In times of war, soldiers traditionally have reinforced their positions by digging in the ground to provide cover from the eyes and aim of their enemies. Sometimes they dig holes, large enough for 1-3 men, commonly referred to as “foxholes.” Other times a network of interconnected bunkers and trenches are dug out and reinforced with wood, metal, and whatever else is available. A wall of sandbags, or even concrete walls may be constructed. The goals are all the same: to build a barrier between the people inside and the people outside that are shooting at each other.
In the second world war, an American soldier emerged that turned that millenniums-old strategy on its head. His name was General George S. Patton.
“Fixed fortifications are a monument to the stupidity of man.”
-General George S. Patton
Patton believed that wars were won not by building a grand defensive scheme, but to adopt a relentless, startlingly ferocious strategy of rapid, sustained attacks. Early in his career, Patton had been a part of the mission to capture an outlaw named Poncho Villa. And, while this individual was never formally brought into custody, the continuous armed pursuit of Villa disrupted his criminal activities to the point where the operation was still viewed as a success, even without his formal capture. As a young officer, Patton worked on updating strategies for mounted cavalry troops, even introducing a new saber into the weapon stocks. When heavy machine guns rendered horses ineffective for large scale use in modern warfare, he adapted his cavalry techniques to replace mounted troops with armored tanks. Later, in the first World War, Patton successfully used tanks (until he was wounded), to break what was in many cases a stalemate between the opposing European armies dug into trenches.
Patton realized that many times, defensive strategies ceased progress. He correctly surmised that continuous forward movement would gain ground and also push back and destroy all opposition.
“My men don’t dig foxholes. I don’t want them to. Foxholes only slow up an offensive. Keep moving. And don’t give the enemy time to dig one either.”
-General George S. Patton
His strategy flew in the face of thousands of years of tradition. He was constantly at odds with other generals, especially those of our allies in the British military. His unorthodox ideas and personal bravado angered some and attracted the derision of others. But he was right. His strategies were revolutionary, and he moved hundreds of thousands of soldiers continuously forward across North Africa, to Sicily, and then all of Western Europe, crushing the Nazi forces everywhere he could find them. He moved so fast that the allied commanders couldn’t keep track of his movements. And he moved forward, all the time, until the US Army withheld his gasoline supplies in a political maneuver so the Russians could get to Berlin first. He moved more troops over more territory with more victories and in less time than any other general in the known history of the earth. That’s a lot.
General Patton is not simply an American military icon: he is regarded as one of the greatest military leaders in recorded world history. He is the greatest because he determined to always move forward on purpose. He is the greatest because no circumstances or opposition or prevailing philosophy tamed him or shamed him from doing what he always knew was the best way to win a war. He is the greatest, because he believed that dramatic and swift battles would win a war sooner, and therefore result in less overall casualties. He is the greatest because he was correct.
There are some timeless truths here. It is no reach to say that a commitment to always moving forward transcends military strategies. Life is constantly changing. Failed organizations litter the history books because of their inability to move forward. Cultural trends change constantly. Patton didn’t insist on using horse mounted cavalry even though it was his specialty, because innovations in machine guns had rendered them less effective. Instead, he adapted, using new materials and techniques that were unproven, relatively untested, and ahead of their time. He never gave in to the scoffing of others who had a higher profile or more credibility than he did. He just kept moving forward, winning battles, changing the culture of military strategy forever.
Move forward, always. Don’t get defensive, and don’t build up methods to keep an ever changing world out. Don’t worry about battling against what your opponents think when you truly know you’re right. Don’t surrender the innovation and creativity the world needs to appease someone who doesn’t believe in your ideas. Don’t dig a foxhole; General Patton would be proud.