One of my favorite movies is Patton. It is a colorful, majestic film of a larger-than-life general in a larger-than-life war. Sixty years on it is easy to forget that freedom and democratic self-government were fighting for their very existence on the heels of the most devastating depression the modern world has known. Capitalism was by no means assured; neither was freedom. Germany and the Soviet Union were allies until Hitler trained his sights on the open spaces and plentiful raw materials under the control of the communists. France fell quickly—insert your own joke here—and Great Britain was under attack from the sky. It fell to America to step into the fray and provide the men and machines that would help defeat the Nazis and their allies.
Into the midst of this conflict strode George S. Patton, a man for whom the word “defeat” did not exist. He was a warrior, pure and simple, who saw battle in stark terms: Kill or be killed. And he made certain it was the other guy who took the bullet. Or as is said as the movie opens, “Now I want you to remember that no b-----d ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb b-----d die for his country.” If only he was around today to grab the reins of the American auto industry—the “Arsenal of Democracy” that fueled the Allies’ victory—and shake it out of its self-defeating stupor.
Where in this industry are the men and women who say, much less believe, words like these: “I don’t want to get any messages saying that we are holding our position. We’re not holding anything…We are advancing constantly and we’re not interested in holding onto anything except the enemy…We’re going to kick the hell out of him all the time and we’re going to go through him like crap through a goose”? In my neighborhood we called those “fighting words,” and Patton was nothing if not a fighter. He studied the enemy and its tactics carefully, believed in the virtue of his cause, and fought with a combination of strategy and cunning that defy easy description. Plus, he dispatched naysayers without a thought. Yes, he fired folks, but not because they gave him bad news or disagreed with his viewpoint. He fired those who didn’t believe it was possible to prevail.
The domestic OEMs on the other hand willingly surrendered their market in order to pursue per-unit profitability. Unchallenged in the 1950s and 1960s, they downplayed the threat of the Asian makers in the 1970s, and hid behind the government’s skirts in the 1980s begging for tariffs to stop the Japanese. Then they watched in horror as those same folks built plants in their backyard in response. Now they cry about legacy costs. How did this happen? Ask Patton. “You want to know why this outfit got the hell kicked out of it?...They don’t act like soldiers, they don’t look like soldiers, why should they be expected to fight like soldiers?” Detroit’s downfall is the inevitable result of a culture of defeat, one that does not accept the virtue of its cause or the positive aspects of its traditions.
Is it too late? No, though the comeback will be brutal. Or as the Old Man would have said: “We’re gonna keep fighting. Is that clear? We’re gonna attack all night. We’re gonna attack the next morning. If we’re not victorious, let no man come back alive.”