With the recent unfolding of events in Ukraine I thought it prudent to do some reading – both fiction and nonfiction – on the prospect of war between Russia and the West. ‘Team Yankee’, by Harold Coyle was first published in 1987 against the backdrop of the Cold War. It came highly recommended on numerous reading lists among the profession of arms community. These recommendations promised a fictional yet realistic account of the tactical level of war, an insight into planning, and sound leadership lessons. Sadly, the book failed to deliver on any of these promises.
‘Team Yankee’ is, in every sense, a terrible book. The story is difficult to follow, the plot is unrealistic to the extreme, and the underlying lessons are unhelpful for military professionals. The underdeveloped characters are simply too convenient for the author to provide any real substance for the reader to grapple with. Of greatest concern, however, is that the book provides an unsettling false example for junior officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) to follow.
The book presents an alternative history of the Third World War. Set in 1980s West Germany, NATO and the Soviets engage in a short and bloody armoured-centric conflict. The story is centred on a company-sized armour unit of the United States Army with the callsign ‘Team Yankee’. The premise of the story is an interesting one and, at first, I was looking forward to reading it.
But all enthusiasm was lost after the author introduced the too-cool-for-school company commander and his band of stereotypical soldiers. There was simply no depth, no imagination, and no common-sense in Coyle’s writing. He portrays the chain of command as adversarial, narcissistic, and untrustworthy. Team Yankee is largely left to its own devices to fight the Russians and save the day while neighbouring callsigns and headquarters offer all but meagre contributions to the battle.
The protagonist is, of course, a model officer: the 27-year-old Captain Sean Bannon. Bannon is like a Wish version of Sam Damon from Anton Myrer’s classic novel ‘Once an Eagle’. He is depicted as a tactical mastermind with an unflappable temperament under fire. His steely-eyed approach and impeccable leadership qualities underpin his company’s incredible battlefield success against a helpless and clunky Soviet force. I found myself eye-rolling by the end of chapter two.
After his first firefight, Bannon’s arrogance and ‘Bro-Vet’ attitude starts to solidify. The author tries to present Bannon as a hardened and competent veteran surrounded by lesser men. All I pictured was an entitled, fluky, egotistical wanker. Bannon returns to headquarters after his first contact and berates a group of soldiers who haven’t yet seen combat and are enthusiastic about the prospect of fighting. It was at that moment where I thought to myself “this guy is toxic”. He is a caricature of elitism: spreading the dogma of veteran infallibility.
Captain Bannon then goes on to backchat the battalion staff in front of the commanding officer, and then decides what orders he will and will not follow because, after all, he’s seen combat first-hand. His commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel George Reynolds is portrayed as a likable but comically incompetent and underdeveloped character. His fellow company commanders are hopeless, and anyone else not in Team Yankee clearly doesn't know what they’re doing. Every page is dripping with arrogance and vanity.
Even Sean Bannon’s wife, Pat, is portrayed as some kind of magic spouse-heroine who bravely leads the other helpless soldiers’ wives and children to safety. Her role of spouse-commander-in-chief is cringeworthy. The author attempts to flash between describing the horrors of combat and the challenges associated with life on the ‘home-front’. He fails to do so adequately. Pat’s journey evacuating children and other families out of Germany serves as nothing more than a distraction from the main storyline. It lacks substance and purpose and seems to have been added-in post-script.
Team Yankee, or as they become known ‘Bannon's Boys’ (*spews in mouth*) are committed by the battalion time and time again on the main effort. Through their exceptional individual combat skills and Bannon’s apparently exquisite leadership, Team Yankee overcomes a numerically superior (and one assumes, lobotomised) tank hoard of poorly led Soviets. As the story goes on, and Team Yankee lay waste to countless enemy tanks, the notion that this particular combat team is somehow ‘gifted’ becomes more and more obscene.
The Soviets – poor fellows – are portrayed as a robotic and unthinking enemy throughout the novel. The Russians’ recent performance in Ukraine hasn’t exactly wowed audiences, but we have at least observed some level of baseline competence and tenacity. In the book they are wildly underprepared for battle and not up to the same standards as the heroic Americans. It is clear that Harold Coyle had never heard of Operation Bagration ‘44, let alone paid the slightest attention to Russia’s history and way of war. The author falls into the trap of underestimating the enemy and subliminally coaches the reader into thinking that our training, equipment, and preparation are somehow superior to that of our potential enemy. This is a concerning proposition.
The idea that ‘the man on the ground is always right’ is a dangerous one. The author continually presents a false dichotomy where commanders always seem to be at odds with higher and lower headquarters.
Here’s a tip for junior officers and NCOs – not everyone is against you as a commander. Your subordinates will genuinely try their hardest to do their jobs well. Consider them to be your little brothers and sisters. You need to mentor them and help them grow. Your superiors genuinely want you to succeed. They are your big brothers and sisters, and they are there to help you. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, but remember: we are part of a team. We win or lose together.
I was aghast to learn that this novel was later turned into a comic book – unless I am mistaken and someone was referring to it as a ‘comical book’ – as well as a board game and video game. The story and its terrible lessons belong on the shelves of second-hand bookstores, to be read only by those seeking to escape to a ridiculous fantasy world. Soldiers and officers alike ought to beware of nonsense such as this infecting their minds and establishing false expectations of combat.
Team Yankee provides nothing more than a masterclass of American hubris. It is the antithesis of good soldering and contains poor lessons (masquerading as good ones) at the individual, small team, operational, and even strategic level. The only positive thing I can say about this book is that it contained very few spelling errors, so… five stars on that front.
The belief that ‘we’ are better than ‘them’ was the reason we lost the last war. Changing our attitude towards combat and each other could very well be the difference between winning and losing the next one.