“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.
MAJ Fawley is an accomplished and talented officer I have known since he was a cadet and my son's classmate at West Point. However, like his predecessor Bob Scales who believed Once an Eagle's value was overrated, Major Fawley's detailed analysis is both superficial and naive.
I first read Once an Eagle as a thirteen year old and like Scales it was given to me by my father who unlike Scales had served only briefly in the Army National Guard. The Viet Nam War made military service unpopular yet this book inspired me to serve ;eventually for 34 years.
Then and now I recognize(d) the flaws in the noble character of Sad Sam Damon. I am quite certain that Anton Myrer never intended to portray Dam as the perfect model of a soldier/officer. Quite the opposite, he deliberated exposed his flaws and strengths as part of a complex conflicted character. I have reread the book perhaps 25 times through my military serve and after and each time I gained new perspectives on what a good officer could and should be. Additionally, Myrer's book reflects his view as a WW2 VET who carefully chronicled the emergence of our Army as an admirable but flawed institution that never the less emerged as a liberating force but perhaps lost it's way in Vietnam. Because I valued this novel so highly and still do, I gave a copy to each of my sons who also still serve; one viewed Sad Sam as I do and the other, like Maj Fawley but both belived it to be essential reading. I continue to consider Once an Eagle as a timeless work and a must read for every officer.
@Michael_Haith= Thank you for this considered reply to Darrell Fawley’s analysis. I too have deeply loved “Once an Eagle” and, although I am not a career military man, I feel entitled to say that you are right!
My opinion is based on one fact and one guess.
The fact is that, when read and reread, the book whole structure appears to be headed for a cathartic moment: the staff conference on the eve of the Palamangao landing, and the ensuing 29 Oct ‘44 head-to-head meeting in which Massengale makes to Damon (with a witness in attendance) the promise that in case of need the Corps floating reserve shall be available at his calling. The breach of this promise is clearly, from the viewpoint of Anton Myrer, the ultimate sin – although Myrer takes pains to let us now that this breach by Massengale was a “calculated risk”, explainable if not excusable.
Darrell Fawley seems, deliberately or not, to have overlooked the central thesis of Myrer: That – whatever his rank – an officer in the fog of war must above all be a dependable man!
The guess – which is mine but strongly inspired by David Halberstam’s book “The Coldest Winter” – is that Massengale stands for Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Damon stands for Gen. Matthew Ridgway. That the historical MacArthur also appears as a character in Myrer’s book is, in my view, a red herring.
Even though Ridgway did neither serve in France in WW I nor in the Pacific in WW II, Ridgway’s manner of command, as described by Halberstam, matches almost point to point the manner of Damon.
MacArthur had been dead for a few years when decisions about Vietnam (Khotiane in the book) were taken; but an opinion given by Ridgway did much to help Truman put an end to MacArthur’s ambitions of expanding the Korean War to China; and Ridgway had previously advised not to expand the Indo-China war (by giving open support to the French).
Maybe Darrell Fawley has found the twin portraits of MacArthur and Ridgway (as painted by Myrer through Massengale and Damon) to be wanting, and their early encounter & intertwined careers to be overly romanticized! But they did meet in the end, with portentous consequences; and – if my guess is right – Fawley should not have avoided mentioning this parallel which becomes glaringly obvious when one has made it.
The life of MacArthur and that of Ridgway are indeed two useful objects of study for career officers! Anton Myrer’s book is a work of fiction, but its underlying tenets can also be usefully meditated.
Funny. I've never heard of it. I'm a Military Science Instructor and this the first time I've heard of this book.
Me neither. I just found a 1968 or 1970 paperback edition among my boxed-up library and was about to toss it away, but something in its description made me look up the character Sam, and lo and behold, so much has been written about him and the modern military life. SO I might read it one day.
Maj. Fawley appears to mix a signpost with a goal mark.
The fact the we may miss the mark does not mean that we should not take aim at perfection.
Aiming to achieve mediocrity is rarely motivating and a recipe for failure
The real question is whether you see the profession of arms as a calling or as a business. If it's a calling then you like to soldier and you will stay with soldiers. If its a business or a career then you're going to execute those activities that will get you ahead and stay ahead for as long as possible. It's a distinct mind set that Myer tries to show in his book. In the end,Damon plays the game just like Massingale.
I found this article somewhat bewildering, as I read his wordy rationale for not liking a book. Apparently, 1261 pages is intimidating, but asking, “How do you model yourself on someone who is just naturally good?” is nothing short of stupefying!
Sam reading Clausewitz as a private seemed to be worth mentioning for some reason -it seems elitist or is it a forbidden book to all but a few? Having to lead a unit when many are down with malaria doesn’t seem plausible (though many of us in Vietnam had to persevere though touched by it)? So “In short, being like Sam Damon is impossible” – so don’t try (what happened to, “Be all you can be?”)
As for West Point and the Army War College, I’m reminded of COL Harry Summers warning that “… the bottom line is the battlefield, and we’re getting farther and farther away from that reality. Fewer and fewer people have any firsthand battlefield experience.”
This is one of my all-time favorite books. I read this critique with interest and couldn't help imagining it being written by Courtney Massengale. Given MAJ Fawley's experience and accomplishments I know that's a rdiciulous thought of course, but the commentary begs the question: who IS the new model?
Once an Eagle is a book I have carried around with me since I first saw the mini-series on TV in Australia as a kid during the mid-70s.
The insight and power of Anton Myrer goes way beyond the ethics and morality of the two main characters. This book is a story about life, a man who meets several mentors along his path.
It is 1300 pages out of your life – I don’t think anyone who gets through it will put it down without taking something from it.
I have read this book 3 or 4 times now – it is just such a fantastic story about life itself.
This book was recently given tomy by a retired Army O-6. I came upon Fawley's article by doing some follow up research on the book. It's funny that Mike correlates Fawely with Massengale, that's the perception I came away with. I am all about the separation of the Commander and Staff type of officer. I also believe both to be equally important in moving the services forward. I tend to shy away from the staff types of positions, specifically the Aide de Camp positions. Yes to the possible detriment to my career but I know my strengths do not lie there. So aspiring to rise through the ranks as a Soldier's Soldier and bettering oneself for that purpose in not a bad thing. I was not the best at sports, school or top in any of my military schools. Being in my second command I have been rated as 1 of …..This isn't a brag but a contradiction to what Fawley is saying. It's characters like Damon that motivate leaders, of all abilities, to be better. Those figures should never be retired.
I was surprised and somewhat disappointed in MAJ Fawley's criticism of Sam Damons character in Once an Eagle. I read the book in 1968 when it was Book of the Month Clubs selection; I was 16 years old. The book for was formative; It helped inspire me during my 30 year Army career to do what is honorable and patriotic. I led by example. I never asked a man or woman to do anything I wouldn't do myself. I learned to ignore certain orders because they were wrong, misguided or just plain stupid. Like Sam, I'm not perfect, but I strive for goodness. I saw service during Vietnam, in Bosnia and Afghanistan. Knowing I was part of a large institution, I knew my personal contributions would be considered insignificant, overridden or ignored, but I made my contributions to the best of my ability and patriotic loyalty anyway. I believe I helped. I sleep well. My family is proud. My son is third generation US Army. Having just reread the book, I see what great sacrifices my wife and family made to support my service. That's no small contribution.
I served in the Regular Army during the 80s (Sergeant/E5 Field Artillery). I read once an eagle. I also saw the mini series starring Sam Elliott as Major General Sam Damon. With all due respect to the author, and with further respect to his service in the Army, it is time to bring Sam Damon back. The Army, along with the other branches of the U.S. Armed Forces has been infected by the WOKE mentality of the far left. General Milley, the Chairman of the Joint chiefs of staff, and a former Chief of Staff of the Army actually said that the Army should understand "white rage". I guess that takes precedence to training soldiers for war in order to preserve the peace. Many fine, dedicated officers who have not been infected by P.C. and the woke mentality have either resigned or retired because they had enough of the politically correct B.S. We need more Sam Damons and fewer perfumed princes to command companies, battalions, brigades, divisions and so forth. Considering the lamentable state of our military, I suspect that George Patton is turning over in his grave, along with Jim Gavin, Jim Van Fleet, Terry Allen and so on.