Thursday, May 30, 2013
Book Review: SS Panzer Battalion (Dogs of War #1) by Leo Kessler
"Leo Kessler", aka Charles Whiting, was an extremely prolific author who, according to Wikipedia, wrote 350 books - fiction or otherwise - over the course of his career. Although he clearly had a keen interest in World War Two, I've seen nothing to indicate he was any kind of closet Nazi or Nazi sympathizer, so I don't believe in any way that his SS-centric storyline in the Dogs of War series should be - or could be - taken as Whiting trying to make the SS the "heroes of the story". And within a few chapters of reading SS Panzer Battalion, well before they kick off the invasion of Belgium, it is clear that every main character in the book is pretty much a detestable scumbag. At best, the characters are completely self-serving pricks who'll screw each other over at a moment's notice. At worst, they're fanatical Nazis who worship Hitler as some kind of demigod, leading their country on a path to dominate the world and crush all other, lesser races underfoot.
So the reader is put in the unenviable position of having no one to actually like while reading the book. Yeah, you might get a chuckle when one of the soldiers seduces the wife of his sergeant because the sergeant caused him to botch breaking a marksmanship record, but then you learn he's now given the wife a venereal disease. And once the soldiers get out into the field, the "chuckle factor" quickly goes away. They use civilians as human shields. They shoot unarmed men out of hand. One character, who is secretly Jewish, murders a defenseless Jewish man because the man recognizes him from some temple service (a weird and rather unnecessary plot point). One character gets busted in rank for bedding a lascivious village idiot, then blackmails his superior into getting his old rank back because he discovers the officer is secretly a homosexual (and also a vaguely suggested pedophile, since he seems most interested in "boys", although that might simply refer to young men).
As to the "gritty, realistic depiction of war"? Sure, Whiting's prose is filled with the worst that total war has to offer. An SS assault battalion is no parade of boy scouts, and the horrors of modern war are seen aplenty. People are blown to bits by land mines, incinerated by flamethrowers, torn to pieces by machine gun fire, stabbed by bayonets, hacked by entrenching tools - the list goes on. Soldiers fight dirty, casualties pile high, and there is no room for moral quibbling on the battlefield. On the other hand, I think this sort of novel could have just as easily been written with a cast of Wehrmacht characters performing their patriotic duty sans the thick veneer of rabid Nazism.
So, what was Whiting looking to achieve with this series? That it was popular, there is little doubt. According to this website, the series went on for forty-two novels. That's quite a run, and clearly shows that people were more than willing to keep reading the series. And of course, that at least a portion of the series is now available on Amazon in ebook form only furthers this belief. Was Whiting trying to convey the horror - and diabolical allure - of war by, in some way, forcing us to relate to, and sympathize with, WW2's most villainous combatants? Not a bad way to counterpoint the "War - it's FAN-tastic!" vibe you might get from other books. But again, you can show how terrible and awful war can be without making your main characters completely vile.
Ultimately, I find myself on the fence with this series. I can't condemn Whiting out of hand, because he was clearly writing with a purpose in mind, and that purpose wasn't one of pro-Nazi sentiment. On the flip side, I don't think I can really recommend this series to anyone but the most cast-iron stomached war pulp enthusiasts, because everyone in the books is a heartless Nazi. And when it comes to Nazis, I defer to Doctor Indiana Jones:
"Nazis. I hate these guys."