PATTON; The Man Behind the Legend, 1885-1945. By Martin Blumenson. Morrow. 320 pp. $17.95.

PATTON. Modern America may have produced a combat general who was his equal, but (with the exception of Matthew Ridgway) none comes immediately to mind. His Third Army cut a swath through war-torn Europe, devastating the armies of the Thousand-Year Reich. But, as the television ads say, it was 40 years ago, and his accomplishments have faded, often subsumed in the lingering image of a tough, arrogant, profane martinet who shot from the lip.

It's a distorted image, and, as Martin Blumenson makes clear in this perceptive and provocative book, ignores the fact that Patton's "swashbuckling and color, his flamboyance and profanity . . . were all part of his image, and his image in large part was responsible for his victories." Drawing on extensive research and study, Blumenson has skillfully reconstructed Patton's exploits as a battlefield commander and provides deeper insight into one of the most fascinating and complex personalities of the Second World War. The Patton that emerges from these pages is multifaceted -- mercurial, driven and, yes, flawed, an individual who spent a lifetime molding himself to fit his image of leadership, then molded armies which were the equal of that leader.

It is Blumenson's thesis that while the public Patton personified the self-confident leader of unquestioned abilities, "Patton's self-confidence was an act, forced and assumed, put on, riveted to his exterior" to mask self-doubt. He attributes Patton's sense of insecurity to the fact that Patton was dyslexic, a disorder which triggered childhood taunts and resultant feelings of inadequacy, and which instilled in Patton a compensating balance -- "He understood that he had to work harder than others."

Work he did -- from his cadet days at West Point, to the 1912 Olympic Games (he finished fifth in the pentathlon), in Mexico with Pershing, in World War I (where he became the American authority on the infant science of tank warfare, led troops with distinction and was seriously wounded), through the humdrum of the interwar years (during which he "read extensively, wrote military treatises almost constantly, and thought profoundly about the profession of arms").

All of this was prelude to his achievements in the World War II years -- "his troop training in the United States, his landings near Casablanca, his triumphs in Tunisia, his victories in Sicily, his astonishing breakout and pursuit across France, his sparkling performance at Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge, his leap across the Rhine" -- all of which, Blumenson argues convincingly, shortened the war, and much of which might never have come to pass if Patton had been cashiered for the two "slapping incidents," where the enraged general struck two physically unscathed soldiers in Sicily who he concluded were malingering at evacuation hospitals.

THE MOST illuminating chapters cover Patton at his apogee with the Third Army in Europe. Even the passage of 40 years cannot diminish his achievements in the period from the summer of 1944 to V-E Day. Patton performed brilliantly (and he knew it) and, Blumenson argues persuasively, could have materially shortened the war -- perhaps ended it as early as 1944 -- but for the hesitance of his superiors. Not surprisingly, then, Patton's private assessment of them could be harsh: Eisenhower ("he vacillates"); Bradley ("timid"); Montgomery (a "little fart").

Peacetime, he confided to his wife while the war was still going on, "is going to be hell on me. I will probably be a great nuisance." Worse. The picture Blumenson paints of Patton's last months between V-E Day and the car accident which ultimately killed him is depressing -- relegated to makework, an aging bull in a postwar china shop, careening from gaffe to gaffe, a warrior who had outlived his war.

This book, like its subject, is not without flaws, of which the principal one is the absence of notes The Great American Warrior

PATTON The Man Behind the Legend, 1885-1945 By Martin Blumenson Morrow. 320 pp. $17.95 By Rory Quirk

PATTON. Modern America may have produced a combat general who was his equal, but (with the exception of Matthew Ridgway) none comes immediately to mind. His Third Army cut a swath through war-torn Europe, devastating the armies of the Thousand-Year Reich. But, as the television ads say, it was 40 years ago, and his accomplishments have faded, often subsumed in the lingering image of a tough, arrogant, profane martinet who shot from the lip.

It's a distorted image, and, as Martin Blumenson makes clear in this perceptive and provocative book, ignores the fact that Patton's "swashbuckling and color, his flamboyance and profanity . . . were all part of his image, and his image in large part was responsible for his victories." Drawing on extensive research and study, Blumenson has skillfully reconstructed Patton's exploits as a battlefield commander and provides deeper insight into one of the most fascinating and complex personalities of the Second World War. The Patton that emerges from these pages is multifaceted -- mercurial, driven and, yes, flawed, an individual who spent a lifetime molding himself to fit his image of leadership, then molded armies which were the equal of that leader.

It is Blumenson's thesis that while the public Patton personified the self-confident leader of unquestioned abilities, "Patton's self-confidence was an act, forced and assumed, put on, riveted to his exterior" to mask self-doubt. He attributes Patton's sense of insecurity to the fact that Patton was dyslexic, a disorder which triggered childhood taunts and resultant feelings of inadequacy, and which instilled in Patton a compensating balance -- "He understood that he had to work harder than others."

Work he did -- from his cadet days at West Point, to the 1912 Olympic Games (he finished fifth in the pentathlon), in Mexico with Pershing, in World War I (where he became the American authority on the infant science of tank warfare, led troops with distinction and was seriously wounded), through the humdrum of the interwar years (during which he "read extensively, wrote military treatises almost constantly, and thought profoundly about the profession of arms").

All of this was prelude to his achievements in the World War II years -- "his troop training in the United States, his landings near Casablanca, his triumphs in Tunisia, his victories in Sicily, his astonishing breakout and pursuit across France, his sparkling performance at Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge, his leap across the Rhine" -- all of which, Blumenson argues convincingly, shortened the war, and much of which might never have come to pass if Patton had been cashiered for the two "slapping incidents," where the enraged general struck two physically unscathed soldiers in Sicily who he concluded were malingering at evacuation hospitals.

THE MOST illuminating chapters cover Patton at his apogee with the Third Army in Europe. Even the passage of 40 years cannot diminish his achievements in the period from the summer of 1944 to V-E Day. Patton performed brilliantly (and he knew it) and, Blumenson argues persuasively, could have materially shortened the war -- perhaps ended it as early as 1944 -- but for the hesitance of his superiors. Not surprisingly, then, Patton's private assessment of them could be harsh: Eisenhower ("he vacillates"); Bradley ("timid"); Montgomery (a "little fart").

Peacetime, he confided to his wife while the war was still going on, "is going to be hell on me. I will probably be a great nuisance." Worse. The picture Blumenson paints of Patton's last months between V-E Day and the car accident which ultimately killed him is depressing -- relegated to makework, an aging bull in a postwar china shop, careening from gaffe to gaffe, a warrior who had outlived his war.

This book, like its subject, is not without flaws, of which the principal one is the absence of notes or other attribution to support certain statements in the text. For example, Blumenson questions whether someone was trying to assassinate Patton in the final months of his life. Having raised the question, Blumenson has absolutely nothing to say about it.

On balance, Blumenson has captured Patton -- the vibrance and vitality, the special gifts, the flaws -- extremely well. It is unlikely that anyone can or will equal this thoughtful and credible assessment of one of the great military personalities of this century. To the extent that certain facets of Patton's genius remain cloaked in mystery, they will in all likelihood remain so, buried with the man in a simple soldier's grave in the American military cemetery in Luxembourg. The assessment of the German general von Runstedt serves as a fitting epitaph: "Patton was your best."