Read Once an Eagle Online

Authors: Anton Myrer

Once an Eagle

BOOK: Once an Eagle
10.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


This edition is dedicated by the

Army War College Foundation, Inc.,

to Lieutenant General Sidney B. Berry

and Colonel Zane E. Finkelstein,

both U.S. Army, Retired, for their tireless and

selfless work to help keep this incredible novel

in print for future generations.


“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.'”



It has been forty-five years since Anton Myrer's epic novel burst upon the literary scene in 1968. Since then, his book has not only been praised as a model of great storytelling but also as an insightful tale of leadership and what it means to do the right and honorable thing.

The book's central character, Sam Damon, has become the iconic symbol of the qualities a great leader should possess. He leads by example and represents the core values of what we strive for in our leaders. Although Sam Damon enlisted in the army as a private and never attended West Point, he became the fictional symbol of its creed of “duty, honor, country.”

Conversely, the book's fictional villain, Courtney Massengale, has become the symbol of a self-serving careerist who will do anything to advance his standing. A measure of the impact the book has had is the fact that it is a career-killer for an officer to be labeled a Courtney Massengale. As my colleague, Col. Jerry D. Morelock, U.S. Army, retired, the editor-in-chief of
Armchair General
magazine, once noted, “Sam Damon is the officer you hope you will be, and Courtney Massengale is the officer you hope you don't work for.”

The true testament to the success of a book like
Once an Eagle
is its resilience. In an age when books come and go like feathers in the wind, Anton Myrer has created something so special that it has become the gold standard for what a great writer can accomplish.

Despite its spectacular success, which included a 1976 television miniseries and the fact that it had gained cult status throughout the military,
Once an Eagle
went out of print soon afterward. Increasingly rare copies became expensive collector's items, while places like West Point, where the book had become a must-read, were forced to purchase expensive reprints or locate copies from secondhand sources.

After Anton Myrer died in 1996, his widow dedicated the book's literary rights to the Army War College Foundation, which brought
Once an Eagle
back in print in 1997, where it has remained ever since.

Myrer wrote of war from personal experience as a Marine during World War II. He left his studies at Harvard to enlist in 1942, served in the Pacific for three years, and was wounded on Guam. He once said “World War II was the one event that had the greatest impact on my life. I enlisted imbued with a rather flamboyant concept of this country's destiny as the leader of a free world and the necessity of the use of armed force. I emerged a corporal three years later in a state of great turmoil, at the core of which was an angry awareness of war as the most vicious and fraudulent self-deception man had ever devised.”

There has always been considerable speculation among readers regarding Myrer's model for the character of Sam Damon. Some years ago he provided the answer in a letter to former West Point Superintendent, Lt. General Sidney Berry, that his character was a composite of a number of outstanding leaders whom he admired. “Sam Damon's origins lay in elements of Army Generals Clarence Huebner, Terry Allen, Robert Eichelberger, Marine Generals [Graves B.] Erskine and [David M.] Shoup, Captains [Jesse Walton] Wooldridge and [Samuel] Woodfill from World War I, and most especially Lucian Truscott, whom I came to admire tremendously from his memoirs and from people who knew him.”

While each of these men exemplified leadership at its finest, it is no surprise that Myrer would focus on Gen. Lucian K. Truscott. One of the most successful but least-known World War II generals, Truscott led the Third Infantry Division in Sicily in 1943, commanded VI Corps during the desperate battles of the Anzio campaign in 1944, and successfully commanded the U.S. Fifth Army during the latter stages of the Italian campaign. Like the fictional Sam Damon, behind Truscott's tough-guy image was a deeply self-effacing officer of great professionalism and humanity, who first joined the army as an enlisted man before becoming a commissioned officer in the cavalry.


I first read
Once an Eagle
as a young Army officer shortly after it was published and was deeply impressed not only with its superb narrative but, more important, by its contrasting examples of great character and leadership, and its antithesis.

One of the most memorable passages in the book, which I have never forgotten, occurs when Sam Damon counsels his young son, “the whole challenge of life [is] to act with honor and hope and generosity.… You can't help when or what you were born, you may not be able to help how you die; but you can—and you should—try to pass the days between as a good man.”

Little did I know at the time that I had joined successive generations of readers who have been deeply influenced by this book. As Colonel Morelock recently noted,
Once an Eagle
began to have a powerful impact on the immediate post-Vietnam era. “All of us then were looking for some kind of positive reinforcement to serving in a profession that was then under siege, underfunded, underappreciated, and greatly undervalued by the American public at large. The Sam Damon character gave us a self-sacrificing role model to try to emulate and, like the Damon character in the novel, gain ‘internal rewards' for selfless service instead of public acclamation, which was then rare to nonexistent. In short, the book's timing was perfect for it to be accepted and warmly embraced by an Army officer corps that was desperately seeking the kind of psychological boost and internal justification the book seemed to provide. The novel's message was: service is its own reward. In that miserable era, we all just ate that up.”

What makes this book so special is the impact it has had not only upon junior leaders but those who have risen to the highest ranks of the military service. Both Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, and Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, have expressed what the book has meant to them, both personally and professionally.

Gen. Dempsey said, “
Once an Eagle
is simply the best work of fiction on leadership in print. It challenges us to think about what motivates us. It reminds us of the great cost of conflict, of what is best in human nature, and of our potential vulnerabilities in leading America's sons and daughters in battle. Our choice is not to be Sam Damon or Courtney Massengale but rather to realize that we must be ourselves. It is in this knowledge that our real commitment to our profession—and to leadership—begins.”

Gen. Odierno wrote, “Anton Myrer's classic has had a profound impact on me personally and professionally. I read it twice as a lieutenant, gleaning greater insight the second time around and better understanding subtleties associated with the time-honored values of our profession. Since that time, it has often been a point of discussion with subordinates, peers, and superiors alike, in both formal and informal settings. Despite being a work of fiction, it has tremendous value to the study of military leadership. From the heavy and rewarding responsibility of command to the special bonds formed in combat, it realistically portrays the unique culture of our army.”

The staying power of
Once an Eagle
is also reflected in all levels of the current generation of officers and enlisted personnel. Not long ago, during a visit to the Third Infantry Division, Gen. Odierno inadvertently came upon “a conversation [that] centered on
Once an Eagle
. Upon entering a conference room, there was a lively discussion ongoing between one of their deputy commanding generals and a few battalion commanders, talking about the merits and shortcomings of Sam Damon and Courtney Massengale.”

Patrick Snyder, a company commander, recently wrote: “I read this book as a corporal, and my copy is dog-eared, underlined, and highlighted all over! I purchased copies … for each of my lieutenants and gave them ninety days to read it before we sat down to discuss its message and how to apply it to our lives. It is by far the finest book I have read, and it continues to impact how I lead.”

As a writer myself, nothing means more to me than letters of praise from readers. Anton Myrer was justly proud that his book has been read (and often reread) by so many. In 1975, he wrote of his pride in the public reaction to his book: letters from “kids, sergeants, generals—a welcome avalanche” of them.

This new edition of
Once an Eagle
will continue to make Anton Myrer's epic book available to yet another generation of readers. That is a legacy many authors dream of but few ever attain.

Author of
Patton: A Genius for War


It has been over thirty years 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
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. A brief discussion here of those reasons appears appropriate.

First and foremost, this is a consummate anti-war book. Anton Myrer graduated from Boston Latin and entered Harvard College in 1941, but he left Harvard and enlisted in the Marine Corps soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He served more than three years in the Pacific, rose to the rank of corporal, took part in the invasion of Guam, and was wounded. His descriptions of combat based on his personal experiences engage all our senses. Myrer forces us to smell and feel the battlefield as well as hear and see it. His narrations horrify, provoke and frighten. No one who has experienced combat directly, or even vicariously, would seek it.

It is difficult to remain both at peace and free. Peace is man's most fervent hope but war represents his surest experience. Every year of peace is in reality either a postwar year or a prewar year and it is seldom easy and often impossible to distinguish between them. It is these years that constitute the subtlest challenge to the Armed Forces in a representative democracy. How do we preserve in peace, the virtues necessary to win in war? This challenge has in the past been met by the service family, by the service school system and by extensive field training.

The Advance Course in each of the Army's branch schools represents the bachelor's degree, the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth the master's degree, and the War Colleges the Ph.D. It is intellectual stimulation and growth rather than mastering of technical material that the War College faculties attempt to invoke. The object of the exercise is to move future leaders from cocksure ignorance to wise uncertainty. Vision, not “how to fight the last war,” is the challenge. Anton Myrer takes his reader through the majestic halls of the War College, onto the busy training ranges and into the homes of the peacetime Army as no other author. He also, with a little more spice than has been my experience, documents Army wives sweating out combat tours as soldier's wives have since the Crusades.

The role of the military professional has the rare if not unique character of evolving without change. At Agincourt the core of French nobility, over 6000 knights, died during 24 hours of magnificent but futile charges against a small cohort of disciplined English archers. At Valley Forge, Gettysburg, Kasserine Pass, Pork Chop Hill, the Ia Drang Valley and Desert Storm, young Americans black and white, rich and poor, our nobility, were prepared to do the same out of love for family, country, friends and the Army, and far too many died in the effort. Myrer helps us understand “why.”

He also helps us understand that, for the military leader under fire on the field of battle, physical stamina and personal valor are important, and that, when arguing strategy at the national level, mental toughness and courage of conviction are needed. In both circumstances, strength of character and professional competence are indispensable. A charismatic personality, while very useful, is not at all a necessary attribute.

While the nature and character of the nation-state continue to evolve, the role of the soldier in a free society is quite constant. For Americans, the people created a state and delegated to its elected leaders the power and authority to act in the common good. The soldier remains the servant of that state and of the peoples' elected representatives.
Once an Eagle
builds solidly on that principle.

Anton Myrer invokes his narrative power to map the paradoxes of modern military life.

—Military service is a profession so steeped in tradition that we often not only keep the lamp lit, but worship the ashes. Yet important technological change has had and will continue to have its alpha and its omega in the Armed Forces. Aircraft, rocket propulsion, rapid communications, electronic computers, and nuclear weapons are a few examples.

—This is a hierarchical system. Although about one-third of the officer corps got its start with a political appointment to one of our country's superb military academies, the Armed Forces are also the equal opportunity school of the Nation, providing upward mobility to the likes of Sam Damon, Myrer's hero, and others (including me) with battlefield commissions. ROTC graduates from our diverse college and university system and officer candidate school graduates provide more leaven to the force. The “counts” and the “no accounts” who can qualify, all have the opportunity to serve the Nation.

—This is a “stick in the mud” environment where social changes are rare and painful and yet it is the cauldron of choice for rapid social change. With all their public imperfections and tasks remaining to be done, the Armed Forces did open the segregation door and are lifting the glass ceiling.

Philip Sheridan said that the profession of arms was “too full of blind chance to be worthy of a 1st class calling.” Others have degraded the professional soldier as a Prussianized automaton, guzzling whiskey, scheming over the budget and planning nuclear Armageddon.
Once an Eagle
portrays the profession as containing some martinets, a few of whom succeed, but the Armed Forces of
Once an Eagle
and the one I served in contained far more sober, conscientious, ethical, and competent leaders who, while sometimes troubled by their political masters, remained committed to their nation, their troops and their families.

General Sam Damon has much to say to us today and into the next century, but what he said to his son during a period of great stress applies to most of us most of the time and describes in one sentence what an officer should be:

“You can't help what you were born and you may not have much to say about where you die, but you can and you should try to pass the days in between as a good man.”

Once an Eagle
is both a perceptive study of the profession of arms and a chilling overview of armed conflict. Sam Damon carried men forward by the force of his own ardor. Young Americans who can emulate Sam Damon will be required if this nation is to remain free and at peace. Albert Schweitzer advised:

“I don't know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know; the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

And General Robert E. Lee wrote:

“DUTY is the sublimest word in the language, you can never do more than your duty; you should never wish to do less.”

In this book, Anton Myrer not only entertains us with a lively and engrossing story, he helps contribute to the Nation's effort to ensure that a sufficiency of young men and women will consider the Armed Forces as their vehicle for service to the Nation and the discharge of their duty to fellow human beings. The Nation's ability to remain free and at peace depends in no small measure on whether we will continue to inspire our youth to serve.

W. V
, J
, US A
, R

BOOK: Once an Eagle
10.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Into the Fire by Peter Liney
The Return: Disney Lands by Ridley Pearson
The Burial by Courtney Collins
Mating Call by Martha Bourke
The Kraken King, Part 7 by Meljean Brook
Dido and Pa by Aiken, Joan
Bridged by Love by Nancy Corrigan