Books are best companions during long flights and extended layovers. As I read those lines from this book, I had goosebumps. I rose to attention while sitting. My breathing was rapid! My hands holding the iPad were trembling. My military sense got activated due to my upbringing as an NCC cadet as well as a Commandant of Home guards. If not for the seatbelt sign, I would have stood up. If mere reading about him could change me instantaneously, imagine the impact he may have had on those who were actually in front of him!
I am fond of World war history. I admired the people who fought in those wars. I loved visiting those war memorials. Each time I visited Europe or North Africa, I visited war monuments. North Africa was a major war theatre during WWII. Hitler’s toughest fighting force, Afrika Korps, held it. Hence, the north African campaign was decisive for the allies. Long back I had visited WWII cemetery in Tobruk, Libya. Thousands of soldiers have been buried together there side by side, irrespective of the side they took! Recently, I visited WWII war cemetery at El-Alamein in Egypt with my family and our senior colleague, Dr. Vijayendra. We had proud moments there when we learned that thousands of Indian soldiers fought for allies in WWII. It was also thrilling to see the tents used by legendary American and British field marshals Eisenhower and Montgomery for war planning.
However, this time I was in a different part of North Africa, far from WWII drama. Hence, I took a book instead, which was in my bucket list for a long time. This book was about the Long-Range Desert Group (LRDG) comprising British and New Zealand commandos who fought behind the enemy lines, during the North African campaign (1940 – 1943) of World War II.
The main objective of this specific LRDG was to trace and kill one man who had menaced the allies in North Africa. This man had the rare feat of playing major roles in both the world wars. His leadership of Axis forces in the North African campaign established his reputation as one of the ablest tank commanders of the war, and earned him the nickname der Wüstenfuchs, “the Desert Fox”. He is also known for his noble moral conduct during war, and his phrase “war without hate” has been hailed by even his adversaries. His is none other than Johannes Erwin Eugen Rommel, who commanded the famed 7th Panzer Division during the invasion of France in 1940. That book is “Killing Rommel,” written by one of my most favourite authors, Steven Pressfield. It is his other book, “The war of art’ which woke up the writer in me! Even today it remains in my all-time favourite top 10 list.
The exciting moments in this book happen when the LRDG search team comes face to face with Rommel in strange circumstances. For more than two years they searched for him in the most treacherous desert conditions of North Africa. Amidst the harsh weather. And behind the threatening Africa Korps. At one point, they had to confront the enemy and fight with them. In ensuing battle they succeed and many Afrika Korps’ soldiers get seriouslyinjured. To honour the Geneva Convention, they decide to shift the injured soldiers to the red cross camp which is within the enemy lines! As they do so, they get surrounded by the enemy. That is when, Rommel appears suddenly from nowhere to know about the incident. A man who is heavily guarded, always evading the allies’ search parties, lands there on his own! Eventually, he shows his exemplary war morale, appreciates the LRDG for their good heart, and lets them go unharmed!
Now, what “the Desert Fox” got to do with our learning? Sometime back, one of our senior colleagues asked me for a book to learn some specific surgery. I gave her all the good titles that would help her. She got terrified looking at them! She exclaimed, “who has time for them?” Give me a very small book, through which I can have a quick glance!
Steven Pressfield narrates, when a new LRDG is constituted, they were made to go through volumes of books, articles and references about Rommel before they embarked in search of him to find and kill him. Rommel was such a great tactician and evasive man, it was very important to understand everything about him for counter-tactics. Allied forces thought that was the only way to defeat the Axis and win the North African campaign.
For me any surgery is like fighting a war. Every disease entity is like a “Desert Fox.” How can we win in our quest unless we understand them better? During the early days of my residency at PGIMER, Chandigarh, I asked one of our esteemed senior residents about the best book to read for the examinations. He shot back, “The best book in Otolaryngology is yet to be written. Read all the books.” Yet, some people think, “Theory is only for books. Practicality is different!”
A popular quote says, “Eyes cannot see what the mind does not know.” All practical work requires a solid theoretical or knowledge background. I have observed that, majority of the surgical complications are faced by the people who are not well read and well prepared. Whenever I want to perform a new surgery, I will read every book, refer to relevant journal articles, watch all the surgical videos available and if required, talk to senior colleagues. I have also observed, most great surgeons in our country are well read and well informed. For me, that is the way to surgical mastery. This is my constant suggestion to my students and participants of our training courses. I strongly believe, this principle applies just not to medicines, all subjects. Books can help us grow intellectually, mentally and emotionally. Books can metamorphose people. Period.
My sincerest gratitude to all friends, who enquired about my new motivational blogs, and academic programs. I was busy with my dream research project that took me across the seas. Now it is reaching its logical conclusion, and soon I will be back with our contribution.
Prof. Dr. Prahlada N.B