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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.