Fox or Foul?

Chatterbox (“Impeach Saddam“) and “Today’s Papers” columnist Scott Shuger and “Strange Bedfellow” columnist David Plotz were all struck last week that almost no one (aside from the New York Times’ William Safire) took note that the Pentagon had named its Iraqi bombing mission, “Operation Desert Fox,” after a Nazi general. The Pentagon, of course, denies that it did so on purpose, though it seems mathematically impossible that nobody involved in the decision knew that “Desert Fox” was the nickname of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (1891-1944), legendary commander of Hitler’s Afrika Korps. (According to Sunday’s New York Times, Defense secretary William Cohen, who is well acquainted with World War II history, personally approved the name.)

Anyway, it turns out that a remarkable proportion of Slate readers feel that we were being unfair–not to the Pentagon (which, our correspondents seem implicitly to agree, is lying), but to Rommel. Several wrote in to point out that Rommel was not a “Nazi general.” Chatterbox will concede the point that Rommel never joined the Nazi party, but would like to know what you would call a general who commanded German troops during the first half of the 1940s. There’s some evidence that Rommel was initially cool to the Third Reich, but gradually he “began to overcome his doubts and scruples,” according to Theodore Hamerow’s On the Road to the Wolf’s Lair: German Resistance to Hitler. According to Hamerow, Rommel was shocked by the Night of the Long Knives, Hitler’s murderous rampage of June 30, 1934, in which prominent politicians and soldiers suspected of disagreeing with Hitler’s policies were summarily executed. “Now would be the time,” Rommel told a friend, “to get rid of Hitler and his entire gang.” But one year later, Rommel was praising Hitler as the “unifier of the nation.” By 1939 Rommel was commander of the Fuhrer’s bodyguard battalion.

Rommel is mainly admired, of course, for his brilliant generalship in Africa, which won praise even from Winston Churchill. But Chatterbox would like to point out that it was Rommel who ordered four million mines to be laid in Normandy before the Allied invasion. That would make Rommel the man who murdered many of the Americans portrayed in the gruesome opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (and, more to the point, many more real Americans who died on D-Day).

Rommel is also admired for joining in the von Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944, and for his dignified suicide when the plot was uncovered by Hitler. One reader claims that Rommel’s participation in the officers’ revolt resulted from Rommel’s horrified discovery that Hitler was exterminating Jews. But Chatterbox can’t find any evidence that this is true. What really seems to have been on Rommel’s mind was that Hitler was doing a bad job running the war. Also, it must be said that Rommel was a somewhat half-assed conspirator: Fearing that Hitler would become a martyr to the German people, he recommended that the Fuhrer not be killed, but simply be arrested. However, Chatterbox will grant that when the plot failed and Rommel’s involvement became known, the Desert Fox was a class act. Chatterbox can’t resist quoting from his son Manfred’s account in William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich:

“We went into my room. ‘I have just had to tell your mother,’ he began slowly, ‘that I shall be dead in a quarter of an hour … Hitler is charging me with high treason. In view of my services in Africa I am to have the chance of dying by poison. The two generals have brought it with them. It’s fatal in three seconds. If I accept, none of the usual steps will be taken against my family … I’m to be given a state funeral. It’s all been prepared to the last detail. In a quarter of an hour you will receive a call from the hospital in Ulm to say that I’ve had a brain seizure on the way to a conference.”

Still, the question before us isn’t whether Rommel departed this life in a way to make strong men weep. Chatterbox won’t dispute that “Operation Desert Fox” is better than “Operation Heinrich Himmler” or “Operation Hermann Goering” might have been. The real question, which Chatterbox thinks is almost too embarrassingly obvious to raise, is: Why did the Pentagon feel it necessary, or desirable, or even vaguely acceptable, to name a U.S. military operation after any officer in Hitler’s army?

–Timothy Noah