Anyone who thinks that wars never solved anything needs to visit Germany and Japan. In 1941, those two were the world’s most rapacious and militaristic states. Four years later, both were physically and morally devastated. Led by the United States, the victorious Allies demanded that they renounce war as an instrument of state policy, and both did so with a vengeance.
Nearly 75 years later, when one talks to a German or Japanese on the street, the responses are nearly always pacifistic and apologetic about his or her nation’s militaristic past.
Although there are growing right-wing groups in both countries, the national consensus remains decidedly anti-militaristic. Consequently, we should not be surprised that our richest NATO partner — Germany — balks at paying its assessed share of NATO dues and that its smaller European partners follow the German example. By 2016, NATO was in danger of becoming a mostly American financed entity in all but name. Then, along came Donald Trump.
The Washington Post, The New York Times and most of the liberal European press view President Trump as a disruptive influence — he is — but NATO badly needed a kick in the rear end which the president provided.
In this, he brings to mind Gen. George S. Patton. By mid-1944, NATO’s immediate forebear — the Western Allied coalition — was in trouble in its invasion of Western Europe post-Normandy. The British Army had been bled dry by five years of war and the callow American expeditionary army was plagued by senior officers who were too often inexperienced, overly cautious or downright incompetent.
When Patton took over the Third Army in August 1944, much of that changed. His dashing breakouts and daring penetrations drove deep into France and later Germany. From that time on, a sense of victory replaced the spectre of a repeat of World War I-like stalemate that had begun to haunt allied capitals.
Despite all this, Patton was a truly polarizing and disruptive figure. Like Mr. Trump, he could be an abrasive and arrogant bully when he felt the need. His feuds with his British rival — Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery — and his abusive behavior toward subordinates who failed to meet his expectations became legendary and echo Mr. Trump’s behavior in certain situations.
Patton was not immune to tactical mistakes, such his insistence on taking the fortress city of Metz rather than bypassing it, and his ill-fated decision to order a disastrous raid on a prisoner of war camp where his son-in-law was being held captive echo some of President Trump’s missteps over Syria and the charges of nepotism that seem to cling to him.
Likewise, the legendary slapping incidents got Patton in the same kind of job-imperiling trouble that Mr. Trump is facing over Ukraine. However, Patton could be diplomatic and accommodating when needed. At the recent NATO summit, Mr. Trump still talked tough, but was smart enough to ratchet down the rhetoric and avoid conflict when he saw that it would be counterproductive.
Mr. Trump and Patton are also similar in being blessed with strong allies on the American home front along with very bitter enemies. Patton’s admirers rivaled Mr. Trump’s in their near-fanatic loyalty and Patton had very enthusiastic supporters in the media to help offset bitter enemies such as Drew Pearson.
Patton’s post-war career was in deep jeopardy when he died. In essence, death was a great career move. The 1969 movie re-ignited his controversies but also highlighted his accomplishments. Mr. Trump’s story is still a work in progress.
Most military historians view Patton as an indispensable part of victory in the saga that was World War II. After four years of war, the nation badly needed victories and a sense of an end game at hand. Despite a near-universal draft of males, by mid-1944 the Army was conscripting recruits who would not have been considered in 1941. Public support was faltering. It is not too much of a stretch to say that Patton and the atomic bomb were key ingredients in seeing America to an ultimately successful end to the war.
The similarities between Patton and Mr. Trump are by no means parallel. Patton was a war lover, while Mr. Trump has made it an objective to keep us out of unnecessary conflicts while honorably ending the wars that we were in when he took office. Patton’s alliance had the objective of winning a war while NATO’s goal is to deter new conflicts through a credible show of strength. Both tried to kickstart faltering coalitions. Patton succeeded. At least Mr. Trump is still trying.
• Gary Anderson lectures in Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.