Once An Eagle
Anton Myrer, 1968
I encountered this novel on the Wikipedia competent man page. It is very long (1300 pages in paperback) and rather flabby. I skimmed some of it, read much of it, because it portrays the experiences and opinions of many fellow citizens in the military, serving and veteran.
The absolute most important message of the book - the enlisted man (EM) serves the country, and the officer corps should serve the enlisted man, not vice versa. The worst message in the book - businessmen feed off war, strategic planners are glory hounds who waste lives pointlessly.
The hero, Sam Damon, rises from enlisted man to corporal in Pershing's 1916 Mexican Expedition/Invasion, from seargent through major in World War One France, lieutenant between wars, and captain to two star general in the World War Two Pacific. The last 112 paperback pages are a thinly veiled reference to Vietnam where Damon is a non-commanding observer, completing the story but weakening the book (IMHO).
Sam Damon is self educated and independent; he follows orders, but takes the initiative and gives orders when the situation requires it. If you do not want to read the whole novel (it is a very long slog), the best story is Wheat chapter 4, pages 144 to 181 of the paperback, about a brilliant military exploit, and the most illuminating story is the second half of Chapparal chapter 1 starting with "They worked quickly", pages 409 to 427, about Damon protecting his between-wars demolition platoon from a lethally incompetent superior officer. Liana chapter 4 is Sam's homecoming, where he reconciles with his wife, and tells the patriotic crowd at home in Nebraska (PB page 1166) of the waste and cruelty of war.
Damon is not remotely competent as a husband or father - perhaps this is "realism" but he is annoyingly obtuse about choosing and supporting a mate. His wife "Tommy" would be more supportive if she was more supported, if he devoted more time to strategizing his marriage so his wife was a fully committed confidant and ally in his career. It is indeed a time investment, but pays back with time and trust and strength. A wise military command would devote serious effort to strengthening service families; strong families strengthen soldiers and beget more.
The book discounts the contribution of strategy and industry to winning a modern war. The greedy businessman and the gloryhound strategist are stock characters in modern fiction, and are religiously copied in this one. Courtney Massengal is the staff officer who expends soldiers like bullets, pushing armies around to watch the pretty patterns on a map, trumpeting "audacity" while forgetting job one of the strategist.
A wise strategist moves armies to destroy the opposing army while strengthening his own, expanding the advantage in morale, competence, equipment and civilian support, not merely moving lines on a map. The best battle is won without fighting it, and this is where strategists, field commanders, troops, and the vastly larger civilian production army can achieve most.
While the atomic bomb is the famous technological wonder of world war two, the true wonders were decryption, radar, high octane avgas, and the huge coordinated production systems and supply chains providing a dependable river of these tools, vastly amplifying the power of the troops and creating new options for the strategist. The Pacific war was won by strategic island-hopping; isolating an island full of dug-in Japanese from all sources of supply and transport leaves them nothing to shoot at while they starve. Increasing aircraft range (through the work of aviator/inventor/entrepreneurs like Dolittle, Rickenbacker, Lindbergh, and countless others) allows longer hops.
Taking islands for airbases was necessary but bloody. The fundamental goal was fast progress, and enhancement of troop capability so that future progress would be even faster. Burning up troops to win a battle leaves fewer troops for the next battle - even a sociopath strategist should understand this. Troops do not fight without weapons, and democracies do not have arsenals without well-managed industrial production.
I don't think Myrer understood where the guns and airplanes and ships come from. Not merely from armies of workers, but from those rationally organizing them, and designing the most effective weapons and supplies for the soldiers to use. Years were wasted during World War II understanding where the enemy's supplies came from; Germany ran on coal, and when we used our bombers to destroy the railyards and canals that moved it, the Wehrmacht ground to a halt, far easier to destroy by an extremely mobile Allied army.
The book is required reading at the service academies, to all marines, etc. Teaching a commitment to the troops instead of the peacocks at headquarters is laudable, and this book does so. Teaching entrepreneurial resourcefulness to the troops, so they will apply that in their civilian lives after they use it in battle, is vastly more important in the long run. I hope someone writes the novel that portrays this, replacing "Once an Eagle". We want soldiers who win and go home, ready to excel in civilian life as they did on the battlefield.
Tony McPeak commanded the Air Force in Gulf War 1. He teaches that a war should result in more friends and fewer enemies - if it does not, it is a waste of blood and treasure. After retiring from the military, he is now an investor and an executive. If he trained many of his subordinates to do likewise, it will mean hundreds of new companies, thousands of new products, and millions of new jobs, strengthening America and setting a positive example for countries. If we make the US more attractive as an ally than as an enemy, we will have more friends to help us fight fewer wars.