Best Defense

O! The damage ‘Once an Eagle’ has done to my Army — and yes, it is partly my fault

Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally ran on December 18, 2013. 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 ...


Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally ran on December 18, 2013.

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. Its 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 profession.

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 political-military policymaking.

Maybe it’s time to move Once an Eagle from the War College reading list to the used bookshelf.

Bob Scales is a retired Army major general and former commandant of the Army War College.

Thomas 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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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