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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Why, #3

By Steven Pressfield
Published: July 23, 2014

In many ways this blog is me talking to myself. What makes the thing work, if indeed it does, is that there are a lot of people like me and they are dealing with the same issues I’m dealing with. So talking to myself in this public forum is, in its way, a meditation for those individuals as well.

Polaris, aka the "North Star"

So I don’t ask myself, “What do I imagine others want to read in this space?” I ask, “What do I want? What issues are bothering me? What questions am I exploring?”

Why write a book?

Why make a movie?

For myself, I set aside such answers as “To make money,” “to achieve success,” “to deliver a message,” “to change the world.”

I don’t believe in any of those. In my view they’re either unattainable or, if attained, do not produce happiness or peace of mind.

How about “to have fun?” “To produce beauty?” “To tell the truth?” “To serve the Muse?”

Now, for me at least, we’re getting closer.

I was visiting an old friend last week, a man I’ve known since sixth grade who from modest beginnings has gone on to great worldly success and who has remained a good guy throughout. We had a couple of drinks and we started reflecting on our lives. We were asking each other if we had any regrets about the paths we had chosen. If we had the chance to do it over, would we have followed different courses?

My friend and I both had the same answer. It’s a little tricky to articulate, so bear with me here if I stumble and bumble a bit:

My friend said, “If you took a prototypical middle-class American guy and put him in my shoes as he was graduating from high school, I might say, ‘Yeah, that theoretical fellow might have regrets over the way my/his life worked out.’ He could say, maybe, that I/he should’ve gone to medical school or I/he shouldn’t have gotten in trouble back in a certain decade. And I/he would be right.

“But that kind of thinking doesn’t apply to ‘me.’ Do you understand, Steve? There was a ‘me’ that didn’t have free rein. That ‘me’ had no choice. I was driven to do certain things, to make certain choices. Why? Was my motivation neurotic? Was I driven by unconscious forces? Yes. For sure.

“But above and beyond those influences, my life had a Pole Star. It really did. I couldn’t articulate this concept then and I can’t really do it now, but I felt that star’s pull and I followed it. Polaris, the North Star. Something ‘celestial,’ in the sense that it was fixed from birth, or even before birth.”

“You mean like ‘destiny?’”

“I know it sounds grandiose and narcissistic, even crazy. But yes. Yes.”

I agreed with my friend. I feel the same force in my life.

“I look back and I see moment after moment when I could have gotten off the train. When good sense and every other factor was screaming at me to get off. But I always stayed on.”
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Killing Rommel

. . . Killing Rommel is both a captivating history lesson and a rousing guts-'n'-glory saga. GRADE: A-
—Entertainment Weekly
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.
—Washington Post
BUY THE BOOK: Hardcover | Paperback | Audio

The following excerpts are from the audiobook of Killing Rommel.

The book is read by the Tony Award-winning English actor Alfred Molina. You've seen Mr. Molina in The Da Vinci Code; he played "Doc Ok" in Spiderman 2; he was the village mayor in Chocolat. Fred has appeared in dozens of movies, including the original Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The audiobook was recorded over three days in February 2008 at Media Staff Studios in Los Angeles, directed by Claudia Howard.

Excerpt One: The Mission Briefing

Excerpt One

Our narrator, British Army Lieutenant. R. Lawrence Chapman ("Chap"), recounts his experiences during the North African campaign of WWII. The first ten chapters detail Chap's youth and military training and his service as a tank officer with the Seventh Armoured Division, the famous "Desert Rats."

As this excerpt begins, Chap has been seconded to a top-secret raiding and reconnaissance unit—the Long Range Desert Group—and has trained with them for several weeks at Faiyoum, south of Cairo. The time is mid-summer 1942; Rommel and the German Afrika Korps have routed the British Eighth Army and driven them back to the gates of Alexandria. The fate of North Africa, and possibly the outcome of the entire war, hangs in the balance. In this scene, the outfit is called together and given their mission.

An historical note: other than Chapman, Lt. Warren, Flight Lt. Higge-Evert and Sgt. Collier, all personages in this section are true historical figures, many of them legendary in the annals of British special forces.

Excerpt Two: Beginning the Raid on Rommel

Excerpt Two

The second excerpt is from Chapter 16, about halfway through the book. After an ordeal of crossing the Great Egyptian Sand Sea, the trucks and jeeps of the SAS and the Long Range Desert Group have at last worked their way into the rear of the Afrika Korps and have set up, ready to attempt their penetration of the enemy formation. Suddenly things start to go wrong...

I. "One Man's View of Combat."

Our narrator, British Army Lieutenant. R. Lawrence Chapman ("Chap"), recounts his experiences during the North African campaign of WWII. Chap is writing from London in the mid-1970's, as a civilian -- an editor and publisher -- in his fifties, recalling events of the summer of 1942. His memoir is of his time with a British special forces unit, the Long Range Desert Group.

At the time of the British retreat to El Alamein in summer '42, the Long Range Desert Group had been in business for almost two years. Its raids had destroyed and damaged hundreds of Axis aircraft on the ground and caused thousands of German and Italian troops to be pulled out of the front lines and redeployed to provide rear-area security. The LRDG had acquired a certain swashbuckling glamour. Volunteers queued by the hundreds. Getting in was no cinch however. From one batch of 700 applicants, the LRDG took only twelve. Criteria for selection were less wild and woolly than one might imagine. The group was not seeking buccaneers or assassins; what it wanted was the solid, mature sort--the type of fellow who could think for himself under pressure, work in close quarters with others, and handle extremes not only of danger but of tedium, hardship and privation. The virtues of resourcefulness, self-composure, patience, hardiness and generosity (not to mention a sense of humour) were prized as highly as those of bravery, aggressiveness, or raw martial rigor.

In this I believe the LRDG was spot on. One of the factors that has kept me until now from writing of my own experiences under fire is the uneasiness I have felt about the genre of war literature. Tales of heroes, the nobility of sacrifice and so forth have always left me cold. They run counter to my experience. From what I've seen, the operations of war are constituted less of glorious attacks and valiant defences and more of an ongoing succession of mundane and often excruciating balls-ups. The patrol of which I write, typical of so many, achieved little heroic beyond its own survival, save at the very end, and then less by military or tactical brilliance than by luck and its protagonists' stubborn, even mulish refusal to quit. Those actions of its men which may legitimately claim the name of gallantry came about largely from attempts at self-extrication from peril, most of which trouble we got into ourselves by our own overzealousness, and the main of which were performed either in the heat of instinct or the frenzy of blood terror. The men who performed these heroics often could not recall them in the aftermath. Let me say this about courage in combat. In my experience valour in action counts for far less than simply performing one's commonplace task without cocking it up. This is by no means as simple as it sounds. In many ways it's the most difficult thing in the world. Certainly for every glorious death memorialised in despatches, one could count twenty others that were the product of fatigue, confusion, inattention, over- or underassertion of authority, panic, timidity, hesitation, honest errors or miscalculations, mishaps and accidents, collisions, mechanical breakdowns, lost or forgotten spare parts, intelligence deficiencies, mistranslated codes, late or inadequate medical care, not to say bollocksed-up orders (or the failure to grasp and implement proper orders), misdirected fire from one's own troops or allies, and general all-around muddling, sometimes the fault of the dead trooper himself. The role of the officer in my experience is nothing grander than to stand sentinel over himself and his men, towards the end of keeping them from forgetting who they are and what their objective is, how to get there, and what equipment they're supposed to have when they arrive. Oh, and getting back. That's the tricky part. Such success as the Long Range Desert Group enjoyed may be credited in no small measure to the superior leadership of Colonel Ralph Bagnold and Lieutenant-Colonel Guy Prendergast, its founder and follow-on OC, for whom the applications of preparation and thoroughness far surpassed those of courage and intrepidity.

Autumn, 1942. Hitler's legions have swept across Europe; France has fallen; Churchill and the English are isolated on their island. In North Africa, Rommel and his Panzers have routed the British Eighth Army and stand poised to overrun Egypt, Suez, and the oilfields of the Middle East. With the outcome of the war hanging in the balance, the British hatch a desperate plan -- send a small, highly mobile, and heavily armed force behind German lines to strike the blow that will stop the Afrika Korps in its tracks.

Narrated from the point of view of a young lieutenant, Killing Rommel brings to life the flair, agility, and daring of this extraordinary secret unit, the Long Range Desert Group. Stealthy and lethal as the scorpion that serves as their insignia, they live by their motto—Non Vi Sed Arte (Not by Strength, by Guile)—as they gather intelligence, set up ambushes, and execute raids. Killing Rommel chronicles the tactics, weaponry, and specialized skills needed for combat under extreme desert conditions. And it captures the camaraderie of this "band of brothers" as they perform the acts of courage and cunning crucial to the Allies' victory in North Africa.

Killing Rommel powerfully renders the drama and intensity of warfare, the bonds of men in close combat, and the surprising human emotions and frailties that come into play on the battlefield. A vivid and authoritative depiction of the desert war, Killing Rommel brilliantly dramatizes an aspect of World War II that hasn't been in the limelight since Patton.

"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."
—Washington Post
"If you're ancient enough to have watched "The Rat Patrol", the TV series from the 60s (guilty as charged), you know about the Long Range Desert Group. These brave lads were charged with getting behind enemy lines in North Africa to track down Germany's Field Rommel. Despite the titillating title, killing the elusive Desert Fox wasn't so easy. Steven Pressfield's well-written fiction memoir (by a literate British lieutenant named Chapman) is surprisingly contemplative, more a coming-of-age tale than a thriller. But gearheads will love every vehicular snafu, and the one pulse-racing battle sequence—when Chapman's patrol is shot up during a surprise encounter with the enemy—is worth the wait."
—USA Today
"A rookie English soldier in World War II joins the elite Long Range Desert Group in North Africa for a clandestine operation to try to assassinate the legendary leader of Axis forces, Erwin 'The Desert Fox' Rommel. Movie Pitch: Band of Brothers meets Lawrence of Arabia. Lowdown: the Brutality of modern warfare and the bravery of troops on both sides of the conflict seep through every page. Killing Rommel is both a captivating history lesson and a rousing guts-'n'-glory saga. GRADE: A-"
—Entertainment Weekly
"This is a first-class war adventure…"
—Historical Novel Society Editor's Choice

"Author Steven Pressfield has forged a considerable reputation as a historical novelist, focusing on the more ancient civilizations. His 1998 novel, Gates of Fire, about the 300 Spartans who defended Thermopylae against an overwhelming number of Xerxes' troops in 480 B.C., helped inspire a whole new wave of interest in that heroic encounter. Now he turns his sights on the desert war of World War II and the formidable talents of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the so-called 'Desert Fox.'

"Pressfield has never been shy about sharing his vast knowledge of ancient weaponry and now, moving to the era of World War II, he hasn't lost a step or a spear. And yet he's smart enough not to allow didactics to get in the way of good drama. While the weapons have changed greatly, the men in the trenches haven't, and few writers handle the intense camaraderie of fighting men better than Pressfield. The desert itself emerges as a character, as in this passage where Chap muses on its timelessness and his relationship to it. 'I am an ordinary Englishmen, barely out of my university years. Yet here I sit, in the vastness of the African night, surrounded by mates who could have stepped from Caesar's legions or Alexander's phalanx.'

"As you ride in the tanks with the men toward the conclusion of the novel, you come to realize that what happens to Rommel doesn't really matter. The German commander is respected on both sides for his gentlemanly behavior toward troops. He refuses to execute POWs or Jews, earning the wrath of Hitler and sealing his own fate. No, it's what happens to the men we've come to know through Pressfield's masterly characterizations that has become so vital."
—Bookpage
"After five novels about conflict in ancient times (Gates of Fire, etc.), Pressfield effortlessly gives fresh life to wartime romance and the rigors of combat in a superior WWII thriller. Framed as the memoir of a British officer, the book is based on an actual British plot to assassinate the 'Desert Fox,' German field marshal Erwin Rommel, during late 1942 and early 1943 in North Africa. The author painstakingly sets the stage for later fireworks by charting the prewar career of R. Lawrence 'Chap' Chapman, especially his relationship with the brilliant but doomed Zachary Stein, Chap's tutor and mentor at Oxford. Chap also falls in love with sexy Rose McCall, whose brains and brass later get her posted to naval intelligence in Egypt. As a young lieutenant, Chap joins the team assembled to go after Rommel. Pressfield expertly juxtaposes the personal with the historical, with authentic battle descriptions. Crisp writing carries readers through success, failure and a final face-to-face encounter with Rommel that's no less exciting for knowing the outcome."
—Publisher's Weekly (Starred Review)
"Based on real-life events, Pressfield's moving novel concerns the daring British and Commonwealth soldiers who challenged German General Erwin Rommel's desert forces. The story is narrated by R. Lawrence 'Chap' Chapman, a minor player in the dramatic African action of World War II. As a very young British officer, barely out of his teens, the Oxford-educated Chapman was assigned to the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), a glamorous and much sought-after posting in an outfit prizing resourcefulness and improvisation, qualities essential to surviving LRDG's ridiculously dangerous assignments. Rommel's forces in 1942 dominated Northern Africa west of Egypt. The brilliant general had the willing participation of his troops, who were in awe both of his tactics and of his almost knightly approach to warfare. His success in Africa was a major obstacle to the Allied Forces who saw the coastline there as the first step to an invasion of Southern Europe. Even more dangerous, were he to take Egypt from the Brits, he would hand the Arabian oil fields to the fuel-starved Axis armies. To save Egypt, the oil fields and prevent an invasion, the Brits, under future Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, send the units of the LRDG, including the very green Chapman, on a wild mission to kill Rommel and, with him, the German esprit de guerre. The story Pressfield (The Afghan Campaign, 2007, etc.) tells is so rich in details ... and, given the conceit of a modest man telling the whopping story, it is sometimes slow going. But it's absolutely worth sticking with for the high-definition picture of a low tech (trucks get repaired in the middle of the dunes) but vicious war, and for the breathtaking gallantry of unpretentious young men and General Rommel. There is, as a lagniappe thrown in at the end, one of the best apologies ever written on behalf of novels as a necessary art form. Brilliant, but not for the Tom Clancy set."
—Kirkus Review

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