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Once an Eagle

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Once an Eagle is a novel by Anton Myrer, which, since its 1968 publication, has been, by many, considered essential reading about professionalism in the American military. It contrasts the careers of two officers, Sam Damon, an extremely ethical soldier that prefers to stay in the field, and Courtney Massengale, a polished and competent staff officer, whose priority is his own career.

The two are archetypes, not precisely corresponding to any one real officer, but bringing many to mind. Damon, eager to get to war, enlisted even though he had a pending West Point appointment. Walter Krueger, for example, rose from private to four stars, but did not receive the Medal of Honor, as did Damon. Omar Bradley has also been suggested, as one general who always cared for his men.

While both Damon and Massengale are Army officers, there are interesting United States Marine Corps parallels, such as Evans Carlson or Samuel Griffith, who took on dangerous and out-of-the-career mainstream assignments as observers of guerrilla war in China.

It has been suggested that Massengale is modeled after Douglas MacArthur, but MacArthur showed a total, perhaps unwise, unconcern when under enemy fire, and also did have flashes of military genius. Lloyd Fredendall has been mentioned, but even Massengale was a better leader.

The book has consistently been on the professional reading lists of all the U.S. military services, but the problems it poses still exist. Delays in promoting H. R. McMaster to brigadier general have been attributed to his not playing the careerist game, but McMaster is also atypical in being a scholar whose dissertation, which became a bestseller, vitriolically but precisely criticized leadership of the Vietnam War.