In Defense of “Once an Eagle”

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A controversial tome...

Late last week, the military blogosphere responded to the release of General Martin Dempsey’s professional reading list. Early responses weren’t exactly glowing. Andrew Exum, at Abu Muqawama, wrote that the list “leaves a lot to be desired.” My colleague here at Battleland, Nate Rawlings, had his own misgivings with the list. And the always-blunt Carl Prine opined, “Dempsey’s reading list sucks.”

No one’s personal or professional reading list is above critique, of course, even the Chief of Staff of the Army. My own reeks of Celtic bias and dinosaur obsession, things that probably deserve some sort of reproach. But one particular inclusion on Dempsey’s list, Anton Myrer’s 1968 novel Once an Eagle, garnered particular derision, by bloggers and commenters alike. Once an Eagle has long been that rarest of tomes (and tome it is, weighing in at a healthy 900-plus pages), a book celebrated by The New York Times Bestseller List and the military alike, but the Internet tends not to have much appreciation for historical relevance. Leading the anti-Once an Eagle charge was the bearded wonder Exum, describing it as “one of the worst novels ever written,” to much e-applause.

I’ll take “Hyperbolic Contrarianism” for $600, Mr. Trebek.

Let’s get the novel’s weaknesses out of the way first. Yes, it’s a black-and-white narrative filled with wooden characters. No, it doesn’t have much technical or tactical guidance to offer military leaders preparing for the nuances and ambiguity of postmodern warfare. And maybe Myrer could’ve shortened it by a few hundred pages or so. Oh, and it’s also indubitably sexist.

But. But.

What Once an Eagle lacks in shades of grey and literary flair it more than makes up for with thematic significance. This is a book of consequence; it is both historically intriguing and forward-looking in its vision (given the timeframe in which it was published, i.e. the middle of the Vietnam War). It’s a hero’s epic set during the American Century, and chronicles the life of its protagonist Sam Damon, from his early life to the Mexican expedition to World War I and through World War II and a fictionalized Vietnam. Damon is a “Mustang,” having served as an enlisted man before becoming an officer, and leads from the front in such a consistent way that any living man not named Dakota Meyer will be ashamed of himself while reading it.

Conversely, the novel’s antagonist, Courtney Massengale, is a bureaucratic snake. He shirks combat duty, instead preferring staff positions where his political savvy and connections can flourish. Damon and Massengale, and in a very different way their wives, come in constant friction over the course of the novel, and Myrer goes to great lengths to make it clear these men represent the two extremes of the officer corps, and the military in general, and are wrestling for its collective soul.

Sounds dramatic, right? Epics tend to have that mode on lockdown. Kind of their raison d’être, as it were.

The main complaint with Once an Eagle, from Exum and others, is that the characters in it, especially Damon and Massengale, are hollow and one-dimensional. There’s a lot of truth to this, and I wrote on Twitter that the television show Glee has more nuance. But epics aren’t really concerned with the rules of modernism and postmodernism literature. If I’m remembering correctly a lesson learned in literature courses from college (which I’m probably not), epics primarily function as a sort of long-winded parable for a specific culture or nation, and focus on the heroic adventures of an individual or group of individuals.

Check and check.

Given Once an Eagle’s historical context – written pre-volunteer force, when war was still generally considered to be symmetric and a force-on-force affair – it’s no wonder a generation of vets reared on the lessons of COIN and counter-terror and IEDs don’t identify with the flatness of Damon and Massengale. I suspect the literature of our era will differ greatly from Myrer’s novel, and will reflect the ethical black holes and moral ambiguities of our experiences.

That doesn’t mean that the literature of the past should be ignored, however. Once an Eagle still possesses some important leadership lessons in its pages for junior military leaders currently making their way through the ranks. The importance of teaching a new platoon leader or squad leader “Don’t be Massengale!” cannot be overstated. Though I never met anyone quite as conniving as Massengale during my time in the Army, I did meet some junior officers plotting (usually not so secretly) their rise to generals’ stars. Perhaps related, they tended not to be all that good at the position they were currently occupying. Ambition is a fine thing, but too much of it can poison a man’s soul, as Massengale illustrates. “Care for the men in your ranks, not the ones signing your evaluation reports” is another vital lesson imparted by Once an Eagle, and one, frankly, that too many young officers especially still don’t understand.

The pinnacle of Once an Eagle is Damon’s speech in the aftermath of World War II at a parade. The ten or so pages of it make slogging through the other 890 worth it, even for the haters. Damon implores the people of his hometown to know the brutality of war even if they weren’t there themselves, that there isn’t any glory in war, just horror, and that it is something to be despised and avoided if at all possible.

I’ve always been a bit surprised Once an Eagle is on so many professional military reading lists as it is, given its cryptic ending, which is essentially an argument against American involvement in Vietnam. Subtlety is not a trick Myrer employs often in the book, and he rams home that he believes war in Vietnam is the unholy offspring of mad generals and a military industrial complex due to line their pockets from it. Not exactly a safe, vanilla opinion, even forty years later.

No, Once an Eagle isn’t Shakespeare. But I doubt it aspired to be, either. It’s a fine novel about an American nation and military caught at a crossroads; people need heroes and they need parables, even if they aren’t always perfectly reflective of reality. Further, let us all remember the purpose of these reading lists – it’s not for overzealous bloggers or defense wonks or academics or even veterans already out of the military. It’s for the young guns in uniform, to educate and enlighten them on the successes and failures of the past. I know I needed such in 2005 when I read the book as a second lieutenant. Call it a hunch, but I doubt six years, even six years of postmodern war, has changed its impact and value for junior military leaders all that much.

Keep Once an Eagle on the reading list, General Dempsey. Might smack some sense into an overeager hard charger someday, either literally or figuratively.