Once An Eagle
by Anton Myrer
Military journalist Thomas E Ricks (Fiasco) mentioned on Twitter that this is a novel that everyone in the U.S. military knows and that most admire. It follows small-town Nebraskan Sam Damon from his enlistment just before the First World War up through Vietnam.
It’s not a bad book, though it’s very long, and it indulges in lots of set-piece essays that pretend to be after-dinner dialogue. Indeed, we have (at least) two characters — one of them Sam Damon’s wife! — that serve primarily as a means to inject essays into the narrative. Sam Damon, once he gets going, is a fine characters; you can see why this would make an attractive assignment at West Point.
The obvious comparison is with W.E.B. Griffin and his serial novels on the Army and The (Marine) Corps. Griffin wrote later: Once An Eagle was published in 1968. The great subject for both writers is the soldier’s fight against stupid, greedy, and vain superior officers. Myrer’s book is bitterly anti-war and deeply mixed about the military; Griffin carefully sidesteps war as a subject. Myrer despises war profiteers and suspects that all rich civilians are either profiteers or parasites; Griffin is fascinated by wealth (and by the Old South). Both writers have a strange relationship with their Jewish officers. Griffin particularly admires the scrounging and chicanery that lets junior officers and non-comms get what their troops need; Myrer’s not really interested.
Unlike Griffin, Myrer’s conclusion is bleak. We aren’t going to settle down on the Carolina Shore; the war will never end.