By Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense guest confessor
I was commandant of the Army War College in
1997 when Anton Myrer's widow gave the Army War College the rights to her
recently deceased husband's book, Once an Eagle.
She requested that the college republish the book. We received funds from the
college foundation for the reprint and it has remained in print ever since. On
the flyleaf I wrote that the book:
"Has been a moral compass for me and my family
of soldiers for more than two generations. It's ethical message is as fresh and
relevant today as it was when Anton Myrer wrote it during the war in Vietnam."
The book's lasting attraction for soldiers is
the personal and moral battle within its pages between true and false
officership as embodied by Sam Damon, a former enlisted man and true soldier's
soldier and Courtney Massengale, a West Pointer who embodies all that is evil
among the grasping and politically driven staff officer elite.
My dad was a mustang like Sam. He was a high
school graduate, one of the first to finish Engineer Officer Candidate School
in 1942. Thus he was in the branch at the time densest in West Pointers. He
fought through three wars to retire as a colonel. He gave me a first edition in
1972 and told me to read it as a reminder of what a young West Pointer should
know about the difference between a true combat leader and a "staff officer."
For years the book became a bedside volume and often I would, like many in my
generation who had seen insensitive staff REMFs in Vietnam, warn too-clever
officers not to "act like a Massengale."
Over the post-Vietnam era, virtually every Army
officer read three books. First was This
Kind of War by T.R. Fehrenbach. It remains today as one of the best works
on the Korean War. The enduring value of the book is that it chronicles the
dangers of unpreparedness, a lesson all too familiar to the service that always
suffers the most between wars. The second was Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, a fictional portrayal
of the Battle of Gettysburg. Neither Shaara nor Fehrenbach were professional soldiers
or military historians, yet both of their books captured the essence of real
war and each taught enduring lessons every officer needed to learn about his
Of course the third and most revered was Once an Eagle. Four decades of officer
readership has made it both a moral guide for comportment and an indelible
cultural metaphor for the difference between unit command and service on a
staff. Yet after 10 years of war I'm
beginning to question if this cultural icon might have done a generation of the
Army a disservice ... and it's in part my fault.
There have always been two tracks for an
officer's career: command or staff, Sam or Courtney. With reflection I think,
in part as a result of the book, the Army today venerates Sam Damon too much
and castigates Courtney Massengale to its detriment. Its pages might well have
contributed to the conflation of two views of careerism between the good
warrior versus the bad staff officer. Today's generation has spent a great deal
of time in the field and very little in the classroom or on the staff. Many are
unduly contemptuous about serving in the purgatory of the Washington
bureaucracy and treat staff time as an unwelcome interlude between assignments
in the field.
Perhaps the pull of the Sam track has made too
many commanders out of officers whose place is on a staff, and too few
brilliant staff officers who choose to leave right in the midst of their most
productive years because they failed to make the cut for the next command. My
favorite Courtney model is retired Colonel Allen Meyer, who was my staff mate
in the ‘80s in the plans and policy shop on the Army Staff. He was the smartest
officer I have ever known. As a colonel, he ran the classified operation
against the Soviets in Afghanistan at the behest of the Army's chief of staff.
Later, he was President Reagan's speechwriter and wrote the famous "good-bye,
old friend" speech at Arlington that still stirs hearts. Al left too soon.
He went on to great success as an entrepreneur and his drive and brilliance
made him a wealthy man. And, unlike Courtney, he remains a great guy. But I
think not a great infantry combat commander.
My sense is that because too many of the Als
and Courtneys have left, much of the critical brain work in the Pentagon today
is being done by civilian Courtneys. Visit any influential policy shop in the
Pentagon and you'll see bitter senior staff officers willingly taking a back
seat to a young Georgetown M.A. just returned from supporting some political
campaign. The lack of uniformed staff brilliance has over the past decade
distorted both the quality and the impact of the advice that soldiers are
supposed to give to their civilian masters, and that's too bad.
Sam Damons serve well as company and battalion
commanders. Courtney Massengales serve better as senior staff officers. Perhaps
we have too many of the former and not enough of the latter. We need more
officers with Courtney's skill as strategists, officers with the ability to
think in time, who are able to express themselves with elegance, clarity,
conviction, and intellect, and yes, navigate through the swamp of
Maybe it's time to move Once an Eagle from the War College reading list to the used book shelf.
Bob Scales is a retired
Army major general and former commandant of the Army War College.