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Summer Series 2010: Killing Rommel by Steven Pressfield

Summer Series 2010: Reviewing the Books! continues……

Killing Rommel: A Novel by Steven Pressfield

As a rule, because of my academic  background and predisposition toward policy analysis,  I have a difficult time picking up a novel. Not because I dislike novels, but because with so many histories and “serious” policy books in my antilibrary demanding to be read, I feel guilty indulging myself in reading fiction.  Realizing that is mildly insane, I decided to shoot for a better balance in my reading this year between fiction and non-fiction and must report….that I have failed miserably. I’ve only read five novels so far in 10 months but one of the five that I read was Killing Rommel and I’m glad that I did!

I “met” the novelist Steven Pressfield online through the first iteration of his website, then a focus on the tribal aspects of the war in Afghanistan. We had some intriguing exchanges and I picked up his The War of Art, one of Steve’s few non-fiction works about becoming a professional writer ( or any creative professional) and defeating the internal psychological resistance that thwarts success and acheivement. I loved that book and read it straight through in one sitting, and later interviewed him about it. Knowing my interest in history and military affairs, Steve sent me a copy of his Killing Rommel and it sat in my antilibrary until this summer, where I read it during long stretches at poolside.

I found Killing Rommel to be a page turner.

Via a literary device, Killing Rommel is the story of  “Chap” – Major Richard Lawrence Chapman, DSO, MC. – and his mission as a member of “The Desert Rats”, The Long Range Desert Group of the British Army to find and kill the legendary commander of Afrika Korps, Field Marshal Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel, “The Desert Fox”. In pursuit of his mission, “Chap” encounters an array of reverses, hazards and adventures in a manner of an ordinary, thoroughly decent, man rising above himself to master circumstances both physically heroic and morally agonizing, leaving the field with honor and humanity intact but free neither of doubt nor memory.

What makes “Chap” remarkable and identifiable as a character in his British ordinariness of an officer doing his duty to King and country, is the uncanny and unerring way Pressfield has reconstructed a British outlook specific to Chap’s time and class – that of the “respectable” upper middle class or younger sons of younger sons of gentry, for whom education and life was bounded by the traditions of the public school and military regiments to which family history was attached. It is a quality of “placedness” and sense of self that most Americans (other than scions of Andover and similar prep schools) cannot easily relate. Where you went was part of who you were and your whole outlook on life. Once established, Chap’s history consistently informs his actions and reactions as the plot progresses; Chap, in other words, “lived” an authentic life in Killing Rommel.

A second feature of Killing Rommel is Pressfield’s fidelity to historical realism. This is expressed both in his attention to details of military history and geographic setting and his willingness to grip war – even an unimpeachably “good” war as WWII – in all it’s moral ambiguity and unmediated violence on the human scale. It is disturbing to the reader that Rommel, the great enemy and objective of the mission, is an admirable man fighting for an evil cause; it is disturbing that dying Germans are not unrepentant Nazi beasts but are found to be men with families and lives, conscripts and volunteers, not unlike Chap and his comrades, who must persevere and fight for their lives but acknowledge these shades of gray.

Highly recommended.

10 Responses to “Summer Series 2010: Killing Rommel by Steven Pressfield”

  1. onparkstreet Says:

    I prefer novels and always have. Only recently, have I begun reading much non-fiction (outside of papers and textbooks in my area of practice.) When I was younger, I enjoyed historical fiction. For some reason, I found my history textbooks "dry" but in narrative form, some of the same information seemed incredibly exciting. Of course, some authors are not so careful about accuracy.
    This book sounds good.
    – Madhu

  2. historyguy99 Says:

    I highly concur with your review.

    Steve developed his characters in such a way as to draw the reader into living vicariously alongside the men of the LRDG as they challenged not only the Germans, but the desert of North Africa. Too bad Disney recently killed the movie adaption by Jerry Bruckheimer. Hope he and Steve find another backer, because it has all the marks of being great movie.

  3. zen Says:

    Hey Doc Madhu,
    Steve seems to have taken great care to get the little details of the North African campaign right. Many of the minor characters in his story were real people, in addition.
    Hi HG99,
    Did not know Killing Rommel was in development as a film – that would have been excellent to see!

  4. Lexington Green Says:

    Steve was kind enough to send me a copy of Killing Rommel, when we were doing the Xenophon Roundtable.  It is in my antibibrary for now.  I read The War of Art, which was excellent.  I have a copy of Gates of Fire here as well.  Books > Time. 

  5. J. Scott Says:

    Zen, You will put me in the poor house with a good library. I’ve come to admire Pressfield very much because of you blog—I purchased and gave away over 30 copies of The War of Art—if there is a better palliative for procrastinations short of a swift kick in the a%^, I’d like to see it. 

  6. Ralph Hitchens Says:

    Good review of a fine book.  Pressfield is a very good historical novelist who writes well about war in various eras.  _Gates of Fire_ is a classic, IMO.  _Killing Rommel_ praises the British for their character and courage, but admits quite freely that the Germans were better, overall, at waging mechanized warfare than was the British Army.

  7. onparkstreet Says:

    OT, but Schmedlap is dismantling his blog soon. If you want to leave a message about how awesome his blog commenting is and how much he sucks for ditching our little corner of the blogosphere (supposing he actually checks back on the thing), I guess this is the time to do it 🙂
    – Madhu
    (I am such a creature of habit. If I read a blog once, then the owner is obliged to keep it going to satisfy my creature of habit-iness. Pathetic.)

  8. zen Says:

    Thanks gents,
    Scott, I will have a few more new books to promo here as publishers just sent me a batch of review copies, one is still embargoed until the 11th though.  🙂
    Ralph, you’re right. My understanding is that the Germans seldom or never lost major tactical battles unless they were outnumbered by greater than 1.5:1, which speaks to training. The quality of their machine tooling is often overlooked ( though quality could not compete with quantity in either men or machines).
    Doc Madhu,
    Schmed is a good guy. Very level-headed and skeptical of hand-waving assertions. His voice will be missed in the blogosphere.

  9. Steven Pressfield Says:

    Mark, many thanks for the very kind (and very astute) review of "Killing Rommel."  I must tell you, almost every other reviewer has focused, understandably enough, on the war aspects of the story, or the hardware, or the history.  Yours is the only one that has zeroed in on the personal story of the protagonist, Lt. Chapman, which is to my mind what the story is about.  I’m probably telling tales out of school, but "Chap" is modeled after my first editor and dear friend, Larry Hughes.  (I even stole his wife’s name — Rose — for Chap’s wife.)  Larry is from that exact vintage; he’s actually American, a WWII Marine.  Larry’s all-around decency, integrity and selflessness were the virtues I was hoping to shine a light on–"Greatest Generation" virtues of the citizen-soldier who goes off reluctantly to fight but turns out to be a helluva warrior, because of those very virtues.  Anyway, many thanks, Mark, for reviewing "Rommel" and for hitting the nail squarely on the head.

  10. zen Says:

    My pleasure, Steve! Glad I "got it" right. Extremely interesting to have you share the background on Chap too – these details of an author’s craft often get lost to the public unless a writer has a situation where someone – a relative, an archivist, a biographer – manages to bring order to their voluminous notes, drafts, letters, paper scraps, offhand remarks and other ruminations For example Christopher Tolkien with his father’s legacy, Boswell with Samuel Johnson, and so on.
    Of course, writers also bounce their ideas off of other writers who then journal their conversations – hmmm……need an English lit expert in the readership to step in here and elucidate my point for me 🙂

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