Seventy-five years ago today terrified young men jumped off bucking landing crafts into the roiling surf that broke on the ancient beaches of Normandy. Of the first to be shoved ashore, those that weren’t immediately killed were drowned, and those that were neither killed nor drowned struggled ashore only to be killed in the wet sand, that soon became wet and with blood and not only water. A small number survived, and as the day went on their number increased. Seventy-five years later we look back on D-Day as a great victory. It was. But it was also war, and war is as it has always been: ugly, violent, wasteful, and in the midst of all that, an also an occasion for luminous heroism.
Today’s anniversary has caused me to think of a great American book about war: Once An Eagle, by Anton Myrer.
Every war memoir I’ve ever read, and every combat veteran I’ve ever spoken to, always tells the same story about the men who make up an army:
- Some are staff officers who never come near the actual fighting and dying, and some of these have somehow attained senior rank despite never serving in actual combat;
- Some are staff officers who drop into combat roles to feather their records so as to attain future rank, and these are dangerous men, because they care only about promotion and will risk other men’s lives for their own glory;
- Some are wicked men–both officers and enlisted–who enjoy violence and killing;
- Most are the ordinary enlisted men, terrified at the prospect of a violent death and also capable of extraordinary bravery and sacrifice on behalf of their friends;
- And some few are the good ones, the officers who do everything to serve the men under their commands, who often die, who are often passed over for promotion, and who will never be forgotten by the men they led.
This distribution shouldn’t surprise us, because it’s just the same as ordinary life. The difference is that in war, life and death is more immediate than it is for us in ordinary life.
Knowing the above and knowing that war is an inevitable part of human life, what is to be done?
Once An Eagle is unique among war books that I know of in that it’s a novel about a sense of calling. The novel’s hero is a Nebraskan named Sam Damon. Sam learns that war is mainly fought by ordinary, terrified men, who are often poorly led and made to die needless deaths, and so Sam feels a responsibility–a sense of calling–to offer himself to do what he can to serve the ordinary men who fight our wars.
The novel covers Sam’s military career, beginning with World War I, then through the long wilderness years between the wars in lonely forts across the American West, the Philippines, and even mainland China. Then war comes again (as Sam always knew it would) with Pearl Harbor, and the fighting resumes.
Sam devotes himself to leading and serving the ordinary, terrified men under his command; there is almost something religious in the sacrifices he makes on their behalf. Once An Eagle is filled with scenes of brutality and waste and greed and stupidity, and also courage and sacrifice and the sort of quiet heroism that ordinary men perform when they must.
I said last year in a Father’s Day post that I think every American man should read this book, and I stand by that statement today, as we remember the unimaginable terror and violence and heroism of D-Day, seventy-five years later.
Note on My Rating System
I use a 5 star system in my ratings to signify the following:
★★★★★ life-changing and unforgettable
★★★ worth reading
★★ read other things first
★ not recommended
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