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Eisenhower: A Soldier's Life
By Carlo D'Este
Henry Holt & Company
824 pgs. $35.00
ISBN: 0-8050-5686-6

A charmed life

By Steven Martinovich
web posted July 8, 2002

Eisenhower: A Soldier's LifeIt took the Second World War to rescue the careers of both Dwight D. Eisenhower and Winston Churchill, two of the most famous personalities of that conflict. Like Churchill, who had desired the ultimate prize of leadership but could never quite reach it, Eisenhower's career before the war was languishing. Sitting at the rank of lieutenant colonel at the age of 50, Eisenhower's military career, it seemed, would be a solid but uneventful journey.

The outbreak of war changed all of that. Less than three and a half years after America's entry into the war, Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe and held the rank of five star general. Carlo D'Este's remarkable and compelling Eisenhower: A Soldier's Life eschews a look at the entire life of the man and instead focuses on his early life and the resulting military career it spawned.

Although the word Eisenhower today is synonymous with military expertise, the picture that D'Este paints is less than flattering at some points. Although he was trained to and longed for the day he could command troops, much of Eisenhower's career was spent as a desk officer. It showed when he was given command of forces in North Africa early in America's participation in the war. Faced with British officers who denigrated the fighting prowess of American soldiers, rightly early on, Eisenhower's performance in the Mediterranean theatre was occasionally shaky before the Americans gained traction against Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps.

Nor did he earn high grades for a few of the decisions he made in the European theatre after being picked to head the allied war effort by FDR. From his propensity to keep favored and occasionally incompetent men in positions of responsibility around him, his inability to curb the infighting between the British and American officers serving under him and his sometimes maddening bouts of indecision, D'Este shows a man who seemed, though never was, sometimes was more interested in compromise than ruthless determination to win the war. Although the president was confident in his abilities, it was fortunate for Eisenhower that FDR preferred to keep George C. Marshall -- one of Ike's mentors and career guardians -- in Washington, D.C. rather than send him to Europe.

Yet despite that sometimes unflattering portrait, D'Este also shows that Eisenhower was a man of calm determination and a quiet and vast intelligence. A superb poker player, Eisenhower was no less of a master manipulator than Churchill, something the British leader learned first hand. An optimist beyond measure, his diplomatic nature also turned out to be the force that bound two very different military organizations with competing philosophies together to prosecute the war against Adolph Hitler. Although known for his genial personality, it masked an unsentimental man full of ambition to make his mark on the world. It helped, as General Omar Bradley once said of him, that Eisenhower led an "extraordinarily charmed life."

Fortunately, Eisenhower: A Soldier's Life's goes beyond simply covering the man's military career. D'Este also takes the time to explore Eisenhower's often difficult marriage with Mamie, his remoteness from his son John - prompted in part due to the death of the couple's first child, and sometimes combative relationships with his brothers. D'Este even attempts to make the case that the long rumored intimate relationship between Eisenhower and his wartime female British chauffeur Kay Summersby was merely gossip, though he hardly proves that there was no inappropriate behavior between the two.

D'Este's account of Eisenhower's life is a sprawling effort that required a heroic amount of research, as evidenced by the extensive footnotes he provided. Despite that, Eisenhower: A Soldier's Life is not a pedantic exercise in biography. Almost playing the role of a journalist on the spot, D'Este adopts the approach of showing and not telling the reader about the man behind the image. Where many military biographies are reworded after action reports, D'Este's only becomes more gripping as he chronicles the rising stakes Eisenhower faces right up until the final battle of the war.

Eisenhower has long been painted in broad strokes by historians, both in his capacity as soldier and president. Although he's equally known for both role, Eisenhower the man has always been a bit of a mystery to many. Behind the grin and trademark optimism was a fiercely proud man who believed it was nothing less than his duty and destiny to defeat Nazi Germany, despite the personal cost to him. Equally clear though, D'Este shows that were it not for the Second World War, Eisenhower would have remained an obscure staff officer and unknown to the world. It's remarkable to think that one of the most famed generals in history could have spent the rest of his military career shuffling papers in the United States were it not for a former Austrian lance corporal named Hitler.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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