A good field soldier:” you are either a good soldier or a bad soldier.

Well this has been quite a sermon but don’t get the idea that it is my swan song because it is not–I have not finished my job yet.

Your affectionate father.

What can we as fathers take away from this letter? For all you military dads out there, you know how important it is to your children – and to yourselves – to be sure that you pass on your values. General Patton’s were incredible, and we could all do to learn from him, and pass on his wisdom to the next generation.

Patton imparts many lessons to his son, who is also studying to be a military officer. But he also praises his son and encourages him to stay on a good path. And most of all, he is extolling two virtues. Being true to one’s self, and self-confidence. Not the emptiness of “self-esteem,” which can lead your kids to false beliefs about their own ability and, and in the worst cases, can lead to an overbearing sense of entitlement. General Patton tells Junior to cultivate himself and work hard, and then believe in the work he has done and the man that he has become.

If we can instill these values in our sons and daughters – hard work, self-improvement, caring for the welfare of others, discipline, being well-grounded in one’s self and, above all, confidence – then we have succeeded as fathers.