Eisenhower: A Soldier's Life

by Carlo D'Este

Published by Henry Holt

848 pages, 2002

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What Was Ike Like?

Reviewed by Adrian Marks


Quite suddenly, it seems, history is sexy. Books on the topic have never spent so much time on the bestseller lists. Are we, as a culture, looking collectively over our shoulders for answers to questions we hadn't thought of a decade or even a year ago? Does a newly literate culture demand that we be able to share tidbits of our sophistication at parties? ("Pass me a beer, will ya Bubba? And, by the way, did you know that in 18th century Europe, doctors were prescribing coffee to cure smallpox and sore throats?") Or has the outbreak of reality television shows made us realize that the entertainment powers that be are truly scraping the bottom of the barrel and, if we want real entertainment, we'll have to look back in time, 'cause Hollywood ain't gonna help?

Whatever the case, books concerning themselves with history have never commanded so much space in bookstores. Could anyone have anticipated the impact of 2001's John Adams by David McCullough? After week upon dreary week on the bestseller lists stretched into month upon month, the runaway bestseller is still imprinting coffee tables everywhere with its gargantuan weight. The inevitable result of the huge sales of this weighty (in all ways) tome? More big, fat books about dead guys. And more and more and more.

The book most likely to make the lists in this category this season is Eisenhower: A Soldier's Life by Carlo D'Este, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel noted for his ability as a military historian. D'Este knows this turf, intimately: he is the author of Patton: A Genius for War as well as other WWII-related works.

History has tended to paint Dwight David Eisenhower in strong, fast strokes. The stony face seems always resolute in photographs and the picture that is painted is of a man who doesn't hesitate to make decisions. As D'Este writes in Eisenhower, "Ike was not a sentimental man, nor was he known for public displays of emotion."

Though Eisenhower is 848 pages long and begins with a rich sketch of the Eisenhower family and includes an engaging section dealing with Eisenhower's stint as a young man at West Point, the book concerns itself more with Ike the Soldier than Ike the man, though, as D'Este points out, the two can be difficult to separate.

Many have been misled by Eisenhower's easygoing manner and charming smile, a disarming facade behind which lay a ruthless, ambitious officer who thirsted to advance his chosen career by answering the call to war, which eventually led him to the pinnacle of his profession as a Soldier.

D'Este's account fleshes out all of the hard facts we've known about Eisenhower's war years with the sort of details that bring him to the reader as a living, breathing human. The author informs us not only of Eisenhower's military genius and his political prowess, but of the sort of personal details that render Ike the man. D'Este, for instance, tells us about Eisenhower's relationship with Telek, the Scottish terrier that accompanied him through the Second World War. "You can't talk war to a dog," Eisenhower is reported to have said when explaining his desire for a canine companion, "and I'd like to have someone or something to talk to, occasionally, that doesn't know what the word means! A dog is my only hope."

While D'Este manages to imbue his incredibly well-researched book with a huge amount of life and even light, make no mistakes: this is as serious a volume as any textbook as evidenced by the nearly 150 pages of notes, footnotes, bibliography and index. It's a rich and voluminous work, one that will likely stand the test of time: a fitting tribute and remembrance to a true American hero. | June 2002


Adrian Marks is an author and journalist.