By ELIZABETH BECKER
WASHINGTON -- In a profession whose leaders
are known for their devotion to the works of military strategists like
Carl von Clausewitz and Sun Tsu, the officers of the U.S. Army and the
Marine Corps have quietly chosen a romantic war novel as the truest mirror
of their lives and ambitions.
"Once an Eagle," by Anton Myrer, has worked
its way over a generation into the mindset and lexicon of the American
military, flourishing as a cult classic even as it withered out of print
and vanished from most bookstores.
Gen. Henry Shelton, the chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff, says it is the only book he has ever read twice.
The Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., recently brought the book back into
print because military schools wanted it for courses in ethics and leadership.
When it was first published in 1968, the
epic story of an Army officer as honorable as Robin Hood pitted against
a fellow officer as self-serving as Prince John became an improbable best
seller during the upheaval of those times, its 800 pages tracing the story
of the U.S. Army from World War I to the early years of Vietnam. The book
eventually sold millions of copies.
For the military, it was not just a book
but a revelation.
The protagonist, Sam Damon, is a soldier's
soldier, a hard-fighting commander filled with concern for his troops who
wins battle after battle in both world wars but is eventually killed on
a mission trying to persuade the powers-that-be that the U.S. military
should not get involved in Vietnam.
His antagonist, Courtney Massengale, triumphs
over Sam Damon by manipulating the political system in Washington and making
all the right career moves, even though he disdains the rank-and-file and
sends his soldiers into certain death in his first command in World War
Not exactly the story you would expect
to move the military.
"It's really got a cult following in the
Army because Sam Damon is the officer you hope you will be and Courtney
Massengale is the officer you hope you don't work for," said Col. Jerry
Morelock, a recently retired history professor at the Command and General
Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where Army officers are trained
for higher command.
The book is on the Marine Corps commandants'
reading list -- making it required reading for all Marines. The U.S. Army
War College holds an annual leadership seminar that uses the book. For
West Point cadets, who are assigned the book in classes and seminars, reading
"Once an Eagle" has become a rite of passage, much like discovering "Catcher
in the Rye" as a teen-ager. Favorite passages are quoted routinely, especially
Sam Damon's dying words: "Joey, if it comes to a choice between being a
good soldier and a good human being -- try to be a good human being ..."
And the names of Sam Damon and Courtney
Massengale have entered the language of the U.S. military as code words
for the good officer who thinks first of the troops and the other one who
thinks only of personal gain. When Shelton wants to exclude a candidate
from a promotion, all he has to do is tell the board of review: "This is
another Courtney Massengale."
"It's a household name and I've used it
to say we shouldn't have an individual like that in the ranks -- someone
who is motivated for all the wrong reasons, someone you don't want leading
the troops," Shelton said.
Sam Damon, on the other hand, is a cult
hero whose name has been painted by soldiers on their tanks and whose career
and life, including the strain of constant moves and marital strife, are
viewed as a mirror of their own.
"I've never been without a copy since college,"
said Col. Gregg Fontenot, who was a battalion commander in Operation Desert
Storm in the Middle East, served in the Bosnia peacekeeping operation and
retired this year.
"Several times I've decided what to do
after figuring out what Sam would do," Fontenot said. "At mid-career at
the staff college at Fort Leavenworth, I agonized whether to go on for
a second year of studies. It wasn't stylish in the Army then. But Sam studied
military history at night and I wanted to be like Sam. So I stayed."
The novel had special appeal during the
"The novel arrived just when soldiers needed
it," wrote Gen. Sidney Berry, the former superintendent of the U.S. Military
Academy at West Point, who was one of those junior officers in Vietnam.
"Many soldiers felt cast-off and unappreciated, sorry for themselves, ashamed
of wearing the uniform."
In fact, it rose to become No. 1 on The
New York Times list of paperback best sellers in 1976 just as the Army
was undergoing an agonizing self-examination after the fall of Saigon,
eventually selling more than 3 million copies. And as the captains and
colonels of Vietnam became generals in the 1980s and 1990s the novel became
their touchstone. In 1976 it was made into a television miniseries of the
same name starring Sam Elliott.
But the book went out of print over the
next 20 years, forcing places like the West Point Academy bookstore to
order $50 editions from reprint companies and to scrounge for copies at
secondhand bookstores. The book was reprinted in the mid-1990s, and is
available in bookstores.
"The book is something very special for
cadets," said Ellen Mohrman, who buys books at the West Point store. "It's
the type of book officers give to students they are mentoring, it's that
important a book."
The book's author, Myrer, died in 1996
at age 73. He also wrote the novels "The Last Convertible" and "The Big
War." Myrer said his combat service in World War II had the greatest impact
on his 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," he wrote. "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." Some of those antiwar feelings are reflected in "Once
In his introduction to the newest edition,
Gen. John Vessey Jr., who is retired and a former chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, writes that the book ranks with "The Red Badge of Courage"
and "All Quiet on the Western Front" as a "consummate antiwar novel."
The book's continuing popularity is
also based on a nostalgia for simpler days with obvious heroes and villains,
when the armed forces were more completely separate from the civilian world
and when "duty, honor and country" really was the soldier's calling.