Thursday, July 5, 2018

Combat General

A year or two ago, I wrote about a couple of World War II-set short stories I read as a kid and had finally tracked down as an adult. The author of these stories is William Chamberlain, a retired brigadier general who really knew his stuff.

I've since learned that Chamberlain was quite a prolific writer of fiction, both before and after his retirement from the military. In fact, I've just acquired a Western he wrote in the 1950s that I expect to eventually be reviewing on this blog.

But today, we'll stick to his World War II stories. Chamberlain's protagonists were nearly always officers, with his tales stressing the qualities that make a good combat leader. In 1963, he wrote a novel titled Combat General that continued on with the same themes.

Miles Boone is a "Pentagon general"--an officer who has been parked at a desk in Washington for the first three years of the U.S. involvement in the war. He's a highly trained officer and well-qualified on paper to command an armored unit, but he's too valuable on the home front to spare for a combat command.

Well, in December of 1944, he finally gets his chance. He's given command of an armored brigade stationed near the Argonne Forest in Belgium. It's a quiet sector, though. The higher-ups in the Allied Command consider it a good place to give the unit a rest after its seen hard combat.

Of course, if you are reading a World War II novel, you probably know the history of the war well enough to know that hundreds of German tanks and thousands of troops are soon going to be rolling out of the Forest to begin the Battle of the Bulge.

Even before this happens, Boone has looked at the maps and guessed that trouble might be coming. To get ready for that trouble, he has to lock horns with a commanding officer who doesn't like or trust him, a staff in his own unit who don't like him or trust him and an executive officer who doesn't like him or trust him.

Boone, though, could care less if anyone likes him. If they are subordinate to him, then they will, by golly, obey him. When the fighting starts and Boone's brigade is tasked with defending a key village against overwhelming odds, his men begin to realize that following his orders might be the only thing that gets them through the battle alive.

The novel is good from start to finish (though a rushed falling-in-love sequence with an expatriate American woman could have been easily dropped). There is one particular scene that stands out when Boone's second-in-command takes a dangerous chance, risking half the available tanks to surprise and destroy a regiment of German Tiger Tanks.

Ha! That'll show Boone! That'll show him what a real soldier can do!

Boone is less than impressed, though. In fact, he responds to this apparent victory by dressing down the exec, because the German losses weren't enough to change the overall odds against the Americans and it was only dumb luck that saved a big chunk of their own armor from being lost. It's a key character moment, defining Boone as a man who knows what he's doing and expects those he commands to act show good sense. Senseless heroics mean nothing if the battle is lost because of them.

Combat General was written for what we would today call the Young Adult audience. So no one swears and the descriptions of violence are not graphic. But the battle scenes are exciting, the examination of the qualities of leadership is insightful and the cost of war is effectively explored. It's well worth reading by adults as well as its target audience.

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