A life made large by war

Dwight Eisenhower saved the Allies – and himself – from oblivion

It took World War II to rescue the careers of both Dwight 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 was languishing in career doldrums before World War II. Having missed World War I, he was known more as a football coach than an experienced battlefield commander. Sitting at the rank of lieutenant colonel at the age of 50, Eisenhower's 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 Pearl Harbor, 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 biography 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 today the name Eisenhower 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. And 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 theater was occasionally shaky before the Americans gained traction against Rommel's Afrika Korps.

Nor did he earn high grades for a few of the decisions he made in the European theater 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, 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 Marshall, one of Ike's mentors and career guardians, in Washington, 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 a master manipulator than Churchill, something the British leader learned firsthand.

An optimist beyond measure, his diplomatic nature turned out to be the force that bound together two very different military organizations with competing philosophies to prosecute the war against Adolf 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 Gen. 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 explores Eisenhower's often difficult marriage with Mamie, his remoteness from his son John – prompted in part by the death of the couple's first child, and his 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 chauffeur, Kay Summersby, was merely gossip, though he is not entirely convincing on this point.

D'Este's account is a sprawling effort that required a heroic amount of research, as evidenced by the extensive footnotes, but "Eisenhower: A Soldier's Life" is not a pedantic exercise in biography. Almost playing the role of a journalist on the ground, D'Este shows 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 the general 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 roles, Eisenhower the man has always been a bit of a mystery. Behind the trademark grin and 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 World War II, Eisenhower would have remained an obscure staff officer. 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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