Can Victory Have Any Moral Meaning?

Today is the anniversary of Paris’ liberation by the U.S. and its Allies from Nazi occupation. Coincidently, I just finished reading Patton and Rommel: Men of War in the 20th Century by Dennis Showalter, a few days ago.

In Patton and Rommel, Showalter gives parallel biographies of two of WWII’s great generals and describes how each personality from very different backgrounds and on opposite sides of the conflict came to be the icons of leadership and soldiering they are today.

Overall, I enjoyed the book (despite being poorly edited), but one sentence toward the end of the book stands out, “If a Patton is needed to win wars, can victory have any moral meaning?”

It is true that Patton was no angel and his commanding officers put up with his shortcomings because he was a great combat commander. So, how does keeping him in command diminish the “moral meaning” of the Allies’ fight against fascism?

I suppose the argument could also be made that since Patton represented the U.S. he embodied the “moral meaning” of why we fought and since he was obviously flawed, the “moral meaning” must therefore be flawed.

So, is the author saying that Patton embodied the morals of the whole U.S. Army? The author’s own writing shows such is not the case. The very fact that Patton got into so much trouble shows that he often acted outside the moral norms of the Army.

Let’s look at Showalter’s statement another way. Suppose that Rommel was the better person, does that mean the initial Nazi victory over Western Europe had moral meaning? Did Rommel embody the “moral meaning” of Germany? Should we have left Paris in the hands of the Nazis, consoled by the fact that its morality was greater? Was fighting the Nazi’s wrong?

I am pretty sure most people in Paris — and the rest of the Western world — are grateful for Patton’s contribution towards their freedom and have no doubt about the “moral meaning” of freedom’s victory  over totalitarianism.

To all of our troops past and present — whatever your faults — thank you for a job well done.