Tags: Veterans | james mattis | secretary of defense | once an eagle | norman schwarzkopf

James Mattis Hailed as Fictional 'Sam Damon Come to Life'

general james mattis looks stern pointing upward with his right index finger in front of his chin
Gen. James Mattis (AP)

Monday, 24 December 2018 03:52 PM Current | Bio | Archive

When Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced his surprise resignation last Thursday, there were immediate accolades paid to the much-admired former U.S. Marine Corps general.

"He's Sam Damon come to life," is how one fan described Mattis, likening the soon-to-be ex-Cabinet officer to the hero of Anton Myrer's classic novel of war and the military, "Once an Eagle."

It is a timely comparison, since Mattis' resignation comes 50 years after Myrer's 900-page-plus extravaganza hit the bookstores and quickly made The New York Times best-seller list.  The nation was captivated, it seemed, with the saga of Sam Damon — a "Mustang" (enlisted man before becoming an officer) who serves with General Pershing in Mexico in the early 20th century, wins the Congressional Medal of Honor in World War I, learns guerilla tactics with Mao's Communist forces in China during the '30's, and commands with valor in the Pacific during World War II.

"[It's a] classic novel of war and warriors," the late Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf once said of "Once an Eagle." "Sam Damon doesn't preach. He lives his values."

"Once an Eagle" was made into a made-for-TV movie in 1976, and it lives on to this day. In 1997, the U.S. Army War College Foundation republished the novel by Myrer (himself a U.S. Marine enlisted man who saw action in the Pacific), with a new introduction by retired Gen. John Vessey, Jr., former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

During his own stint as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey (USA) put "Once An Eagle" on his recommended reading list and hailed it as "the best work on fiction on leadership in print." Today, the book is on the recommended reading lists of the Marine Corps and Air Force.

In an age of counter-terrorism and asymmetric warfare, the ground rules of war have obviously changed since Sam Damon's day. But the reader of today still learns timeless lessons from Sam on matters ranging from respecting subordinates to leading from the front in combat.

Discussing "Once an Eagle" in 2009, retired Gen. Richard Myers (USAF), also a past chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told this reporter: "I was fortunate to have served with a few Sam Damons."

He quickly added with a sigh, "I also knew quite a lot of Courtney Messingales."

Just as Damon is the book's hero, Messingale is its obvious villain. The polar opposite of Damon, Messingale works his way up the ladder in the Army through powerful connections (his uncle is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee), cultivation of superiors through dinner parties, and sheer guile — all the while, never once getting anywhere near combat in three wars.

Myrer offers a silent commentary on the Army by subtly noting that in any of the encounters Damon has with Messingale, the "insider" officer is always one rank above the soldier who has seen action — and who Messingale always addresses somewhat contemptuously as "Samuel."

An obvious theme from "Once an Eagle" that is timeless and admonishes today's top brass in the service is: "Promote Damons, not Messingales!"

If any reader or reviewer gets the impression Sam Damon is "too good to be true" or a "superhero," one can guess again. Through Damon, the author brings out the problems with a career in uniform that are all too human. 

Having fallen in love and married "Tommy" Caldwell, a colonel's daughter, after World War I, Damon experiences his wife's stress with regular moves and resettling in the peacetime Army. Sam and Tommy, separated for long periods during World War II, both have brief affairs — Sam with a nurse he meets while recovering from severe wounds in the Pacific and Tommy with a wealthy Long Island defense contractor. Upon Sam's return, the couple face  these situations and move on.

The conclusion of this powerful work is one that will make the reader seriously ponder U.S. engagement abroad — and have some serious questions about the Pentagon.

Bored in civilian life, a septuagenarian retired Gen. Damon is reactivated for a special assignment in a war-torn Southeast Asian country that is South Vietnam in all but name.  Drawing on his tutorial from Mao and his guerillas in China, Damon becomes convinced this is a fight the U.S. should have no part of.

In seeking to get this message out, he faces a formidable obstacle in a top general who wants a greater U.S. hand in Southeast Asia — you guessed it! — Courtney Messingale.

Myrer's obvious opposition to the U.S. role in Vietnam almost surely clashed with those of Gens. Schwarzkopf, Vessey, and others who served proudly in Southeast Asia. But, to a person, they hold "Once an Eagle" in the highest regard.

Another Vietnam veteran who shares that view is retired Lt. Gen. Ron Christmas (USMC), who was seriously wounded at the bloody battle of Hue in 1968.

"I not only read 'Once an Eagle,' but I used Sam Damon as I made my way through the Marine Corps," Christmas told Newsmax. "And you are very right to think of Jim Mattis in a similar way. He is a highly principled officer and our president left him no choice but to resign.

"I had the good fortune to mentor Jim before the march on Bagdad [in 2003]. He's a true warrior and a patriot — just like Sam Damon."

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

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Secretary of Defense James Mattis is a "Once an Eagle" character "Sam Damon come to life," according to those hailing the resigning former general, Newsmax's John Gizzi reports.
james mattis, secretary of defense, once an eagle, norman schwarzkopf
Monday, 24 December 2018 03:52 PM
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