The book is on the Marine Corps Commandants' Reading List, making it required reading for all marines. The United States Army War College holds an annual leadership seminar that uses the book. For West Point cadets, who are assigned the book in classes and seminars, reading ''Once an Eagle'' has become a rite of passage, much like discovering ''Catcher in the Rye'' as a teen-ager. Favorite passages are quoted routinely, especially Sam Damon's dying words: ''Joey, if it comes to a choice between being a good soldier and a good human being -- try to be a good human being. . . .''Though I gather that in more recent years it's come in for it's share of poor review from military readers as well.
Published in 1968, the novel follows a main character, Sam Damon, who joins up shortly before World War One, is promoted from the ranks during the war, and apparently goes on to a career in the military that spans World War Two and beyond. (The author had left Harvard in 1942 and joined the Marines, where he spend several very formative years fighting the Pacific.)
The introduction to the edition I'm listening to is by General John W. Vessey Jr., and therein he describes it as an anti-war novel, comparing it to The Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front. I can see a bit of why that might be. Damon is a very good officer, who cares about his men but is also good at fighting and deeply committed to seeing his objectives through. He's horrified by the things that he sees while at the same time seeing them as necessary. In a long conversation after the Armistice with his mentor/commanding officer (one of the weak points of the novel one has to ignore is that there's a tendency of the author to pontificate a bit through his characters) Damon talks about how there must never be another war, how after seeing the horrors of this war politicians and nations must find anohter way to solve their disputes, while his mentor (who is urging him to consider staying on after the war) points out that war has always been horrific and people have yet to overcome the evils that drive them into violence.
At the same time, I can see why the books has been popular with military readers. It provides a viscerally realistic portrayal of combat, a by turns uplifting and sad portrayal of the friendships and emotions shared by men under constant threat of death, and most of all a clear (at times to the point of heavy-handed) portrayal of what it means to be a good officer who leads from the front and seeks to get the utmost effort out of his men, while caring about their lives more than is own.
This got me thinking a bit about what makes a novel "anti-war". Of the novels that I've read which I've heard described as "anti-war", the description often seems earned by conveying sentiments such as "combat is horrific", "war creates terrible destruction" and "doing violence wound even the victor". And yet, these don't seem like ideas that are necessarily in the sense of "pacifist" or "believing that war is always worse than its alternative". They are incompatible with the claim "war is a positive good in and of itself", but one would have to be pretty appallingly deluded to think that.
If conveying the idea "violence is deeply horrific" constitutes being anti-war, then all non-psychopaths are anti-war. Yet I've never had a pacifist describe me as anti-war. Nor do some of the favorite books of people who describe themselves as pacifist make a whole of of sense to me. For instance, why would Lord of the Rings not be a fairly objectionable book if one is serious about non-violence? And yet, not only is it liked by some people who describe themselves as pacifists, but I've even heard it too described as anti-war.
The hypothesis that I'm leaning towards is that if a book dealing with war is a sufficiently realistic description of the human experience, it will ring true both to people who consider violence never to be acceptable and to those who consider it to at times be necessary to stave off even greater evil. Though even so, I can't help thinking that Occupy Gondor would consider Aragorn to be a warmonger and Sauron to be merely the misunderstood victim of economic oppression.