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THE SATURDAY READ

Hunting 'the Desert Fox'

Killing Rommel; A Novel; Steven Pressfield; Doubleday: 300 pp., $27.95

June 28, 2008|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

Steven Pressfield, who pushed to the forefront of war novelists with his history-based tales of ancient warriors, has now turned his considerable skills to a modern conflict in "Killing Rommel."

The result, as the novel's British protagonist might say, is a ripping good read: gritty and dramatic. For anyone interested in how and why honorable men go to war, this one's for you.

True enough, the setup is a standard template: an ad hoc group thrown together for a desperate mission that, if successful, can shorten World War II. Think of "The Guns of Navarone" set in the North African desert.

But in Pressfield's hands, the story of the British army's Long Range Desert Group and its effort to find and eliminate German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is as fresh and compelling as the morning's headlines, quite a feat when you consider that even the most casual History Channel watcher knows that "the Desert Fox" did not die in the desert.

"Killing Rommel" is vivid in its rendering of the difficulty, danger and terror facing a combat convoy when pushing into unfamiliar territory -- worse yet, when the charts are wrong and it is unknowable whether those headlights down the road or aircraft above are friend or enemy. This is war without GPS or CNN.

Whether he is writing about the battle of Thermopylae ("Gates of Fire") or Alexander the Great's slog through Afghanistan ("The Afghan Campaign"), Pressfield does his homework. "Killing Rommel" is loaded with details about the vehicles, weaponry, communications gear and strategies used in the North African campaign. But all that is mere bric-a-brac to Pressfield's true aim -- also seen in his earlier works -- which is to examine the complex issues of leadership, bravery and camaraderie during combat.

Pressfield's characters most often are common men caught in uncommon circumstances. He avoids the tendency of a battalion of Tom Clancy wannabes who puff up their lead character to comic-book, guns-blazing proportions.

In "Killing Rommel," the protagonist -- the word hero does not apply -- is R. Lawrence Chapman, a young officer put in charge of a group of seasoned desert fighters. He suffers his doubts even as he learns to bark orders at men who are older and more experienced.

"These fellows are different from me. I admire them: I wish I could be like them. They are men of action, warriors and man-killers. I'm not," Chapman thinks. "This apprehension is, paradoxically, the beginning of my true vocation as an officer. All genuine epiphanies seem to follow this model: their defining quality is the relinquishment of delusion."

War, Pressfield knows, often exists in an ethically gray arena. Indeed, the novel's high point is not a shootout but a moral dilemma faced by Chapman and his desert rats.

It would be a stretch to say that "Killing Rommel" is destined to be regarded as Pressfield's masterpiece. "Gates of Fire," his tale of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae first published in 1998, is taught at West Point and has achieved cult status among Marines.

Before graduating from Duke University and becoming a Hollywood screenwriter, Pressfield did a hitch in the Marine Corps in the 1960s. Even when dealing with Peloponnesian War ("Tides of War") or other centuries-old conflicts, his books reflect classic Marine teachings.

In "The Virtues of War," Pressfield's "autobiography" of Alexander the Great, Alexander's pre-battle speech to his soldiers tracks with a similar address given by a Marine general to his young grunts on the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. "We must do more, brothers, than overcome the enemy by might," Alexander says. "We must show him that we are better men. Let no one dishonor himself in victory."

Alexander also lists his rules for war, including "Let us conduct ourselves in such a fashion that all nations wish to be our friends and all fear to be our enemies."

In 2004, when the 1st Marine Division set up headquarters in Ramadi, the same general ordered a sign erected proclaiming the Marines to be "no better friend, no worse enemy."

Heavily armored Humvees have replaced the horses of Alexander's time and the thin-skinned trucks of "Killing Rommel," but certain warrior values, Pressfield reminds us, remain unchanged, at least among men of honor.

--

tony.perry@latimes.com

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