In May 2008, the Department of Defense held its annual Communicators of Excellence Awards ceremony at the Defense Information School (DINFOS) on Fort Meade, Maryland. The event recognizes the DOD’s best storytellers in the fields of public affairs and visual information, and the guest speaker that year was an 89-year-old World War II veteran named Andy Rooney.
Rooney, best known as the cantankerous old newsman from CBS’ 60 Minutes whose eyebrows deserved their own zip code, was invited to speak because he had been an Army correspondent, writing for Stars & Stripes in World War II. I’m guessing the military officials who invited Rooney expected him to give a rousing speech, congratulating and inspiring the current generation of military communicators, but things didn’t quite go that way.
“Patton was a pompous ass who cared about his mythic image above all else,” Rooney said several minutes into an extemporaneous anti-war diatribe in which he proceeded to trounce Gen. George S. Patton, one of America’s most celebrated military leaders. According to Rooney, Patton was obsessed with protecting his image and often used his power and authority to manipulate news reports and media narratives.
Rooney’s speech went on for some time, meandering down a path of irreverent disregard for any semblance of military propriety. As Rooney vented all his grievances about the military and modern American foreign policy, the faces of the high-ranking officers, senior enlisted members, and DOD officials gathered for the ceremony betrayed the calm they tried to project. The coy twinkle in Rooney’s perpetually brooding eyes gave the look of a man handling a bucket-list item: Decry the DOD’s propaganda machine in a speech to its leaders — check.
Meanwhile, most of the enlisted reporters and storytellers in the room struggled to hide our amusement at the especially rare piece of American oratory. We flashed looks at one another that seemed to say, This dude gives zero fucks!
Rooney, who served honorably during the war and left service as a decorated staff sergeant, once famously admitted he had been a pacifist and was opposed to America’s involvement in World War II until he reported on the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. The evil he saw in the camps convinced him that some wars are just, and his was one of them.
While Patton absolutely may have been “a pompous ass,” his prowess as a military strategist was on par with his outsized ego and unapologetic bravado. His battlefield leadership was instrumental in helping the Allied forces secure victory in World War II, but he was also no stranger to controversy and bad press. Brittanica.com provides a cogent summary of Patton’s complex nature:
Patton believed it was critical for a general to stand out and to be seen by his troops, a philosophy that conveniently coincided with his ego. He dressed impeccably in a colorful uniform and knee-high boots, sporting ivory-handled pistols. Whether one liked him or loathed him, no one forgot him. He was a devout Christian who prayed morning and night, yet he was liberal with his use of profanity; he was also a staunch believer in reincarnation who was convinced he had lived many previous lives as a warrior. Although he had many black soldiers under his command—notably, the 761st Tank Battalion, a segregated armored unit known as the “Black Panthers” that won distinction on the battlefield—he nevertheless saw African Americans as inferior and disparaged their performance in combat. He helped to liberate numerous concentration camps, but he privately made virulently anti-Semitic statements during the occupation of Germany. Whatever demons he struggled with, and likely there were many, Patton possessed a genius for war like few others in history.
Of course, Patton is highly revered among military leaders and veterans in general, especially among those who champion an old-school “fuck your feelings” philosophy of leadership as a foil to so-called “snowflake culture.”
In late November 1943, news broke in the American press that Patton had slapped and berated two soldiers being treated for symptoms of combat fatigue — the general diagnosis back then for front-line soldiers suffering with psychic trauma, aka post-traumatic stress.
On Aug. 3, Patton encountered Pvt. Charles Kuhl at the 15th Evacuation Hospital outside Nicosia, Sicily. When the general asked Kuhl what he suffered from, the soldier replied, “I guess I just can’t take it.” Patton cursed Kuhl and called him a coward, slapping him with his glove and kicking him out of the tent. The scene was depicted in Paramount Pictures’ 1970 biopic Patton. The soldier was later diagnosed with chronic dysentery and malaria.
A week later, Patton visited the 93rd Evacuation Hospital near San Stefano, Sicily, where he met Pvt. Paul Bennett. When Bennett became emotional and began to cry in front of the general, Patton repeatedly slapped and cursed him and threatened to send him to the front lines or have him killed by firing squad.
When news of the incidents reached Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of all US forces in Europe at the time, he reprimanded Patton and ordered him to apologize to all concerned, which Patton grudgingly did. Many leaders in Congress and the media called for Patton to be fired, and the Senate delayed his promotion to major general. Although Patton kept his job, those incidents likely cost him a command role of ground forces in the Normandy invasion in June 1944.
However you feel about Patton’s myriad contemptible beliefs or actions, historians generally agree he was one of the greatest military leaders the United States has ever produced. It’s possible that Andy Rooney understood and believed that as well, but in 2008 — just three years before his death at 92 — the old reporter seemed to have an ax to grind. Invited to deliver a speech to military members at a moment in history when Americans’ faith in public institutions was strained by unpopular wars and a burgeoning economic recession, the former enlisted soldier apparently couldn’t resist the opportunity to, in his own way, slap Patton.
Whether you love or hate Rooney/Patton, for the enlisted folks at that ceremony, it was hard to keep a straight face as Andy Rooney went full shock and awe, skewering the grandeur and sensational mythos that military correspondents are often tasked with perpetuating. “Fuck your feelings” amiright?