Reviewed by Robert Citino
By Dennis Showalter
Berkley Caliber, New York, 2005
Dennis Showalter has long occupied a unique place in the field of military history. There are many fine scholars out there, professors who do their time in the archives, read the appropriate foreign languages and can fashion their material into a coherent argument. Likewise, there are a lot of good writers, folks who can evoke a you-are-there feeling with just a few strokes of pen on paper or taps on the keyboard. Each type has strengths and weaknesses. I’ve spent a large portion of my career reading important works with startling new interpretations, but with dry-as-dust academic prose that came close to sinking the entire enterprise. I’ve also read my share of sharply written books that were thoroughly enjoyable but didn’t impart anything particularly new about the subject. Reading the former is an occupational hazard of being a history professor, the latter a guilty pleasure.
Showalter sets the standard for the rare occurrence of both qualities in one writer. His scholarship is impeccable. His 1976 book Railroads and Rifles: Soldiers, Technology, and the Unification of Germany restored respectability to what many disparaged at the time as “drum and trumpet” military history by demonstrating the key role that hardware, doctrine and military planning had played in German unification, and he hasn’t let up since. Tannenberg: Clash of Empires 1914 (1991), The Wars of Frederick the Great (1996) and The Wars of German Unification (2004) are all indispensable. No author is so adept at discussing military sociology, the relationship of armies to the societies that spawn them and the matrix of factors that turns some forces into sharks and others into their bait. Even better, the author administers what can be pretty strong scholarly medicine in spoonfuls of some of the sweetest prose around. The payoff of reading Showalter is that you get smarter without even realizing it.
This is particularly true of Patton and Rommel. Showalter is not attempting any scholarly reinvention of the wheel here but is aiming squarely for the broader reading public. The lack of what we in the academic business call a “scholarly apparatus” (footnotes and bibliography) means that the learning is assumed rather than displayed, without the distraction of those tiny superscripted numbers. The result is a smooth, accessible narrative that is jampacked with enough interesting insights to keep anyone’s inner scholar happy.
Showalter makes a good case for this comparative biography. While the two generals have come to represent their respective armies in World War II, both experienced more than their fair share of career anxiety on their way up the ladder. Erwin Rommel was always a bit of an outsider. From Württemberg rather than Prussia, without a family tradition of arms and the contacts that went with it, he made a midlevel success of himself through a series of nail-biting exploits in World War I. He fought with specialist troops — mountain infantry — in the highly mobile Caporetto and Carpathian campaigns in Italy and Romania, and even in that pre-panzer era, he showed how a small, highly mobile elite could achieve success out of all proportion to its numbers. His reward was retention in the tiny interwar Reichswehr, the 100,000-man army that seemed to have locked him into captain’s rank forever.
As for George S. Patton Jr., anyone who thinks that the United States did not — or does not — possess a hereditary nobility should study his story. The scion of a long line of Southern warriors, Patton married up and into money, enough to enable him to spend a lifetime in the saddle, whether on the battlefield or the polo pitch. He, too, made a medium-size name for himself in World War I, fighting in another specialist arm, the armored corps. He, too, spent the interwar years with increasingly barren prospects — the low point of which was his suppression of the “Bonus March” in 1932, which could hardly have been what he saw as his battlefield destiny.
For both men, the coming of another war served as a means of rescue. Showalter eschews a great deal of overt psychologizing, preferring to let the question, What sort of man is only whole when fighting? form his subtext. His key in linking Patton and Rommel is the notion of “situational awareness,” the fingertip-feeling that guided both men during their careers, covering everything from the coup d’oeil in battle to the correct way to handle subordinates and butter up superiors. It might even include, in Patton’s case, the correct cocktail to serve General George Marshall. The moments when that awareness deserted them, the well-known “slapping incidents” in Patton’s career, for example, merit some of the most thoughtful discussion in the book. Showalter’s analysis of the “four contexts” (personal, medical, journalistic and political) that transformed a simple affair of “Patton being Patton” into a national scandal bears repeated reading.
Most readers will be turning to this book for battles, however, and it’s hard to imagine many of them being disappointed. Whether climbing the Alps and the Carpathians, crossing the Meuse or driving like mad across the desert, Rommel gets the full treatment here. Patton, likewise, slashes his way into the St. Mihiel salient and through the Argonne Forest in one war, Tunisia and Sicily in the next, leading up to his apotheosis in the great pursuit across northern France in 1944. In general, while we see their career paths tending in opposite directions, we can also identify their intersection point with precision: July 20, 1944. The assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life would claim Rommel’s in its aftermath, and the simultaneous launch of Operation Cobra would catapult Patton to world fame.
On the surface, Showalter offers us similar portraits of the two. Both Rommel and Patton come across as surprisingly thoughtful soldiers who were also lead-from-the-front hard chargers. One was a German army commander who “talked like a first sergeant,” the other a member of the American social and military elite who swore like a stevedore. The differences win out in the end, however. He may have been the Desert Fox and a man associated with armored columns tearing across the desert, but Rommel always remained a “muddy-boots infantryman” in an army where high command had traditionally been associated with the aristocracy. Patton, by contrast was an aristocrat, “a cavalryman when that still meant something” in an increasingly plebeian democracy that worshiped the common man. Both men represented challenges to their respective national paradigms, therefore, and it is at least partly for this reason that they have generated more postwar admiration in each other’s country than in their own.
It is a good story, and the quality of the writing makes it even better. It is vivid, vigorous, laced with unforgettable metaphor, alternately funny and moving. Patton emerges as the “difficult uncle” within the extended family of the U.S. officer corps, “the kind who is invited to holiday dinners with a prayer that this time he can be kept away from the Manischewitz at least until the meal is over.” Rommel, after a lifetime of snap decisions made within the heat of battle, found himself implicated in the plot to kill Hitler. He was given a choice: a treason trial or suicide and a state funeral — the latter coming with a promise that there would be no repercussions for his family. “For the last time,” Showalter writes, “Rommel made his decision in seconds.” And what other author would cap a discussion of Patton’s infatuation with his niece Jean by quoting a certain Yiddish proverb about a certain part of the male anatomy not having any brains?
There should be an award for well-researched scholarly books that manage at the same time to entertain the reader, and I have the perfect name for it. I hereby confer upon Patton and Rommel the first annual “Dennis.”