“Be like Sam Damon.”
It is an admonishment that many officers and cadets will hear in their careers. Sad Sam, the protagonist in Anton Myrer’s epic saga Once an Eagle, is the archetype of what a combat leader is supposed to be. The effect the fictional Damon has had on the Army is astounding. When it was included on the Army chief of staff’s reading list in 2014, the novel was described as “great for young leaders contemplating a career in the profession of arms and looking for a deeper understanding of Army culture.” Myrer’s own influence is palpable, not only because of the reverence paid to the novel but also given that the Army War College has an Anton Myrer Army Leader Day. But, perfect Sam Damon is, upon further review, a dull, one-dimensional, and deeply flawed model to encourage young officers to emulate. It is time to put him out to pasture.
Damon is seemingly flawless and a casual reading of the lengthy tome (the version republished by the Army War College two decades ago clocks in at 1,291 pages) reinforces this. Perfection is uninteresting and is part of the Damon problem. How do you model yourself on someone who is just naturally good? In high school, Sam Damon thoroughly bests the toughest man in town in a fight and then bursts into a congressman’s office without an appointment and demands a nomination to West Point, which he gets. Not satisfied with the wait, Sam enlists and begins reading Clausewitz as a private. After a brush with the punitive expedition in pursuit of Pancho Villa, Sam arrives in France after the US entry into World War I, where, as a sergeant, he sets up an ambush with a handful of men that destroys an entire German company. After earning a battlefield commission and promotion to major, he returns to first lieutenant rank in the interwar period—during which he demonstrates his righteousness by refusing an order from a company commander (in order to save lives) and later, while a company commander himself, convinces a soldier in another company to fight a court-martial and serves as his lawyer. In one day of civilian work, Sam completely revolutionizes the shipping operations for a major corporation despite having no experience in logistics.
Sam becomes a regimental commander as he deploys to New Guinea for World War II, having refused to use connections to rise through the ranks. Upon arriving, Sam again knows what to do when everyone else is worn down and scared of the problem at hand. At one point, he is delirious with malaria and barely able to see, and yet not only does Sam lead a successful attack that breaks the Japanese opposition and captures an enemy general officer, but he also manages to dispatch three attackers with well-aimed shots in the dark of night. Things come to a head when Sam’s supposed nemesis, Courtney Massengale, is promoted over him and named the corps commander. Sam, now division commander, tells Massengale his desired maneuver is wrong and costly. Sam is right of course, as he always is, and he predictably saves the day, stopping the Japanese counterattack almost solely based on the sheer power of his leadership, while Massengale is saved embarrassment.
In short, being like Sam Damon is impossible. As a division commander he is as decisive as he was as a teenager, with the same magnetic leadership qualities, quick thinking, and tactical sense—gifts he was apparently, and unnaturally, endowed with. One can’t learn to be like Sam any more than one could learn to be Lebron James. Sure, both work hard at their profession, but they possess such natural talent that one cannot become them through emulation. Likewise, it would be impossible to follow Sam’s career path (and, as retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales has written, inadvisable). He never touches a staff job (save a short stint as an XO) in his nearly forty years as an officer and is only a field-grade officer for three years. Of course, one can try to be like Damon in terms of having empathy for the troops, being tactically sound, and committed to self-study. But, we don’t need Sam as a role model for those things.
If we are going to accept Damon as the model soldier, then we need to acknowledge all of the flaws that emerge in the character upon a deeper reading of the novel. In the most important moment of his career, Sam lacks moral courage. After seeing that Massengale is willing to lie and get any number of people killed for glory, Sam threatens to expose him. All it takes for the Massengale to prevent this is to threaten to expose his affair—an affair that somehow makes Sam a better general—and to agree to put the unit in for a presidential unit citation. So, where he could end the career of one of the worst examples of moral leadership ever, he doesn’t, and that man continues to command soldiers for the next twenty years. Of course, Sam rationalizes this as protecting his soldiers from Massengale—without his presence the corps commander will destroy them, he believes. Maybe so. But it follows that Massengale would be gone too. That Sam backs down is a departure from his earlier moral stances, but the consequences here are so much greater.
Sam also is extremely insecure despite his success and utterly neglects his family as a consequence. He stays up all night reading Clausewitz, Jomini, and Thucydides and in the course of his career somehow teaches himself to speak five languages. This is a laudable example of self-study, so important to the profession of arms, but a terrible one of the importance of balance and family, which good commanders recognize. He does this because he believes he is behind, not because he is ambitious; it is his duty. This is the same reason he stays in the Army; he has a duty to be ready to lead in case of war. The death by suicide of Maj. Gen. John Rossi in 2017 was a tragic, real-world reflection of what Once an Eagle seems to hold up as a virtue. Rossi worked to excess in order to make up for his self-perceived shortcomings—just like Sam Damon.
At no point does Sam seem to grow from the sergeant he is in World War I. Just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, he concerns himself as battalion commander with instruction in marksmanship and digging foxholes. As an assistant division commander, Sam runs around the beach, finds a 37-millimeter gun, and gets to work orderly destroying tanks with his aide. (Sam subsequently criticizes the division commander for being near the front too much.) Once he becomes a division commander, in rationalizing his corrupt bargain with Massengale, he asks himself: “Who would be left to show [replacements] how to file the stacking swivels off their M1s so they wouldn’t catch in the creepers, how to tape their dog tags so they wouldn’t jingle, how to wear their grenades on the sides of their belts so they wouldn’t get in their way while crawling?” Presumably any number of noncommissioned officers. Sam does not ask the questions more appropriate to his role, like who will train the battalion commanders in water landings or teach them how to maneuver through jungle.
Sam also has some flaws that are especially pronounced by today’s standards: he repeatedly drives drunk (though it never impairs him), he tacitly allows his second-in-command to sexually harass nurses, and he overlooks improper conduct by senior officers, even when he finds one of his instructors drunk, lying on top of his best friend’s wife, soliciting her.
It is not until the last days of his life that Sam finally tries to thwart Massengale, now a four star with designs on invading China. Even then, his opposition is tepid. When he is sent on a fact-finding mission to Indochina on the orders of the chief of staff, Sam never directly states his dissenting opinion, instead offering his thoughts to an undersecretary of state in a meeting and encouraging him to see the situation for himself. Just before he is killed in Indochina, Sam tries to tell loyal subordinate Joey Krisler that he’ll have to make a choice between being a good human and being a good soldier in an attempt to get him to fight against Massengale at the expense of his career. This is something Sam has always declined to do.
The corollary to the celebration of Damon as a perfect leader is the warning to not be like Massengale. This comes in two forms: don’t be morally bankrupt and don’t spend your career in staff positions. Both are, frankly, ridiculous. Myrer writes Massengale’s moral bankruptcy into his very nature, and reading Once an Eagle won’t straighten somebody like that out. And in today’s Army, it is impossible to have Massengale’s career—no one could conceivably become a corps commander without ever once having commanded at any level.
But, the reality is something hard to admit for the novel’s fans: save for Massengale’s moral failings, he is better positioned for high command than Damon. Damon may be a great combat leader, but he has no idea of the workings of the Army staff, joint operations, or the national security apparatus. He is great at getting those under him to fight for him but doesn’t seem particularly strong at building relationships among his peers or with the other services and rankles his superiors. He knows how to fight in battle but that can only take one so far. Massengale, by contrast, has served in the war plans branch, as an aide-de-camp to several general officers, and on the staffs of many others. He understands naval and air operations and knows how to work with officers of these branches. He brings people together and controls the narrative quite well. Unlike Sam, he is a graduate of the Command and General Staff College and the War College. If being like Sam and not like Courtney is the model, then our career paradigm is way off. Nearly every general officer will have a resume that looks at least as much like Massengale’s as Damon’s—and probably more so.
Neither Myrer nor the novel are at fault here. Myrer wrote this as a saga replete with references to earlier epics. Understood as that, the novel achieves its purpose quite well. Damon is a mythical hero in the vein of an Odysseus or Achilles. For Myrer, there is no need to come off the black and white of Damon and Massengale. The interpretation—or lack thereof—is the real problem. I suspect most of Sam’s flaws were unintentional—in fact, they are almost always excused in the literature and generally make him better. (Sam suffers no sanctions for his affair, a fate dissimilar from general officers who followed in his wake.) However, he does have flaws, as Courtney has strengths. Most readers don’t notice or don’t seem to care.
So, what is the harm in trying to be like Sam Damon? After all, he loves his soldiers, is tactically proficient, and is dedicated to his craft. Of course, those are all desirable traits, but where Damon’s influence extends beyond them it becomes a problem. The consequences of adopting his self-doubt is one example, especially if it leads officers to neglect their families as it did him. Another is Damon’s focus on the individual—his tendency to miss the forest for the trees as a senior leader—which is reflected in, for instance, division policies on physical training (an individual responsibility) and rifle marksmanship (a skill level 1 task), among others. Division, corps, and FORSCOM training guidance documents typically cover many individual, crew, platoon, and company tasks, all formations well below the traditional training responsibilities of those headquarters. Sam’s division training guidance would likely be pithier but similar. And, the idea that command is the goal and staff positions are something to be endured or avoided is so entrenched it has become accepted wisdom in the Army. How many great officers avoid staff jobs—or leave the Army—because they don’t want to end up like Massengale?
Certainly, the novel still has a fair amount of merit—and it is a good read. However, leaders would do well to assign it with some guided questions. Cadets and officers should not be handed the book and told to go read and learn. Telling someone to learn from Sam and Courtney is a missed opportunity. It’s not development. Readers can consider the value of being in a peacetime Army. They can think about what it means to serve when the only rewards are intangible. Readers should certainly think and discuss Sam’s ethical failure. Maybe Sam was right to do what he did; it’s worth a debate. The value of personal preparation and unit readiness outside of wartime are also topics for reflection and discussion. Going in with these questions in mind will make for a much more fulfilling and valuable reading experience than a superficial fixation on the differences between Sam and Courtney.
However, if the point is to learn to be a Damon and not a Massengale, let’s leave it off reading lists. There are plenty of flawed, but real, officers that have Damon-like qualities and Massengale-like ambition that are ripe for study and that one can study in much more depth. In fact, Winfield Scott combines the competence and preparation of Damon with the high ambition of Massengale and he is an understudied and underappreciated officer. But, if we’re going to tell our subordinates to go read a nearly 1,300-page book, it has to be for something more than observing an assumed dichotomy that doesn’t really exist in the novel. Let’s either study Sad Sam, warts and all, or retire him for a new model.
Darrell Fawley is the Professor of Military Science at Ohio University and most recently served as 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division’s executive officer. He is a graduate of the Advanced Military Studies Program and was an Art of War Scholar at the Command and General Staff Officers Course. He is the author of 4-31 Infantry in Iraq’s Triangle of Death and has published articles in Small Wars Journal, ARMY magazine, and Infantry magazine.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.