The Day I Met Monroe Dowling

During the Second World War among our greatest generals was George Patton. Depicted by George C. Scott in a legendary motion picture eponymously titled, it showedPatton’s greatest victories. and his eccentricities. Importantly, it also showed some of his lowest points.

I think historians would agree that for Patton perhaps his lowest point was the “slapping incident.”

As General Patton visited a battlefield hospital he encountered a young “dogface” enlisted man, depicted as suffering from battle fatigue syndrome. The young man cried uncontrollably, causing Patton to turn the attending doctor asks how the soldier was wounded; the response was simply that the young soldier needed some rest from battle.

Enraged, Patton struck out at the soldier slapping him in the face. “You’re just a coward,” they General exclaimed. For Patton, that slap would change the course of his entire career.

Long ago I met a man who had served in the then segregated and celebrated African American tank battalion commanded by General Patton. His name was Monroe Dowling.

Over lunch, we discussed the “slap heard round the world” incident. And after a moment of brief contemplation he suddenly looked me straight in the eye and declared:

“I’ll bet he will never slap another one.”

There was a moral there. It was an old man telling a young man an incident like it had only happened a day or two ago. But, it was also an old man telling a young man that this is a lesson for all times and places in a young life yet to be lived.

He was telling me in a few words that those who strike out at the weak or vulnerable from a position of strength may never again recover the authority they once thought they were entitled to. And those who think they have overweening strength that is born of arrogance and position can quickly learn the limits of their supposed power.

They may, in the final analysis, be fully humbled by their own hubris. By their own rank.

Now on the 77th anniversary of D-Day, nearly eight decades after these men fought for democracy, we have an entire group of politicians seeking to impugn their sacrifice.

But, his words held a lesson about democracy — about the dignity of every individual including that lowly private.

That equal dignity is what old men like my luncheon companion and many others fought for. And some died for.

At the time of that luncheon conversation, I did not know that man, Monroe Dowling, was Mr. Justice Thurgood Marshall’s lifelong friend.

It did not matter. It was over thirty years ago now, but I can still hear that old tank soldier today: “I bet he’ll never slap another one.”

(Adapted from an earlier essay.)

— Albert Turner Goins