Fiction as battle scenario. War tale depicts US-USSR combat

Team Yankee, by H.W. Coyle. Novato, Calif.: The Presidio Press. 340 pp. $14.95. THIS taut and compelling novel about a possible world war arrives from the small Presidio Press with impeccable credentials. Blurbs on the cover come from, among others, Tom Clancy (``Red Storm Rising''), the biggest selling new war novelist. Others quoted include Charles MacDonald, who wrote ``Company Commander,'' a classic account of men in battle in World War II; and Gen. Sir John Hackett, whose famous book, ``The Third World War,'' is the grim scenario of what may lie ahead.

Like the MacDonald book, ``Team Yankee'' is written with the tunnel vision of the commander of a combat unit. The officer is Sean Bannon, a 27-year-old professional soldier. His team consists at the start of 84 men, tank-borne and armed with a mix of modern high-tech weaponry and old tried-and-true equipment.

A confrontation between the United States and the USSR in the Persian Gulf causes the superpowers to stumble into evitable, then inevitable war. At first neither side resorts to nuclear weapons, as ground forces move warily toward each other across the German plain.

In both basic and advanced training, Bannon has rehearsed the drill a hundred times. A typically dramatic moment comes when he and his battalion commander, conferring in the shelter of a tree line along a small valley, realize that it is now for real:

``The Colonel was about to reply when the earsplitting screech of two fast-moving jets flying at treetop level cut him off. The two officers turned in the direction of the noise just in time to see two more jets come screaming into the valley from the east, drop down lower, and fly up the small valley on the right of the Team's positions. Bannon didn't recognize the aircraft type, aircraft recognition wasn't one of his strong points. But it wasn't necessary to identify the exact type. A glimpse of the red star on the fuselage told him everything that he needed to know about the two jets. The waiting was over. The balloon had gone up. Team Yankee was at war.''

After what seems an endless period, the Russian tanks appear across the small valley and Team Yankee moves out from the tree line to intercept them. In the short space of four minutes - and by the narrowest of margins - the Soviet attack is blunted and ``over twenty armored vehicles lay strewn in the valley, dismembered, twisted, burning hulks.''

The team is given a new mission, the capture and holding of Hill 214 in the face of a stepped-up enemy attack. A distraught colonel orders Bannon to move forward despite the disappearance of his infantry support platoon. With visions of Pickett's Charge and that of the Light Brigade, he does so with all deliberate speed....

The span of the action is the first 14 days of the holocaust. From time to time H.H. Coyle's camera swings to Bannon's wife and three children in stunned evacuation, along with many other terrified dependents. We also catch occasional glimpses of Soviet officers and men, more rigid in their training, less adaptable in combat, but of unquestioned, almost suicidal bravery. But mostly stage center are Sean Bannon and his men and how they are molded by battle.

Uleski, Avery, Pierson, Folk, Ortelli, Gwent, Polgar, Garger, and the rest are America in microcosm. How they draw on their varied backgrounds in the face of fear and frustration, long waiting, and swift, sudden action is the heart of the driving narrative.

Major Coyle is an officer on active duty in the US Army, with tours of duty in Korea and Germany in his record. His story is full of technical terms, made understandable by a useful glossary. What he gives us is a shooting script of the way it could very well be, if by inadvertence or some vast folly we drift into another war. And the message is driven home most tellingly: Americans are still a brave and resourceful people. But the price is too great. It must never happen here.

Burke Wilkinson, biographer of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, served for four years as senior public affairs adviser to the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe.

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