Review: ‘Team America’ plumbs enduring impact of 4 generals
“Team America: Patton, MacArthur, Marshall, Eisenhower, and the World They Forged” by Robert L. O’Connell (Harper)
Insightful and informative, military historian Robert L. O’Connell’s latest book carries a title that might evoke in today’s readers a group of superheroes bent on saving the free world — in this case four Army generals transforming the United States into a global peacekeeper.
O’Connell prefers to cast them as a military “murderers’ row,” a 1920s baseball analogy for formidable talent that his subjects would undoubtedly have appreciated. But these four men — George S. Patton, Douglas MacArthur, George C. Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower — had powers far beyond mere bat-wielding mortals in Yankee pinstripes.
There was Patton’s battlefield audaciousness, MacArthur’s ego and luck, Marshall’s organizational genius, and Eisenhower’s persuasive personality — even back then everybody liked Ike. They also shared the ability to think strategically, not to mention the traits of diligence, intelligence and ambition, all while the world teetered under the threat of totalitarianism.
America at the turn of the 20th century sets the quartet’s origin stories. Eisenhower was a Kansas boy of modest means who saw the U.S. Military Academy as “free college.” Patton was a rich kid who started at the Virginia Military Institute, then landed a coveted spot at West Point. Marshall graduated from VMI, then personally lobbied President William McKinley for a commission. The biggest challenge faced MacArthur: living up to the reputation of his father, a Civil War hero. Amazingly, he exceeded every expectation in grand style, growing from momma’s boy to golden boy.
Most interesting is how their paths converged as they slipped into the orbits of the leaders of their formative period. For example, the commander of American forces during World War I, Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, was at different points the mentor to Marshall, the suitor to Patton’s sister, and later a rival for MacArthur’s first wife.
The Great War was a launching pad for America’s prominence and O’Connell’s subjects. While the youngest, Eisenhower, was left stateside training fresh recruits, Marshall distinguished himself “over there” with his talent for logistics. Nearly killed in battle, Patton realized tanks would replace cavalry. The foursome’s standout of the Western Front was MacArthur, winner of seven Silver Stars.
O’Connell details the incessant networking necessary to advance in a demobilizing Army, and the ruminating of lessons learned from the first truly “industrial war.” As weapons became more lethal and delivery systems expanded by land, sea and air, the meat grinder in the trenches morphed into a war of movement by the late 1930s. O’Connell shows how Team America came to understand the implications of “total war” as participants in World War I, prophets during peacetime, then the top practitioners in World War II.
The climax of “Team America” cannot help but be the action-packed, oft-told tales of that leadership — in the councils of state and the terrors of battle — and the significance of each general’s impact. However, their phenomenal exertions, skill and teamwork with the Allies were eventually dwarfed by technology’s march to a bomb so destructive that it ended one world war and rendered future global conflicts unthinkable.
Less exciting but more intriguing is the postwar era for O’Connell’s team. His subjects came to embody the contradictions that litter history. Patton, nearly deranged by his addiction to battle, mercifully died after a traffic accident in occupied Germany. Marshall, who shepherded the Manhattan Project, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his plan that rebuilt Europe. MacArthur, the unquestioned ruler of occupied Japan, delivered democracy to his defeated foes. Eisenhower became the two-term president who cautioned America of the “military-industrial complex” he helped to create.
“Team America” combines compelling biographies of our heroes as they reach the heights of military, then civilian, leadership during five pivotal decades. O’Connell also explains why industrial warfare grew into a juggernaut, and how they managed to control it to achieve an uncertain peace that still holds.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Anne Bancroft: A Life” (University Press of Kentucky).