Usually, when I go to airports, I am well prepared. I have my main book; my backup book; my backup to the backup; and my ultimate backup, if I meet with a series of delays or the other backups are terrible or I somehow find time to read all the others. On my way back from Florida, though, I suddenly found myself in Tampa's airport with nothing to read, so I purchased this 1,200 page doorstop with the knowledge that it'd last.
Once An Eagle traces the arc of a soldier's life: it follows Sad Sam Damon from his youth in a small Nebraska town (on the eve of America's entry into World War I) to his destiny in the steamy jungles of Southeast Asia decades later. It is a book that apparently is required reading at the Service Academies, and based on many of the reviews I've read, is highly thought-of in military circles. I don't have that kind of connection to the material; I can vouch, though, for its virtues. For one, it is an in-depth study of leadership. It also does a marvelous job capturing a snapshot of the early 20th century American Army, before it became the highly professional force that it is today.
The book starts slowly, which is never a good thing when you have more than 1,200 pages to get through. But when you're stuck on a plane, you have no choice but to keep reading. (Or make conversation with your seatmate, which is an option I shudder to comprehend). It begins with Sam talking to his girl Celia, about World War I, which is then raging in Europe:
'It all seems so far away,' Celia Harrodsen said. 'Paris and Berlin. And poor little Belgium. Sam, do you honestly thing we'll get mixed up in it?'
Sam does get mixed up in it. (Thankfully, for the dialogue between Sam and Celia is so badly stilted it gives stilts a bad name). He has dreams of West Point, and even gets accepted, but if he wants to attend, he will have to wait a year. Impulsively, he enlists instead, intending to work his way up through the ranks. Slowly, inexorably, he does.(This authorial decision spares the reader what would've been several hundred pages devoted to a West Point education, so it's a good thing Sam enlists).
Sam goes to Europe after America enters World War I, and serves heroically in the French countryside. After an unrelentingly dreary interlude in a scaled-back, post-war, peacetime Army, World War II breaks out. This time, Sam fights in the Pacific. This is where the action of the book picks up, with scenes of combat that are gripping and desperate, especially in comparison with the somewhat mundane and flaccid World War I section (the book is divided into chapters based on a geographic feature of the location where the chapter is set). This is perhaps owing to the fact that author Anton Meyer served in the same theater:
He was swept by so many perils he felt nothing: he had moved beyond them, out of their orbit. Nothing could touch him, crouched here, snatching up cartridges, snapping the breech open smartly, lifting his hand away from the recoil. He was nothing, he was beyond everything: the gun was animate, he was the oiled and glistening machine, the servant serving. What the hell, he thought; go out this way as any other. But the thought did not penetrate beyond a certain point; it lay outside his rage, the desperate, sweating ritual he was performing.
After his time in the Pacific, Damon serves as an observer in China, and eventually finished his career on a fact-finding mission to Vietnam.
The reason this book is a hit with military-types is because Sam Damon is the soldier all soldiers aspire to be. He is a career man, a professional, a lifer. He is that rare sort who devotes himself fully, not to a job but a calling. In Meyer's telling, there is something sacred and profound in Damon's unbroken service. Damon is a model commander: having risen from the enlisted ranks, he is solicitious of the men in his command. He is upright, stolid, fiercely loyal, and maniacally brave. At times, the character edges close to an archetype: the kind of square-jawed, clear-eyed hero we want to believe in. General Patton's intensity crossed with General Eisenhower's demeanor mixed with the All-American looks of Duke from G.I. Joe.
Yet Meyer contrasts the perfect knight with the flawed human. Damon has his flaws, they just aren't martial. At one point, he has an affair, though it's fair to say that Damon isn't regarded as the wrongdoer in the situation. He is also constantly railing against the stultifying military hierarchy that is slow to promote young, bright innovators, and which treats its enlisted men like garbage. Damon is portrayed as a man with Lasik enhanced vision in a kindgom of the blind.
The best parts of the book don't take place on the battlefields. Instead, it's the portrait of the toll Army life takes on the American family. Even though conditions have certainly improved, these sections of the book are as relevant today as ever. You really see the isolation experienced by military families when dad (and now, sometimes, mom) is off in the field. Beyond the absences, there is the transient nature of life, in which you are constantly uprooted and forced to move to a new place. And once you get to that place, you have to exist in a strictly defined social sphere (think John Ford's Fort Apache) where every relationship you have is predicated on rank. Meyer is at his best in evoking the far flung garrisons to which Damon is assigned. These are mostly distant, rundown garrisons that began as 19th century outposts guarding the frontier from Indians.
[T:]hey were at Fort Hardee, where life was certainly real if it wasn't earnest. Sam got three cots that first day, two for the bedroom and one for the living room, and she made couch covers out of muslin she dyed a deep blue in the washtub...They painted and mended and glued and sewed; they surprised each other with their skills, evoked each other's praise. The little backyard with its sunflowers drooping in the baked earth was hopeless...
I thought Once An Eagle had a number of shortcomings. Foremost among them was a lack of memorable characters. Damon is fine as a centerpiece. He isn't dynamic in a true sense, but you spend so much time with him that you are practically forced to like him. Other than Damon, though, most characters walk-on and walk-off. There are two exceptions. The first is Damon's friend, Colonel Ben "Wolverine" Krisler; the second is Damon's enemy, General Cortney Massengale, who represents everything that Damon rails against. These two men never come alive, and serve strict dramatic purposes: Krisler as a sidekick, and Massengale as an antagonist and foil. Since there is no true plot, this being something of a bilungsroman, there are many slow-moving parts, especially at the beginning, where you have to wade through some clunky expositional dialogue and hasty explanations before Damon enlists.
Still, the overall effect of this book, perhaps due to its heroic length, is quite powerful. It gives you the full sweep of a life of service, with its many sacrifices and few tangible rewards.
By the end, when General Damon goes to Vietnam as an observer, you have seen the American Army as it should be (dedicated officers like Damon, who shares the danger and cares for his men) positioned athwart the American Army as it soon will be (filled with angry draftees who will be thinking about fragging their officers).
It's hard to tell if Meyer is making a plea, or marking the passing of an era.
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