20.9.05

PRIMORDIAL SHOCK AND AWE. Book Review No. 39 is Dennis Showalter's Patton and Rommel: Men of War in the Twentieth Century. There are a few aspects of these not-quite-rivals that the movies won't tell you. Erwin Rommel came from a family of modest means to be admitted to one of the German service academies. His only experience with elite troops was as a company commander in the Wuerttemberg Mountain Battalion in Romania and later in Italy, during World War I, where he demonstrated a resourcefulness in making do with little and defeating larger opposing forces. George Patton obtained some experience with the pioneering tanks toward the end of that war.

In the opening phases of World War II, Rommel's Seventh Panzer made short work of much larger opposing forces. Professor Showalter summarizes the lessons.
Erwin Rommel and the 7th Panzer had done something more than win a series of tactical victories that remain unprecedented in terms of time, space, and numbers. They had established an archetype of blitzkrieg. Ever since May, 1940, "lightning war" in military mythology is more than just quick, lethal, asceptic conflict; something other than the "shock and awe" of paralyzing aerial bombardment, or massive artillery barrages anonymously delivered, or even of hundreds of tanks rolling forward in an irresistible mass. What the 7th Panzer Division did was set a pace that transformed each enemy it faced into an obliging enemy, whose decisions and behaviors seemed to fit German requirements as closely as though Rommel himself had drawn up the plans and issued the orders. It was a virtuoso performance, after a half-century when war had become an endurance test.
The Seventh Panzer improvised methods of using Stukas for tank-busting, but had to be careful not to run too far ahead of the air support for fear of being misidentified by the Stuka pilots. The language of battlefield preparation I hear these days strikes me as refinements of what Rommel and the Seventh made up on the fly in the spring of 1940.

The legendary Afrika Korps transpires to have been a scratch force (with the Russian Front calling for more and more resources) and Professor Showalter reveals that the German leadership, including Hitler, had no idea how to defeat the United States. The United States, and the British, had to figure out how to win, and there were several false starts in North Africa and Sicily. Enter, then exit, then re-enter Patton.

Professor Showalter's most provocative suggestion is that each of these generals might have done better on the other team. An improvisational and glory-seeking Patton in Russia in 1941? A Rommel with the logistical support of the Arsenal of Democracy in 1944? Both of these generals are more intensively studied in the service academies of their old adversaries.

I also commend this observation on Patton's documented prejudices, commonplace among the old rich of those days.
His frequently graphic private language was largely confined to outlets understood at the time as private: his diary and his personal correspondence. Even there his tone as a rule invites comparison to expressions of opinion common among other kinds of elites at the turn of the century on Kenneth Starr, George W. Bush, Texans, neoconservatives, and similar upstarts who do not accept their places. The underlying motivation in each case is the same: a comprehensive, unreflective, uncritical sense of superiority.
That sounds like a colleague I'd want to say "Got your back" in a common room argument.

The book itself? Recommended reading for World War II buffs.

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