Review: Killing Rommel
Pressfield, Steven. Killing Rommel: a Novel. Garden City: Doubleday, 2008. List price $24.95
Killing Rommel by Steven Pressfield, bestselling author of Gates of Fire (a book now taught at West Point) chronicles the factually-inspired expedition of the Long Range Desert Group, an elite British special forces team founded in 1940, to kill Erwin Rommel.
The novel takes the form of a memoir (or perhaps more appropriately war diary) written by the fictional R. Lawrence Chapman, published after Chapman’s death and much prodding by his deceased friend’s son. It should be noted before reading the novel that the form which it takes presents a certain criterion for fully enjoying Killing Rommel: it is not a textbook, and the Second World War as a whole is not explained in any degree of detail. For the novel to be fully appreciated, it is necessary to approach Killing Rommel with at least a general knowledge of the war in order to put events, people, and places in their appropriate context. To balance this out, Pressfield ensures that the novel is accessible to readers regardless of their education on the war; technical terms are explained where necessary, and the localized nature of Chapman’s memoir make little reference to events outside the scope of the book.
Chapman’s account of his time spent with the Long Range Desert Group strikes an interesting balance between realistic descriptions of wartime horror and chivalric notions of lifelong romances blossoming in the midst of large-scale conflict. At times the reader is invited to take part in the ‘greatest generation’ sentiment of the Second World War, with Chapman’s sense of invigoration and freedom in the desert and a close friend’s declaration that he is having the time of his life. Comrades-in-arms take enemy ambushes in stride and engage in playful banter when Jerry comes a-stalking; mid-day ‘brew ups’ under the desert sun are leisurely breaks in the shade of a lorry. This changes, however, as the story progresses and the nature of war is revealed. Chapman’s ever-present remorse after a particularly brutish engagement renders tangible the lifelong guilt felt by many soldiers, especially those in roles of authority. An internal exposition makes it clear that Chapman fully appreciates the oft-perceived senseless of war and the humanity of the Enemy, soldiers just like himself who are simply doing what they see as their patriotic duty or the better of undesirable options. This balance between Indiana Jones-style romance and realistic and unapologetic recollection brings out Pressfield’s mastery of his genre. The necessity of the LRDG’s duty is proven undeniable, but the reader does not finish the book with any illusions that war does not involve immense physical, emotional, and even spiritual pain.
The most remarkable achievement of Killing Rommel is its conveyance of respect for the Enemy, held for common troopers of the opposition but most importantly for Rommel himself. The ‘Desert Fox’ was feared as an individual by nearly all British soldiers in North Africa; Pressfield’s novel does nothing to discredit Rommel’s character or paint him with stereotypical Nazi colors (and this is especially significant, as Rommel was never a Party member). Hatred never enters Chapman’s mind, and his feelings for Rommel probably border on professional admiration. Clearly, Rommel was a military genius who simply had to be removed from the theatre of operations in order for the British Army to succeed. In another time and another place, Rommel could have been a valuable asset to have fighting at one’s side.
There is a reason that Steven Pressfield is read at the United States Military Academy, and Killing Rommel is a good introduction to why that is true. Flowing plot and sparse tangential discussions make the novel excellent light reading with heavier implications and food-for-thought.