Finding a place for ‘Once an Eagle’

Military reading lists always seem to generate debate in the military blogosphere. The choice of books that individuals or organisations recommend to their people says a lot about who they are and what they hold dear. Similar to our doctrine, they are almost a representation of our belief system, so it’s natural for them to be debated.

As an Australian, there is one book that has often puzzled me on US military reading lists. This is because it appears so frequently and simultaneously appears to be so divisive. Once an Eagle by Anton Myrer seems to be greeted with both praise and disdain, so I found myself compelled to finally add it to my own reading list.

It’s quick to see why this classic appears so frequently. Written in 1968 during the Vietnam War, Myrer (himself a veteran of the Second World War) portrays the life of Sam Damon, a courageous combat leader who rises through the ranks and fights with distinction in both world wars. Contrasting the protagonist is Courtney Massengale, a shrewd and calculated staff officer whose own career progression intersects with Damon’s throughout the story.

The reader is expected to admire Damon and despise Massengale. One is based on a career of sacrifice and service while the other is centred on the pursuit of power and glory. The brilliance of the text is that we probably all know a Massengale and all hope to be Damon. But life is never so black and white. 

Damon is clearly presented as a perfect embodiment of a military leader; someone who hates war and yet dedicates his life to preparing for it. Massengale seemingly loves war because he never sees its brutality and relishes the opportunity that it presents for personal glory. It is therefore often a book of binary characters, the likes of which are rarely encountered in reality and yet we can still relate to.

Although perhaps this is the power of fiction: to describe the perfect leader without the flaws inherent to our nature. To provide us with something to aspire towards even if we fall short, again and again. When we teach leadership to our own junior leaders, who should we tell them to emulate? ‘Be a Sam Damon’ is perhaps more powerful a sentiment than describing any actual military leader from our past. 

Yet, to describe leadership with such simplicity, risks a misunderstanding of the complexities of the human condition. Unlike Massengale, Damon is believed to be motivated solely by a sense of duty, and yet I can’t help but believe that like Massengale, he might also be motivated by the allure of battle, the sense of adventure and dare I say, the attainment of glory. 

While we probably hate to admit it, there are also aspects of Massengale’s character that Damon could have learned from. Massengale’s career was successful because he understood how to navigate the often-subjective reality of promotions. He understood power and how to attain it. While his heartless disregard for the loss of his soldiers draws warranted disdain from Damon, that lack of empathy may well have been necessary for him to handle the brutality of command in war.

Unlike Damon, Massengale presumably never saw combat and we are expected to think less of him because of it. Herein lies another source of contention (whether deliberate of not), as the narrative seems to devalue those who do not fight. Anyone seeking to draw out discussion on this book would do well to highlight this point. Those who fight deserve respect but undervaluing those who support the fight is unlikely to promote the team of teams required for contemporary war. 

At over 1300 pages (or 46 hours as an audiobook), it is a mammoth undertaking; however, its narrative is still compelling. It captures the sheer relentlessness of war for those who make this profession their lifelong endeavour. Even in retirement, Damon succumbs to the allure of one last mission. For a soldier like Damon, there is always a war to fight.

Once an Eagle simultaneously romanticises war while also going to great lengths to describe its brutality and at times, its futility. Damon’s sacrifices are also not his alone to endure. The story of his wife, Tommy, equally captures the challenges of the spouse who is left behind. In fact, the true depth of the characters is mostly revealed in their home life and the interwar years.

So, does this classic deserve its place in the pantheon of military literature? Well, I would argue that there is clearly a place for such a book in any military reading list. Fiction helps us to inspire. It helps us to capture the qualities and character that we hope to find in the profession of arms, even if its ultimate attainment is out of our reach. Most of us would prefer to serve alongside a Damon than a Massengale and therein lies its value in our belief system. To ‘be a Sam Damon’ is a goal that anyone who has read the book would understand and hopefully aspire towards.

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