- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Col. Robert Killebrew, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense office of military-literary affairs
I’m probably the only Army officer I ever knew who wasn’t particularly impressed with Once an Eagle, which I regard as an amusing but not profound military soap opera.
The reason soap operas are popular is because they are such stereotypes of personalities — the deceitful husband, the stalwart wife — and so is the book. In fact, people, and military careers, are far more complicated than a soap opera. I have known officers who were outwardly Courtney Massengales who evolved into terrific commanders, and Sam Damons who were deliberately lousy staff officers — where most of us spent the majority of our lives — because they, well, wanted to be Sam Damon.
C’mon — where would you have put George Marshall, who had every outward characteristic of Massengale? I rather suspect that for his “Sam” model the author had Vinegar Joe Stilwell in mind. Everybody loves the picture of Stilwell as the tough-talking, campaign-hat-wearing simple soldier, but how did he really do at the senior levels?
If anything, I think the novel has had a negative effect on the Army, perpetuating among some senior officers that they should be just simple, hardworking country boys who don’t understand all this staff stuff and who therefore overlook it (a few recent four-stars come to mind). I’ve nothing against a good read — and the book was amusing — but that it could be seriously discussed as a model for officership is a stretch.