At 938 pages in its new edition, Once an Eagle, a 1968 novel by Anton Myrer, is excessively long, but that is its greatest weakness. It is a best seller of mid-Sixties vintage, hence a better buy than the tone-deaf, subliterate contemporary product, and a rather superior example of its type. It is also a war novel by a World War II veteran that was published during the Vietnam War and continues to have intensely admiring readers.
A wounded veteran of the dreadful Pacific theater who plainly needed to write about his experiences, Myrer, who died in 1996, was an excellent storyteller and a sound writer who could summon spirits and often make them come to him. His descriptions of combat are first rate. His original editors should have persuaded him to cut—not the gripping and evocative battle scenes but some of the attendant wartime romance. Still, today, the casual reader, encountering the novel in its current reincarnation, might well wonder what a pretty good book from a previous generation is doing back among the living.
There is a reason: Once an Eagle is a sort of cult novel. Among certain readers the book never quite disappeared. That readership was the officer corps of the United States Army and Marine Corps. So popular and enduring was it among American officers that in 1997 the Army War College Foundation published an edition with a foreword by General John W. Vessey Jr., US Army (Ret.).
“It has been over thirty years,” General Vessey wrote,
since Anton Myrer, a former Marine enlisted man, began the exhaustive and painstaking research that produced this classic novel of soldiers and soldiering. Once an Eagle ranks with Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front as time tested epics of war and warriors. The spirit, the heart and, yes, the soul of the officer corps is captured, as are the intangible ambiance and nuances that make up the life of the American soldier and his family. It is for these reasons and more that the Army War College Foundation has undertaken to republish Anton Myrer’s masterpiece.
General Charles C. Krulak, the commandant of the US Marine Corps, has written: “Once an Eagle has more to teach about leadership—whether it is in the boardroom or on the battlefield—than a score of modern-day management texts. It is a primer that lays out, through the lives of its two main characters, lessons on how and how not to lead.”
The commandant of the US Army War College has written:
Once an Eagle has been the literary moral compass for me and my family of soldiers for more than two generations. Its ethical message is as fresh and relevant today as it was when Anton Myrer wrote it during the war in Vietnam.
Today Once an Eagle is issued to every officer of the United States Marine Corps. It is required reading for the cadets at West Point and at other service academies. The American military has paid Myrer the highest conceivable compliment—its senior officers have recommended his work as representative of their own inner lives. Since the United States military establishment, its nature, its doctrines, and its uses for the state are extremely important issues for Americans, it is certainly worth examining a book for which its leaders had such intense feeling. The more so since Once an Eagle is that very rare thing, a genuine ideological novel. When one of these becomes standard issue to the Corps of Cadets we would be remiss if we ignored it.
Once an Eagle is full of judgments about America, its society, its history and people. Today, with the draft at an end, and the cold war over, we pay little attention to those who take up arms on our behalf. Once upon a time they were our heroes, our guardians, literally our sons and brothers. In Saving Private Ryan they made a comeback, but in the year 2000 they’re more often represented in popular culture by figures like Colonel Fitts, USMC, the loathsome villain of the film American Beauty, a particularly depraved character. Loathsomeness and depravity, the film suggests, are occupational characteristics of life in the Marine Corps. With his fidgets, his brutality, Nazi-mindedness, and terminally traumatized wife, Fitts is not meant to be taken as unrepresentative. The obsessive, lovingly hateful evocation of his character has some of the qualities of ethnic repulsion. Without any specific ethnic references being made, Fitts in the movie is made to shine and stink with all the intensity of a racial defamation; the USMC on his name is a brand, the mark of Cain. His character even suggests the ethnically and ideologically warped villains of old Hollywood, from the blackface blacks of Birth of a Nation, through the unctuously evil embodiments of the Yellow Peril to the later Japs and Krauts and Commies. In fact Hollywood, whose own artifices once helped create popular adulation of American servicemen, and is still making money out of films like Private Ryan, now also turns regularly to the military for stock villains; the vicious officer type has become shtick.
The movie business is supposed to be about giving the public what it wants; we seem to always require some identifiable segment of the population to despise, a group distinguished by its alien dress and attitudes. With all other institutions discredited without regard to their utility, along with a strenuous policing of unbrotherly diction, the armed services now apparently fit the bill. But while we have been watching the soldiers with amused contempt and incomprehension, the soldiers, not nearly as clueless as they are often portrayed, have been watching back. Anyone with any interest in what is thought and said at West Point and Annapolis, not to mention in the Pentagon, would do well to have a look at Once an Eagle.
When it was first published, Once an Eagle was remarked on for presenting its readers with a hero, a figure hard to come by in the late Sixties. Samuel Damon, a small-town Nebraska boy when we first meet him, is certainly that. In fact, in Sam Damon, Myrer goes a way toward creating a distant cousin of the Stakhanovite Soviet ideal of the Social-Realist school. Presented with a problem, Sam starts solving it. He is brave and humane, valorous in short. Unlike most of the leading characters of the Soviet Boy-Loves-Tractor novels he is also almost believable. His character is supple and complex, and if he is finally too good to be true, the difficulties of representing goodness in a novel are notorious. Of all the difficulties a writer faces in creating a credible world for his readers, the highest human qualities remain the most resistant to portrayal. They are often the subject of Myrer’s vaultingly ambitious novel. From start to finish, Once an Eagle remains a didactic work.
Lacking connections in the slightly shady political world of his home state, the hero, Sam, who has foreseen an American war in Europe, joins the army as a private in 1916. He’s immediately dispatched to the Mexican border where he takes part in a brief skirmish with Pancho Villa’s men. Eventually he finds himself in France, where after an action at Brigny-le-Thiep, he receives a battlefield commission.
At loose ends and recovering from his wounds on the Côte d’Azur, he meets, all too cutely, Tommy Caldwell, who’s the daughter of the officer who gave him promotion, then credibly woos and wins her. The war over, Sam faces the dilemma of whether or not to remain in the service. His fellow officers are eager to get home and participate in what everyone feels will be an era of vast prosperity. One of them offers Sam a Wall Street job but he turns it down. The army, he has realized, is his vocation, an almost priestly calling. Tommy decides to marry him, although as an army brat she knows too well the kind of life that awaits them in the despised peacetime service, a life of petty politics in grim officers’ housing beside dusty parade grounds.
Tommy Damon, like all the female characters in Once an Eagle, is described sympathetically, and she emerges as a woman of some complexity. The Damons’ marriage—along with the marriages of some contemporaries—is one of the book’s principal stories. Tommy, who has no illusions about the service, keeps wondering, as they endure the agonizing social life and backbiting of each godforsaken post, whether Sam should have taken that job on Wall Street. Sam does too. The issue is settled when the couple spend a leave visiting Tommy’s relatives on Lake Erie.
Tommy’s uncle, Ed Downing, runs a successful manufacturing company and he’s profiting from the good times of the Twenties. On a whim he offers Sam the chance to prove how well he’d fare in the business world. There’s a problem in his shipping yard; Sam takes one look at the civilian Schlamperei and goldbricking and sees the source. A lazy loudmouth bully of a strawboss has imposed a system that suits himself, though it is causing the company to miss its shipping dates and lose customers. Sam, a natural leader and a problem solver, faces down the obstreperous foreman, inspires the workers, and gets the shipping rolling again. The success is enough to persuade Downing to offer Sam an executive position on the spot. But Sam is unimpressed with what he has seen of the business world. After a few conversations with civilians, who, as usual, patronize him, Sam sees something wrong; he realizes that in their hurry to rake in speculative profits, these businessmen are paying no attention to the basic realities of manufacturing. He concludes that this sorry money-grubbing is not for him:
…He was afraid of this world. He feared it; not as an arena where he could not prove himself—he had dispelled that qualm effectively enough—but as a good seaman must fear a recklessly piloted ship. It was too ungoverned, too avaricious, too headlong: in a world where such dizzying profits could be piled one upon another so heedlessly…he did not want to enlist his services. It was—it was demeaning; his love of the tangible, of concrete and demonstrable values and materials, was assaulted….
Sam is presented as notably prescient but he’s doing more in that interior monologue than predicting the Depression. His distaste for capitalist speculation and its evils persists throughout the book.
“Honey, I couldn’t do that,” says Sam when Tommy speaks her mind and tries to persuade him to consider Wall Street again. “Sitting in an office with a lot of telephones, talking about stocks and bonds—that’s no kind of life for a man. Hell, they aren’t even real—they’re just a lot of gilt-edges paper; they don’t even stand for anything—“
Later, after Pearl Harbor, Sam rails against the business interests who, for profit, sold America’s enemies the weapons to attack it. The bombs falling on Honolulu, he tells one executive in a rare outburst, are “a return on your investment.”