Killing Rommel

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

DNI Review by Chet Richards,
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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