This review is a response to Chris Johnson's review of Team Yankee. We recommend reading Chris' review before this article.

Harold Coyle’s debut novel Team Yankee attempted to portray a combat team commander’s experience of war between superpowers in the late 1980s. Coyle served as a US Army major and became a successful author and co-author of several works of military fiction. Team Yankee went on to be syndicated into a graphic novel, a comic book series, two PC games, and a boardgame.

A well-considered Cove book review by Chris Johnson delivered a scathing attack on the novel’s value as military professional literature. Few military professionals would claim that Team Yankee is great literature. However, judgement of its professional value should be made through a contemporaneous lens. As a popular Cold-War novel, there remains professional lessons in the book’s success.

Team Yankee rode a wave of techno-thriller war novels popular in a time before the internet. Their accurate descriptions of weapons and tactics fed a thirst for knowledge not easily obtained. The technology behind weapons like the new M1 Abrams tank was attracting controversy. The USA’s Air-Land Battle doctrine was driving new approaches to combined arms warfare. Popular authors such as Tom Clancy brought well researched information on these things to the masses. Harold Coyle’s book brought personal experience.

Coyle was not yet a professional author and a lack of plot detail and complex character development made Team Yankee feel like a graphic novel. However, criticism of the lack of plot should acknowledge that Team Yankee takes place inside the fictional war of General Sir John Hackett’s 1982 best-seller, The Third World War.

General Hackett was an Australian-born British Army officer and ex-commander of NATO’s Northern Army Group. His book controversially detailed how a 1985 Soviet invasion of Europe might look at the strategic and operational level. Coyle quite faithfully embedded his characters in this conflict, thereby outsourcing much of the plot to Hackett’s work. The best professional lessons came from reading Hackett’s book first.

In Hackett’s scenario, NATO’s Northern Army Group take the brunt of the Soviet offensive. The US led Centre Army Group, in which Team Yankee resides, defends a less contested flank. A point acknowledged by Coyle’s protagonist that should relieve him of at least some of the accusations of American hubris. The book Chieftains by Bob Forrest-Web subsequently described a British tank commander’s perspective of Hackett’s war in the beleaguered Northern Army Group.

Team Yankee initially encounters Russian first echelon troops. Then, as Hackett’s scenario directs the best Soviet forces north, they meet increasingly less sophisticated Warsaw Pact forces. Team Yankee are eventually engaging companies of Polish T55s. These tales of engagements with obsolete armour would become all too familiar during the tank battles of the first Gulf War.

Hackett’s book underscores the information vacuum that Coyle’s tactical commanders operate in. Single-frequency radios that are frequently jammed or out of range are too often their only link to the outside world. There is no Battle Management System or Twitter feed to bring the stories that the readers of Hackett’s book know are unfolding elsewhere. Frustration grows as the team is thrown into one action after another, almost without reason. The reasons exist in Hackett’s book, but the combat team are often blind to it.

The Soviet enemy in Team Yankee is not the Russian Army of today. Soviet tactics in Coyle’s book are rigid and drills-based, just like the training doctrine of the time. Bad situational awareness is exacerbated by the Soviet’s technology gap, with no time for battlefield adaption in such a short conflict. Night vision technology is critical in defeating the Soviet first echelon and a scarcity of communications equipment among follow-on echelons produces predictable results.

Coyle’s real-life experience comes to the fore in his portrayal of Clausewitzian friction. The combat team commander loses communications and throws a track at the worst possible moment, leaving his team to charge off out of control to their first battle. A battlegroup preliminary night move in this pre-GPS world sees forces dislocated and arriving hours late to their objectives. Failing communications causes the battlegroup S3 (operations officer) to issue orders which the commanding officer (CO) arrives to countermand. Coyle highlights the increasing risk of reliance on a vulnerable electronic domain, even before the advent of network-centric warfare.

Despite the shallow character development, the book’s caricatures are familiar to many. Some of the commanders and staff are less competent than others and this too creates friction. Whether the military reader feels this is overblown will depend on their personal experience. Overall the lesson is relevant; the ‘dumb mistakes’ that happen in training will also happen in war.

Coyle is unapologetically pro-armour – arguably justifiable at the time. The mass of Soviet armour was unparalleled and only NATO’s best technology, training and tactics could hope to delay them. The new M1 Abrams tank had put the US Army a clear generation ahead of Soviet tank design. However, US infantry battalions still fielded obsolete M113 Armoured Personnel Carriers while Soviets were being equipped with the new BMP Infantry Fighting Vehicles. This would be mostly rectified within the decade but it remained a stark vulnerability in 1987.

Thus combat team Yankee are continually in the vanguard. The M113s of the all-infantry combat teams are little more than speed bumps for even the most primitive Soviet armoured assault. Coyle is complimentary of the infantry soldier but scathing of the unsuitability of the M113. Perhaps some of Coyle’s points still need driving home. Eventually what remains of the infantry task force is sidelined. Equipment disparity and capability mismatch remain enduring themes, as relevant now as ever.

Coyle’s protagonist becomes a highly successful team commander. There is a sense that Coyle has self-centred as the hero of the story, but there is almost enough personal failings and admissions of luck from the team commander to get away with it. Knowing the war’s outcome from Hackett, you get the feeling that the run of good luck is part of the narrative. It is 1987 and the West is on the verge of a war that they need to be lucky to win.

Hackett’s book gave politicians and strategists a framework to understand the role of conventional forces in a 1980s East-West conflict. Team Yankee provided this framework for company and platoon level soldiers, albeit not in an infantry-friendly way. The book described a world which soldiers understood; equipment they were familiar with and technology and tactics which were emerging.

Team Yankee is a poor primer for understanding modern warfare. However, 35 years ago it provided a revealing insight into a looming way of war, all in a readily digestible format. It described how combined arms technology teamed and delivered battlefield effects that were modern at the time. It helped soldiers and junior leaders position themselves in a modern war scenario, and not all its lessons are lost to time.

The West needs the next Team Yankee. Maybe for a retired general to paint an open-source picture of whatever looming great power conflict looks like at the strategic and operational level. Then within that, a tactical commander to describe how the daily life of soldiers and junior leaders will unfold in that war. How will soldiers close with the enemy? Where will their situational awareness come from? What will joint effects look like? Which systems will fail and why? A novel may no longer be the best medium to describe future conflict. However, to achieve the success of the original, it must come from an authentic voice.