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.”
The showdown in his uncle’s shipping yard might be given a sinister construction, as though Myrer were suggesting that the military does things better and might have a right to intervene in the direction of the country’s fortunes. This is not the point. To Sam, human character is what matters. He sees the world as requiring individual and collective moral responsibility; for this reason he will always prefer the downrightness of army life to the contemptible world of fast money. In the army, he believes, apple-polishing and conniving, cruelty and cowardice are visible and can be dealt with head-on. The brutality and wickedness of the money interest engaged in speculation are the work of an invisible hand and leave scant evidence behind. Again however, Myrer makes no suggestion that the army or anyone else should act to change the system. In scene after scene he wants to show the ways in which shortsighted America wrongs its soldiers; but the point, paradoxically, is always to celebrate and insist on civilian control by dramatizing its contradictions. Orders are orders, and Myrer’s characters like to set Tennyson’s famous line to different rhymes:
Ours not to reason why…
Ours but to dry an eye. Or moan and sigh. And so on. The commitment of the military to civilian leadership, to the service of the system and the society it creates, is absolute. Which doesn’t mean its soldiers have to love civilian America; and if they do, they shouldn’t expect civilian America to love them back.
The ideology of civilian control is one of the didactic elements in Once an Eagle. There is another, and the statement of it begins during World War I when Sam, having just survived a bloody attack in no man’s land, encounters the immaculately uniformed Captain Courtney Schuyler Massengale. Massengale looks and behaves consistently with his fancy name; he is made to play the familiar scene in which a spiffy staff officer berates troops fresh from slaughter on their inelegant appearance. But Massengale is much more than an an overdressed regulation prig. Meeting him at one of her husband’s postings, Tommy Damon is at once charmed and repelled. She senses Massengale’s intense ambition and feels a premonition that Sam and Massengale will meet again. In fact, the contrast, and finally the spectacular struggle between the two men, become the ideological center of Once an Eagle.
Assigned together to the Philippines, Massengale and Sam Damon begin a friendship of sorts. The affected and pedantic Massengale, a military politician par excellence, forever tries to dazzle both of the Damons with his erudition. He has Napoleonic aspirations and a fondness for classical references, and he sometimes makes himself a shade more ridiculous than his author probably intended. During a social evening at Fort Garfield, Massengale and Sam discuss the Punic Wars.
“The irrefutable triumph of strategy, of command disciplines!” Courtney Schuyler Massengale says.
“Look at Hannibal’s brilliant victories—he won them with mercenaries: Goths, Asturians, Nubians—elephants, for God’s sake. After Cannae every single family in Rome went into mourning. Every single family! Did you know that?”
“But Rome won the war,” Damon said quietly.
Thus squelched, Captain Massengale reflects sullenly on the subject of Damon:
It was this curious stubbornness that was intriguing. He could run rings around the Nebraskan, marshal a perfect wilderness of facts …but always there was this strange little point of resistance he couldn’t quite overpower, like a rock in the middle of a riptide….
This somewhat obvious exchange follows a conversation in which Massengale accuses Damon, a “mustang, a former enlisted man who goes to bat for his troops,” of being “a traitor to his class.”
“My class?” inquires Damon. His class is the army. The differences between the two are dramatized in scene after scene in which they confront each other, meeting again and again in the small world of the peacetime service.
The Thirties find Sam Damon in China where he’s serving as a military observer with anti-Japanese Communist guerrillas. In the caves of Hunan he meets Colonel Lin Tso-han, a former warlord and poppy-sotted sybarite who has, by force of will, become the very model of a Maoist general. The section noticeably reflects the subsequent fascination of the Vietnam-era army with unconventional warfare and its admiration for guerrilla doctrine. The colonel takes Sam Damon as a kind of pupil, playing the part of Zen master and adding a measure of Oriental wisdom to Sam’s continuing universal education. Later Sam will not forget the heroic impression made by this Socialist warrior, and the soundness of the guerrillas’ strategy. Colonel Lin takes his place among the avuncular older figures who have guided Damon along his soldier’s path. In French, the two men discuss War and Peace, and we see from this that Sam has become a voracious autodidact who has taught himself half a dozen languages. Unlike his rival, Courtney Schuyler Massengale, who sprinkles his small talk with pretentious arcana, Sam keeps his knowledge to himself, reserving it for the moment when it can be practically applied.
By the time of Pearl Harbor, Massengale and Sam are rivals indeed. The lives of Sam and Tommy and Court and Emily Massengale are intertwined, and the underlying sexual tensions among them soon emerge. Tommy Damon offers herself to her husband’s rival and, at the cost of her humiliation, learns the secret—his impotence—Massengale has kept from the world. Myrer’s prose grows rather breathless in scenes like this one, but he writes about the intimate lives of his characters with insight and subtlety. If it were not for his ability to show women coping with a hypermasculine world, his book would be much duller.
New Guinea in the spring of 1942 was the setting of nightmarish struggles between untrained, ill-prepared American forces and Japan’s elite Imperial Marines. We find General Sam Damon commanding a regiment ordered by Douglas MacArthur to take the Japanese airfield at Moapara. The scenes that follow capture with harrowing accuracy the horrors of the New Guinea war, the myriad flies and parasites, the jungle diseases and unremitting damp, the fanatical resistance of the Japanese and the ordeal of the green American troops who somehow bring themselves to fight and win.
After Moapara, Sam is rewarded with command of a division and another star. In Brisbane, Australia, where MacArthur has his headquarters, General Damon finds a mistress; his marriage to Tommy is on the rocks. In Brisbane also, Sam Damon is called in for an audience with MacArthur, whose appearance in the novel is altogether convincing. During their talk MacArthur suddenly demands that Sam give his opinion of MacArthur’s flight to Australia in accordance with President Roosevelt’s directive. Sam, diffident at first, but never the careerist, finally tells the Great Leader that in MacArthur’s place he would have stayed on Corregidor.
During the liberation of the Philippines, the contest between Massengale and Damon is played out on the field of battle. Massengale, who, for all his long service career, has never led men in combat, conceives a battle plan that is both risky and overcomplicated, but if it succeeds, it will call attention to his brilliance as a strategist. With a typically pedantic flourish, he calls his plan Palladium, after the legendary statue of Pallas Athena in Troy, on whose preservation the city’s safety was supposed to depend.
Damon sees the weaknesses of his rival’s strategy and argues against it. Finally and characteristically, he follows orders but demands that Massengale keep a reserve force ready at his disposal for use if things go wrong. In the event, things do but Massengale has committed the reserve force elsewhere. The result is the mauling of Damon’s command and the death of his closest friend in the army.
Palladium finally succeeds and brings Massengale fame and glory, decorations, and magazine features. Only Damon and some others know how Massengale’s arrogance has caused the deaths of so many American soldiers, but Damon trades the knowledge for a unit citation for his division. His first thought as usual is for the men he commands.
The Damons’ son, Donny, who’s serving in Europe as an enlisted man, dies in a B-29 raid over Germany. Earlier, Tommy Damon had demeaned herself before Courtney Massengale and asked him to get young Donny out of combat. The flint-hearted Massengale, who hates Tommy because of what she knows about him, had coldly declined.
“Life is a cheat and time kills life,” thinks Tommy. She’s followed the only man she could ever love from one tedious and remote posting to another and given up hope of the comforts and pleasures an upper-class civilian wife would have expected. Now her marriage is in ruins, her only son dead, and her husband off to Asia for yet another assignment.
Sam’s new assignment is in “Khotiane,” for which, of course, read Vietnam. Remembering his days in Hunan, Sam early determines that the war is futile, a conclusion not based on hindsight, since Once an Eagle was written several years before the Tet offensive. But Courtney Massengale, now a senior American commander with political connections and ambitions, has big plans for himself and Khotiane. His scheme to win the war there is as flashy and wrongheaded as Palladium was but is set on a continental scale. Like a previous American general in Asia fighting an earlier war, he sees no danger of Chinese intervention. In fact his overall vision involves nothing less than a land invasion of China, in concert with the troops of Chiang Kai-shek.
In his final act of service to the country he’s served honorably and wholeheartedly since his days as an infantry private facing Pancho Villa, Sam Damon, at a high-level policy conference in Washington, derails Massengale’s elaborate plan for what would probably turn out to be World War III. Then he returns, as ordered, to the war in Khotiane.
If civilian control of the military is an underlying theme of Once an Eagle, that theme is exemplified in the contrast between Sam Damon and Courtney Massengale. The differences in their thinking can be summarized in two of the novel’s passages of interior reflection. During World War II Massengale considers what the postwar world might hold for him:
…What would emerge would be a vast, impersonal juggernaut of industrial cartels, a mountainous administrative bureaucracy and a prestigious military junta—and beneath these, far beneath, an emotional and highly subservient citizenry whose attitudes and actions would be created, aroused, manipulated, subverted by the roar of the mass media…it was so clear!… Whoever could see it—whoever rode this wave deftly, keeping just ahead of its boiling crest—would hold the future securely in his fine right hand….
Sam Damon, who has tried to put the good of the service and the country ahead of his own interests, has been thinking also. When Tommy asks him if he thinks a war with Russia is in the cards, he replies:
No. I don’t know. That’s not the problem. It’s us. Here. It’s got to come to a head. Between those who want us to be a democracy—a real one, not a show-window one—and those who want us to be a Great Power. In caps and with all the trimmings.
Sam Damon was a poor country boy when he came into the service. His education is self-acquired, and his first principle is leadership by example. Myrer wants to contrast Damon’s honorable, humane pragmatism with the anti-Semitic, racist, and fascistic attitudes of Massengale, whose cunning mind is full of Spengler and neovitalism and warmed-over will to power. If we all have an ideology whether we know it or not, Sam Damon’s is a version of American pragmatism, which Myrer would like to see as the traditional faith of the Republic. It is a faith inimical to Courtney Massengale and everything he stands for. If Sam Damon bears a resemblance to some of the more sophisticated versions of Soviet Man, so Massengale’s character lends itself to the kind of commentary once found in Marxist novels.
Massengale is the soul of the old aristocratic army, northern branch, a son of Hudson River patroons. When his blue-blooded family loses its money, he’s forced into West Point, where he loves the drills and classes but barely endures the horrid, vulgar hazing about which he dare not speak to his mother. As for his sexual failure, readers of the Marxist novels of the 1930s will see at once that it is symbolic of the decadence of his class. His beautiful New England Brahmin wife, Emily, subjected to humiliations and in despair, has become a narcotics addict.
The class struggle here is hardly between the old-fashioned bourgeoisie and the proletariat. It’s very much about the opposition between the contemporary officer corps, which now has a distinctly blue-collar character, and the aristocratic traditions sometimes foisted on it by ambitious right-wing intellectuals. For Courtney Schuyler Massengale read primarily Douglas MacArthur, with a touch of George Patton; his character also anticipates some of their low-rent epigones who managed to make their way into the National Security Agency during the Reagan administration. For Sam Damon, read above all George Marshall, the not entirely secular saint of the modern army, the noble but utterly unpretentious Virginia gentleman who disdained even to notice when a drunken senator informed him he was not fit to wear his uniform. Omar Bradley, too, is an example of the tradition Damon admires, a tradition to which many of the cadets and midshipmen now in the service academies would naturally be drawn. Overwhelmingly, these young people come from working-class and post-immigrant backgrounds.
As long as the services maintain a spirit of pragmatism and a practice of following responsible orders they can function satisfactorily as institutions responsible to a democratic society. There’s a lot to be said for Sam Damon. His story and his world view suggest a vision of a social-democratic elitism based on service—as opposed to one of privilege. Right now it looks better than the phony and demagogic brand of populism that has become a familiar part of the post-Marxist, Bush-friendly landscape.
There are many unsympathetic portrayals of officers in Once an Eagle, which make it clear that the army is indeed natural habitat for Massengale and the other martinets and fools Sam encounters. But there is also an insistence that the highest ideals of the service can be made to prevail against them. In general, the less the military services try to cultivate high-flown aesthetic enthusiasms, the better for their democratic principles. There is reason to be glad that the ideals in Once an Eagle, worthy and honorable as they are, call forth so strong a response in the higher echelons of the services and that they are being offered as exemplary to coming generations. It might be noted that the story itself, the story in which so many officers see themselves and their families, is a tragic one. Sam goes quietly off to Khotiane after his one day of recognition, unhonored, an obscure general dispatched to a losing war. His son is long dead, his long-suffering wife bereaved and bitter. Still he is a hero, a man to emulate, an all-weather soldier who reasons why in silence.
It is a truism that military organizations reflect their parent cultures. Our army today is what the Soviets falsely claimed their army was, a “People’s Army.” Hence it responds more thoroughly than most to pressures in the political climate, to trends and tendencies and even fads. Inevitably it exists in a state of tension, within itself and with the society it serves. Inevitably it feels undervalued and misunderstood by that society, and perhaps it is.
Myrer takes his title from Aeschylus:
So in the Libyan fable it is told
That once an eagle, stricken with a dart,
Said, when he saw the fashion of the shaft,
“With our own feathers, not by others’ hands,
Are we now smitten.”
October 5, 2000