- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By “Capt. B”
Best Defense guest book critic
Just read your re-run (I’m enjoying them tremendously) about Once an Eagle and was stunned at the premise: a seminal novel on officership has skewed and jaded an entire generation of officers against staff work. I kept reading hoping the piece would address the real message of the book, but it failed to even acknowledge it.
Arrogance, political scheming, and careerism displayed by Courtney are outward symptoms of personal selfishness and self-worship. Sam is the model of selflessness, loyalty to his men, and professional soldiering above personal advancement.
If the reader is in doubt, the novelist, Anton Myrer, brings this center stage when the two are stationed in the Philippines and Courtney offers Sam a position on his future staff, with the promise of exposure to D.C. circles and advancement. Courtney’s purpose is to gain an ally, use Sam’s talents, and hobble a future competitor. Sam’s only consideration is whether the assignment will better prepare him to lead men in the coming war. Sam later learns of Courtney’s trickery to change his orders to C&S College with shipping him away as an observer to the Chinese. Sam’s reply is, “he’s going where he wants, and I’m going to learn how to fight Japs, we both get what we want.”
I have served as a platoon commander in combat, company XO in deployment preparation, and assistant operations officers for a battalion in combat. Staff work is valuable, as are good staff officers. If the modern officer is so shallow as to believe Myrer’s work is a condemnation of “the staff” then he need only be instructed by the Prussian model. The issue at hand is one’s character, not the capacity in which it is demonstrated. The most courageous officer I know was the S-3 who understood how to run a staff, stood up to the BN Cmdr when he was wrong, and guided a disgruntled 1stLt who was frustrated that he wasn’t out “being a real Marine.”
Character, selflessness, and love: these are the qualities of a leader, on either end of the radio, and in this classic work.
“Capt. B” is a Marine infantry officer who has both led men and served on staff in combat.