Non Vi Sed Arte – Not by Strength, by Guile
June 12, 2009
This was originally going to be an interview with the international best-selling author Steven Pressfield about his historical thriller, Killing Rommel. Steven is a master storyteller. His works, such as The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great, and The Afghan Campaign, and many others are legendary among military aficionados. His book, Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae, is required reading at West Point.
While talking with Steven about Killing Rommel, we wandered off the beaten path a bit to discuss the power of story – in business and life – to move people to higher grounds. The kind of power that can inspire people to perform great feats of selflessness and humanity. But, we didn’t stop there – we derailed onto troublesome questions of morality, character and ethics.
Great Stories are Questions
Really great historical stories make you a part of the past. You’re there. You smell the smells. Hear the sounds. Taste the foods. Trod the paths. But most importantly, they make you think – force you to question the very tenets and precepts of life you may have previously taken for granted … or not even thought of at all.
Questions that allow you to commune with the past, in the present, about the future. But, much as Heraclitus says …
You can not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you. - Heraclitus
You may also feel great loss when the story ends. Killing Rommel does that. It raises questions that transcend the story itself.
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, the 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 a 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.
Non Vi Sed Arte
Stealthy and lethal as the scorpion that serves as their insignia, they live by the motto — Non Vi Sed Arte (Not by Strength, by Guile) – as they gather intelligence, set up ambushes, and execute raids.
KILLING ROMMEL: 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 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
Enter Steven Pressfield
Steve Kayser: What led you to this story, Killing Rommel, this man, this time, this war?
Steven Pressfield: I was researching Alexander the Great’s cavalry tactics for a couple of earlier books. That led me to Frederick the Great, to Napoleon, and to other more contemporary cavalry commanders. Then, I came across Rommel. He used tanks with the same dash and aggressiveness as Alexander used cavalry. Even though I thought of writing a story strictly about Rommel nothing was clicking. Finally I stumbled upon the British Long Range Desert Group. Something about them grabbed me. I just had to tell the story of these guys – and Rommel.
Steven Pressfield: Yes. They were a bunch of ordinary, (but special) guys, out in the desert, no roads, no GPS, no CNN or Fox News, no ammo, just some old Chevrolet trucks, and a couple of machine guns … 500 miles behind enemy lines.
Steve Kayser: No Jeeps?
Steven Pressfield: Just Chevrolet trucks. They bought them at a civilian dealership in Cairo.
Steve Kayser: Those are not ordinary guys. I know. I read the posting for the job.
“Only men who do not mind a hard life, with scanty food, little water and lots of discomfort, men who possess stamina and initiative, need apply.”
Steven Pressfield: Ordinary guys in extraordinary circumstances. That posting you refer to was a quote was from the initial British Army Circular, summer 1940, seeking volunteers for what would become the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG).
Steve Kayser: They teamed up with an exceptional unit, the SAS?
Steven Pressfield: Yes. The SAS is the British equivalent of our American Special Forces. SAS stands for Special Air Service. Full of some amazing swashbuckling characters –Paddy Mayne, the most decorated British soldier of WWII, Jock Lewes, George Jellicoe, Sandy Scratchley; Randolph Churchill, son of Prime Minister Winston Churchill and others.
The original conception of the SAS was that they would be a parachute-borne commando outfit. But after one debacle in which men were dropped into a sandstorm and many were lost, the whole concept looked like it would flop horribly. It so happened though that David Stirling (founder of the SAS) was talking with a young LRDG officer who suggested that the SAS forget parachuting (too dangerous) and let the Long Range Desert Group deliver them like a taxi service to their raids. Thus was born a partnership that gave Rommel more headaches than anyone could have imagined.
Steve Kayser: Their mission?
Steven Pressfield: In the darkest hour of the North African war (summer 1942) – when Rommel’s panzers were poised 60 miles from Alexandria and the British in Cairo were burning their code books waiting to be overrun at any moment – the LRDG and the SAS are dispatched on a desperate mission. Their instructions are to use the deep desert routes known only to them, get in the rear of the Afrika Korps and penetrate its formations in the field. From there, they are to locate Rommel and go in after him.
“The peril of the hour moved the British to tremendous exertions, just as always in a moment of extreme danger things can be done which had previously been thought impossible. Mortal danger is an effective antidote for fixed ideas.” - Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
“We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us, and,may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.” – Winston Churchill
Steven Pressfield: Rommel had gained the world’s respect for his military genius. He was a legend.
“There exists a real danger that our friend Rommel is becoming a kind of magical or bogey-man to our troops, who are talking far too much about him. He is by no means a superman, although he is undoubtedly very energetic and able. Even if he were a superman, it would still be highly undesirable that our men should credit him with supernatural powers.” – British General Claude Auchinleck
Steven Pressfield: At the same time, Rommel was reminiscent of the more romantic, chivalrous days of old – and was a genuinely humane military officer. Rommel was Germany’s best General. You have to remember all of Europe was in Nazi hands at the time. The Americans hadn’t entered the war yet. Russia was being attacked by 166 Nazi divisions. Things were grim. And Rommel, the greatest desert fighting general of all time, and his Africa Korps, were kicking the British’s butt, pushing them back to Cairo. It became a case where the war might have been lost right there.
Steve Kayser: Chivalrous in war? Can you give an example?
Steven Pressfield: When Rommel’s panzers overran a British field hospital where the staff had elected not to flee but to stay with their patients (who were German and Italian as well as British and Commonwealth), Rommel visited the site at once, shook the hand of every doctor and nurse and thanked them personally. He asked them to stay on until he could bring up his own Afrika Korps medical personnel (the British readily agreed), then made it a point of honor not to make them prisoners of war but to have them repatriated through neutral Switzerland. Can you imagine something like that happening today?
Steve Kayser: No. Today they’d be sent back without their heads. If they were sent back at all. You mentioned that the battle in North Africa was marked by an astonishing amount of self-restraint among combatants.
Steven Pressfield: Yes. Rommel himself wrote an account of his experiences in North Africa. He titled it Krieg Ohne Hass, “War Without Hate.” Deliberate self-restraint was a fact on the ground in the North Africa campaign of ’40 to ’43. Machine gunners on both sides routinely held their fire when crewmen bailed out of shot-up tanks, stretcher-bearers were permitted to dash into the open to collect the wounded. In dressing stations and field hospitals, it was not uncommon for soldiers of the Axis and Allies to be treated side-by-side – often by German and British doctors working shoulder to shoulder.
Steven Pressfield: More than you know. He was ordered several times by Hitler to “Stand and Die.” To fight to the last bullet, the last man. To execute and torture prisoners. He defied those orders.
Steve Kayser: You tell the story through a young lieutenant who was not a professional soldier. In fact, far from it. He was an average guy in college then … the war came.
Steven Pressfield: Yes. I wanted to examine the actions of ordinary men under extraordinary circumstances. To ask the question if, in the end, their very ordinariness wasn’t what saved them and brought them ultimately to victory.
Steve Kayser: Was there actually a real mission to kill Rommel?
Steven Pressfield: Yes. It was on one of Rommel’s camps called Beda Litoria, which was an Italian town. The Brits thought Rommel was there and they attacked at night with special forces. But he wasn’t there. They killed a bunch of Afrika Korps soldiers, then they were killed themselves. The interesting part was that Rommel had the British soldiers buried with honor, alongside his defenders.
Steve Kayser: To me, Killing Rommel is a story layered with morals, courage and questions. Lots of questions. What question or issue were you trying to shine the most light on?
Steven Pressfield: The issue of morality in warfare. Not just in theoretical terms but from the point-of-view of the individual soldier on the ground. Today, in the era of suicide bombers and global terrorism and the response to terrorism, (which is a moral question equally as important), I wanted to shine a light on another time and a different way of fighting a war. And not a wimpy war, but the most devastating, all-out conflict in the history of humankind.
Is it possible for men to retain their humanity while fighting for the very survival of civilization? What part do ethics, chivalry and self-restraint play in modern armed conflict? Are these some quaint holdovers from a vanished past? Or, can the honorable actions of officers and men actually help produce victory?
Steve Kayser: Could people like General Rommel or General Patton make it today, or even exist – with all the constraints of Western political correctness? Realistically? Take General Patton, for example. Charming, yet mean as a snake. Dyslexic, yet brilliant. His temper and rash acts made people question his intelligence. He could be vicious and violent, yet a gentleman. He was a history buff that seemed to live life outside his own time – almost as if he had lived before. Kind-hearted and callous, he prayed on his knees but cussed like a sailor. He was stone-faced in battle, but cried like a baby for his fallen soldiers. His men called him “Old Blood and Guts.” If you ever read his poem “Through a Glass Darkly,” you will be touched, astounded or shocked at the depth of his vision and intelligence. But could Patton make it today? I say no.
Steven Pressfield: Good question. They were very different – yet very much alike. Noble warriors. But it is men and women of moral strength and character like them that have to surface when you’re facing an implacable foe. Especially when you’re fighting for the very survival of your civilization.
Leaders with Character, Chivalry and Courage – Relics of the Past?
What do you think?
And what about yourself?
Have you faced difficult moments in your life where you chose the tough road, the politically incorrect but right path, and paid the price – by way of money, job, relationships or self-respect? What did you learn?
Would you do anything different?
Let me know.
Please keep answers to 100 words. Email me with the subject line GREAT LEADERS at Skayser@cincom.com.
Best 10 reponses will win a copy of KILLING ROMMEL.
About Steve Pressfield:
Since this is a different kind of story, I decided to to do an Animotorized bio-pictorial “About Steven Pressfield.” Why is it different? Because it is. It’s the world’s first.
Killing Rommel Reviews:
The Full Monty Story Behind the “Killing Rommel” YouTube Videos