Last summer I noticed this massive, 1400-page novel mixed in with a batch of non-fiction war books Blackstone had acquired for the military market. The title rang a bell so I did a little research and realized we had a gem on our hands. Anton Myrer's sprawling 1968 novel could fairly be considered the Atlas Shrugged of the Army set. It embodies a code of living held dear by those who have devoted their lives to the defense of our country. It was made into a TV mini-series in 1976, starring Sam Elliot and Glenn Ford. The corny title aside, it's a big-boned, raw-knuckled epic in the tradition of Guthrie and Wouk, with a dash of Stegner's thoughtfulness thrown in for good measure. The writing is solid and well-crafted, the characters sharply etched and unforgettable, the conflicts neatly delineated and convincingly played out. The battle scenes are authentic and thrilling to read. In short, it's just the sort of book I love to sink my teeth into.
Once an Eagle follows the career of Sam Damon, a smarter-than-average Nebraska farm boy possessed by a burning desire to do "great things." On the eve of America's entry into World War I, he boldly seeks a coveted slot at West Point, but when circumstances intervene to deny him this opportunity, he decides to enlist in the Army. Blessed with native intelligence and a talent for strategic thinking, Sam's particular gift lies in his instinct for "the right thing at the right moment," a sort of sixth sense that kicks in when it appears that all is lost. This instinct comes into play when, in a stunning reversal of fortune, he rallies his decimated unit and turns a hopeless situation into a significant victory for the Allies. While his heroic actions garner him a medal, a promotion and a general's daughter for a wife, they also mark him as man who isn't prone to toe the line when it comes to shoddy orders and inept leadership.
The war over, Sam decides to make a career of the service, even though he's warned that "the war to end all wars" will render the Army obsolete. Sam feels otherwise, his experiences during the war having given him a glimpse of mankind's thirst for violence and conquest. The next two decades are filled with drudgery and frustration, but Sam uses the time to polish his leadership skills and devotes himself to intensive study. A plum assignment to China offers him a glimpse of the new face of war, but creates a rift with his family that proves difficult to heal. When, inevitably, war looms on the horizon again, Sam has established a firm bond with his unit and cultivated friendships with fellow officers that prove crucial in the coming conflict. On the other hand, his sense of justice and his refusal to "play the game" will have devastating consequences, for himself, his family and those closest to him.
Myrer served briefly in World War II and wrote a number of fine novels, among them The Last Convertible, a moving tribute to the "greatest generation" and an elegy, of sorts, for the "New Frontier" in American life and politics, which was also made into a mini-series in 1979. Once an Eagle is a splendid saga, hard to put down and filled with terrific action and plenty of emotional heft. Don't be put off by the length--if you like The Winds of War, you'll definitely enjoy this one.
If you're interested in learning more about the book and it's popularity with military buffs and professionals, you can visit this excellent website maintained by Tom Hebert.