Killing Rommel

Killing Rommelby Steven Pressfield
New York: Doubleday, 2008
295 pp.

DNI Review by Chet Richards,
Editor
16 May 2008

Reviewing fiction is always a challenge because you can’t pillar the author for failing to establish a thesis. Although you can criticize such things as character development, or loose threads in the plot lines, or even an annoying style, ultimately either you like a novel or you don’t, and what I find compelling, you might see as cloying. A larger risk is that if you take your own opinions too seriously, future generations may decide that it was you and not your intended victim who was lacking in substance. Clifton Fadiman, for example, never completely lived down remarking that Faulkner’s Absolom! Absolom!, now considered a serious candidate for Greatest American Novel, represented “the final blowup of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent.”

This won’t be a problem with Killing Rommel, Steven Pressfield’s new novel about special operations in North Africa. As with his previous historical work — including Gates of Fire, The Virtues of War, and The Afghan Campaign — Pressfield has penned a 3-D virtual reality game that puts you are right in the middle of real events with real people doing what they really did and where you come to understand what it would have felt like to be out for weeks at a time with the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) raiding into the rear of the Deutsche Afrika-Korps.

The novel opens with a traditional device — receiving the manuscript of a memoir — in this case of a British soldier who had been seconded to the LRDG and gone out to try to kill Rommel. We follow his account of why he came to be in the LRDG, how he was trained, and perhaps most interesting, how the teams functioned out in the field. Because the LRDG and its kin, including the Special Air Service and “Popski’s Private Army,” operated as dispersed small teams, they had to rely on what we would now call “mission tactics,” or Auftragstaktik. You get to see how this trust-based leadership style works:

I understand that Jake [Easonsmith, the mission commander] is not angry with me, either personally or professionally. His focus is entirely on the mission. … “You’ve been taught as an officer, Chapman, never to pretend to know something that you don’t. Now I’ll give you a corollary: never try to make up for one mistake by committing a greater one. … Get down to South Cairn, load up, and get back.”

Point is that it was up to Chapman to figure out how to do it, in this case, to compensate for a mistake that would probably have gotten him cashiered out of a regular line outfit.

Here’s Pressfield’s narrator telling what it’s like to receive blitzkrieg attack:

When you see Axis tanks, you see columns and phalanxes; it looks as if the whole world is coming at you. The enemy’s style is ripping, audacious. They are all little Rommels. Opening the merest breach, they exploit it ruthlessly and without hesitation. They turn small victories into big ones.

Compare to Boyd’s description (From Patterns of Conflict):

Infiltration teams appear to suddenly loom up out of nowhere to blow through, around, and behind disorganized defenders. (p. 59 — description of infiltration)

Intent: Create grand tactical success, then exploit and expand it into strategic success for a decisive victory. (87)

Flexible command — based on a common outlook and freedom-of-action that are exploited by Mission and Schwerpunkt — that encourages lower-level combat leaders (forward) to exploit opportunities generated by rapid action within a broad loosely woven scheme laid down from central command. (p. 88 – one of the keys of the blitzkrieg)

After a while, it dawns on you that the LRDG and its sisters were able to survive and be effective because they evolved ways to out-blitz the blitzers. Pressfield, the master war novelist, doesn’t say this outright, but after a while you just realize it: They had to operate inside the Afrika Korps’ OODA loops because if the Germans could form a clear picture of what was going on, they had a variety of means for dealing with the British:

Wrecks are sobering sights. Even in the fading light, we can make out the hulks of our comrades’ vehicles — Doc Lawson’s, the fitters’, Nick’s second wireless truck — belly-down on bare rims with their tyres incinerated under them. … We can see the tracks where the Afrika Korps armoured cars came in, pasted our fellows, then rolled out.

I found it a great read, certainly on a par with Pressfield’s earlier work. I’ll give away the secret: They don’t get Rommel. But you won’t be disappointed with Pressfield’s bittersweet ending that is both satisfying and flows logically from the action in the book.

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Filed in Uncategorized | 19 responses so far

19 Responses to “Killing Rommel”

  1. Maxon 17 May 2008 at 8:03 am 1

    While we’re on this topic.

    Can anyone provide an example throughout
    history where an assination as such at or near
    the very top echeleon has been successfull
    and significantly altered the course of history ?

    Ceasar comes to mind, but that didn’t really change much.

    Masoud of the Northern Alliance, just before
    9-11, but it’s so very difficult to say otherwize.

    What am I getting at ?

    It seems this might be somewhat of a contemporary American wet dream, whereby
    if only we took out for example Sadam, Castro,
    Noregia, or Kohmeni, etc,,etc,,all falls into place and in our favour ?

    Somehow, it rarely seems to deliver.

    MaX

  2. Mycophagiston 18 May 2008 at 4:10 pm 2

    Max, you’re perfectly correct. I can certainly mention assassinations that had some effect on history, but did not alter the main trends.

    Propaganda requires a focus of evil.

    “This guy, it’s all his fault! Lousy rotten….”

    You can examine this to perfection with the focus on Chavez as being responsible for everything bad in Latin America. Or as Pat Robertson said, Someone should kill this guy.

    Dave

  3. historian1944on 18 May 2008 at 4:45 pm 3

    The real indicator of success of this book will be if people cite it as fact, like they’ve done in the past with “Rommel and the Rebel.”

  4. rmhitchenson 19 May 2008 at 10:25 am 4

    Saul Kelly’s _The Lost Oasis_ (nonfiction) is about the LRDG & its Axis counterparts, with a long “prequel” concerning the prewar exploits of British & other European explorers of the Western Desert. It’s basically the truth behind a main conceit of the famous movie, “The English Patient.”

    Derek Robinson’s novel _A Good Clean Fight_ also deals with the LRDG as well as the RAF in the Western Desert.

  5. Dr_Vomacton 19 May 2008 at 8:19 pm 5

    Max, you’re perfectly correct. I can certainly mention assassinations that had some effect on history, but did not alter the main trends.

    I wonder what’s at stake in this discussion. Is it merely idle curiousity about whether any militarily (or historically) significant assassination has ever occurred, or is it a more general question: “Can the elimination of one man change history?”. I’d say the second is certainly by far more interesting than the first. Moreover, I’d argue that the answer to this second question is “clearly yes”. Contrary to a certain (probably defunct) fashion among historians, individuals do matter.
    For example, is there anyone who thinks that if Lincoln had not been assassinated, the subsequent re-integration of the South into the Union would have been much quicker and more effective? That we might have avoided much of the bitterness that lingered on well into the 20th century? Or if you want to talk about generals, some say Attila was killed by his wife; if so, she certainly mitigated the threat he posed to Constantinople (and just about everywhere else).
    I have to say that assassinating Rommel would have been pretty pointless. The entire North African campaign was literally a mistake: Rommel was sent to shore up the Italians—he wasn’t supposed to win. In any case, despite all his brilliant victories, Rommel’s prospects for taking Suez were slim to none (take a look at van Creveld’s Supplying War for a good argument why this is so). Rommel’s failure to understand the fundamental limitations of his situation shows that he was not a great strategist (though, of course, he was a superb tactician). In any case, the Nazis took care of the assassination thing themselves, as you may recall.

  6. The Appalachianiston 19 May 2008 at 9:22 pm 6

    Pertaining to Max’s comment, perhaps King Phillips War where King Phillip was killed and the war declared over. But only after the Wampanoags were dwindling (killed or enslaved and sent abroad) an the Nipmucks ceased fighting. If not killed Phillip may have remained hostile, but with much less of a following. If Phillip had been killed early on, I doubt the Wampanoags and Nipmucks would have just given up.

    Then the Wampanoags and Nipmucks destroyed or damaged so much of the infrastructure (if you will) of the English Colonist that their continuing exsistance was in serious question. They managed to persist.

    Two wet dreams: Assanation and bombing people into the stone age.

    73’s

  7. Maxon 20 May 2008 at 7:45 am 7

    “Two wet dreams: Assanation and bombing people into the stone age.”

    Absolutely.

    Compelling arguments and intelligent
    insights all around.

    Thank you one and all for
    the most insightfull replies.

    It’s great to be amoung a group
    of this calibre, and feeling comfortable
    in throwing out such ideas.

    MaX

  8. seydlitz89on 20 May 2008 at 7:28 pm 8

    Max has an interesting question here. . .

    “Can anyone provide an example throughout
    history where an assination as such at or near
    the very top echeleon has been successfull
    and significantly altered the course of history ?”

    I’ve thought about this, and the best example I could come up with was the death (assinnation by mine?) of Russian Admiral Makaroff in 1904 . . .

    http://www.russojapanesewar.com/maka-dies.html

  9. Maxon 21 May 2008 at 5:42 pm 9

    seydlitz89on 20 May 2008 at 7:28 pm

    I’ve thought about this, and the best example I could come up with was the death (assinnation by mine?) of Russian Admiral Makaroff in 1904 . . .

    Thanks,

    I also thought of Yamamoto, purely a legitimate, purely military target, and comperable in a senese in many respects to the fable about Rommel.

    M

  10. Mycophagiston 22 May 2008 at 7:07 am 10

    Dr. Vomact wrote:

    “I wonder what’s at stake in this discussion….”

    If this had happened, that wouldn’t. Ultimately pointless. If for no other reason then we would simply be changing the direction of the word “if.”

    If Hitlers Grandfather had not legitimised Hitlers father, then Hitler would have been “Adolph Schiklegrubber,” and the Third Reich would never have occured. :)

    Hard to argue with the impact of individuals in history, but the effect is usually buried in the historical trends that bring them forth. Would Lincohn have been more lenient to the Southern aristocracy? Perhaps. Which would simply mean that the Jim Crow laws would have been instituted earlier, and by our own time, would again be fought.

    I suspect that Dr. Vomact could make a case good enough to show that various aspects of historical detail would change, but that the main treands would have taken place anyway. After all, there were dozens of “Nazi” Parties in German, one of them would have triumphed – But would Germany have taken such an extreme racist road?

    If Kennedy had not been assassinated, would that have stopped Vietnam? Maybe. But we were in the market to have a Vietnam, and that lesson has still not been learned, as we can see. Whether you toss a large rock into a pond, or a small one, in either case, the ripples wont cross the water. Even so, someone in a boat midestream might be effected by one, but not the other.

    Dave

  11. seydlitz89on 22 May 2008 at 5:01 pm 11

    Max-

    I suppose Yamamoto is as good a choice as Makaroff. I´d thought of him, but then thought about what influence he could have had, what could he have done differently? Not much of an answer, given what he was up against. But then I posted the same question in regards Makaroff, and came to pretty much the same conclusion, although of course I find the two sides more evenly matched.

    History is full of good generals who oversaw disasters. Individuals seem to have to prove themselves as commanders, continously, simply don’t enjoy the benefit of the doubt, nor should they given the uncertainties of war . . . From a theoretical perspective of course.

  12. Maxon 22 May 2008 at 8:03 pm 12

    “If Kennedy had not been assassinated, would that have stopped Vietnam?”

    JFK, perhaps ? Only. Maybe even dougbtfull.

    Robert, I think for sure out by 1970, if not sooner.

    M

  13. Maxon 23 May 2008 at 7:52 am 13

    Max-

    “I suppose Yamamoto is as good a choice as Makaroff. I´d thought of him, but then thought about what influence he could have had, what could he have done differently?”

    In terms of hard reality, tough to say, as you probably agree.

    In the case of Yamamoto, not being too familiar
    with the Russian example.

    However, in as much as for example the Dolittle raid, definately a demoralising, or eye opening
    effect, although by that stage who can really say how effective ?

    If Yamamoto had lived, I dougbt he would have had much influence by wars end, the Japanese navy was all but obliterated, and not as if he alone could have influenced the surrender, and thus precluded the atomic bombings.

    Would Yamamoto have had to have faced the war crimes tribunals ?

    Some argue that Trueman was determined to drop the bombs, and no matter what.

    Retrobution ?
    Send a message to Stalin ?
    Demonstrate and test the effect ?

    Take your pick.
    But we digress.

    MaX

  14. rmhitchenson 23 May 2008 at 9:25 am 14

    My favorite “what if” involves a slightly more competent “black bag” guy in the Watergate garage that fateful night, who tapes the door latch vertically instead of horizontally. The security guard doesn’t notice that the exit door latch has been taped, doesn’t call the police, the CREEP burglars get the job done discreetly, and there’s no Watergate conspiracy. Nixon cruises through a successful second term, the antiwar movement dissolves, Congress doesn’t slash military aid to Saigon, the president’s “secret promise” to reengage in Vietnam with US airpower if Hanoi violates the Paris Peace Accords deters North Vietnam, and there is no famous photograph of a helicopter atop the US Embassy in Saigon to enshrine our disgrace. (At least until after 1977!)

  15. Maxon 23 May 2008 at 2:17 pm 15

    rmhitchens
    on 23 May 2008 at 9:25 am

    “there is no famous photograph of a helicopter atop the US Embassy in Saigon to enshrine our disgrace. (At least until after 1977!)”

    Good post, but in the spirit of informal cocktail hour discussion,
    I’d haisten to add we’d likely still be there, under that scenario, probably still trying to vanquish “them commies” from thier own country, today.

    Of course some short years later; the the Irainian revolution and subsiquent hostage takings would still have provided an interesting side show.

    But alas, we digress still further.
    And that’s an apt metaphor for the whole sorry mess
    we’re in today.

    M

  16. Stratioteson 24 May 2008 at 5:27 am 16

    Sorry I’m a little late to this discussion so I’m going back to Max’s original question for a bit.

    I think there is one obvious downside to assassination. Typically, the people we want to assassinate are strongmen who have done a very good job of eliminating any serious competitors to their position. Assassinating them does not allow a competitor to take his place – it just leaves a power vacuum where somebody who is even more sneaky at staying alive fills his spot. It is Darwin’s adaptation at work. Only the devious survive and killing one opens the door for another who is even more devious and more difficult to assassinate than his predecessor. So it seems to me that the assassination approach is at best counterproductive and any gains from it are by pure chance.

  17. Maxon 24 May 2008 at 6:17 am 17

    “It is Darwin’s adaptation at work. Only the devious survive and killing one opens the door for another who is even more devious and more difficult to assassinate than his predecessor.”

    Good analogy, Darwin, and remarkably,
    in the larger context, something describing fundementals of nauture applies to the similar
    evolution of human conflict.

    See also “be carefull what you wish for,,”

    M

  18. Mycophagiston 25 May 2008 at 11:47 am 18

    Let me just add, that while you can make a case that individuals play a role in history, that transcends the economic and social forces that shape historical events, ultimately, these individuals are few, and speculating on the what if’s in history, simply results in chewing rolaids like candy bars.

    Bhutto assassinated in Pakistan.

    And what if that little madman had killed Reagan? To a Pakistani, Bhutto’s death is an earth shaking event.

    I don’t think so. The murder of the Grachhi brothers marked the end of Republican Rome. But the Republic was doomed by the social forces that prevented Caius and Tiberius from winning. Their murders just made that clear.

    Dave

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