A Dead-On Shot at the Heart of War
Monday, June 2, 2008
By Steven Pressfield
Doubleday. 295 pp. $24.95
Steven Pressfield has previously written five acclaimed novels based on ancient wars, including "Gates of Fire," about the battle of Thermopylae, and "The Virtues of War," about the campaigns of Alexander the Great. Now, moving into the modern era, he gives us this powerful account of the North African desert war of 1942-43, which pitted British forces against their German nemesis, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the legendary Desert Fox. The novel is presented as the memoir of Lawrence (Chap) Chapman, a British book publisher, who as a 22-year-old officer was assigned to the Long Range Desert Group as part of a mission to find and eliminate the German commander.
During the desert war, the opposing forces did their best to kill one another, but when soldiers of either side were captured, they usually were treated humanely. Partly this was due to British standards of fair play and partly to Rommel, who was both a great general and an exceptional man. As one British officer explains: "His code of soldierly honour was shaped by the era of Prussian arms before the rise of National Socialism. He is, we are told, a warrior from a bygone era, an old-fashioned knight for whom the virtues of chivalry and respect for the foe are indivisible from the passion for victory." Rommel appears in only one scene, but his myth towers over the whole story.
The novel opens with Chapman at Oxford, where he falls in love with his best friend's sister, Rose. She is all of 19 and her family opposes the romance, but they marry, and when war is declared, he leaves her and rushes off to enlist: "We all felt that way then. We would have drained our blood for England." In 1942, having been trained as a tank commander, he is sent to North Africa and, thanks to Pressfield's exhaustive research, we learn a great deal about tank warfare. At the outset, Chapman admits, "the enemy's skills are leagues beyond ours, as are his tactics and equipment." As a result, Rommel was chasing the outmanned Brits all over North Africa. This led to the desperate plan to find and kill the Desert Fox -- almost certainly a suicide mission -- that Chapman joins.
The novel contains several remarkable battles scenes. Here's a glimpse of the fog of war, when Chapman and his men infiltrate a German camp and all hell breaks loose: "Down on the flat, Punch has got our truck flat-out, racing for the wreck of Collie's. We can see Collie, charred black but on his feet, along with Standage, whose left leg hangs limp. Collie supports him. We can't find Midge or Hornsby. As our truck barrels toward Collie and Standage, another vehicle appears on our right -- an Afrika Korps van, racing towards the wreck at top speed. I shout to Oliphant to take the German out. The camp is pandemonium, with men and trucks criss-crossing madly and smoke and dust everywhere."
Between moments of high drama, much of the novel details the tedium and frustration of war: the terrible weather, the endless breakdowns of the trucks because of rough terrain and sand. The desert itself becomes a character, in lyrical passages that convey both its harsh beauty and its many dangers. Young Chapman increasingly anguishes over the conflict between the necessity of killing the enemy and his hatred of doing it. He comes to love the men he commands, most of them working-class New Zealanders. He says of one of them, "In real life, I would never meet such a man either socially or professionally. Yet here we are closer than brothers. I consider it one of the signal honours of my life to serve beside him."
One of the book's most striking characters, Maj. Blair "Paddy" Mayne, is a giant of a man, a Cambridge graduate and legendary rugby star. For sport, Mayne will stand in the middle of a room and challenge any four men to take him down. It is the others who wind up on their backs. On one mission, Mayne and his men infiltrate a German air base to blow up aircraft. Learning that each plane has an armed guard, Mayne slips through the night with a knife and kills 17 of them, one after another. He became Britain's most decorated soldier of the war. Chapman writes, "Of Mayne certainly it can be said that if he could be translated across the centuries, he would fit in with the hardest of the Romans or Macedonians." Is this character too heroic to be true? In fact, Mayne is not fictional, but a real-life soldier, one of several Pressfield has woven into "Killing Rommel."
By thus combining the true history of the war with his novelistic imagination, Pressfield has produced a splendid tour de force, one that brings to life the heroism, sacrifice, tragedy, frustration, fear and -- yes -- thrill of war. It should not be missed by military-history buffs or by anyone who wants a moving reminder of the bravery, ingenuity and sacrifice that ordinary men are capable of when given a cause they believe in.