"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 8 December 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

The Catcher in the Wheat


The reluctance always comes before the act. Sergeant Devlin fights through World War I, "sick with raging, weak with slaughter," watching his friends die by the box lot all around him, and finally finds himself in battle at the edge of a wheat field, watching in horror as his platoon leader — not coincidentally his closest friend, who won a battlefield commission — urges him forward again. And he's nowhere near stupid enough to misunderstand what it means to cross through that "monstrous naked sweep." He finds himself stuck in place — but his paralysis doesn't last: "And then his will took over, his training and his pride, and he was in the wheat, putting one foot in front of the other."

When Anton Myrer's enormous novel Once an Eagle was released in the summer of 1968, many reviewers were almost a little bit impressed. One allowed that it would be "read and argued over for months," while the Library Journal suggested that the book "lacks too much to be of more than contemporary literary interest." Which was pretty close, with one notable exception: Thirty-two years later, Myrer's novel about a self-consciously proletarian U.S. Army officer and his preening, old money West Point nemesis has grown to become a totemic item within a significant subculture of that Army's officer corps, one of those things that people wear to meet a blind date so they can recognize each other in the lobby: Hey, so, uh — you like that book too, huh?

There are reasons for this that aren't especially obscure. For one thing, Myrer, a former Marine who fought in the Pacific through three years of World War II, produces some almost intolerably vivid combat writing. But there's something else going on here, something not quite explicit: Myrer wrote a book about military values that also turns out to be about a deep shift in the American understanding of manhood — about what appears to count when men add up the score against one another.

It takes another book to draw out the thread, a piece of non-fiction published thirty-two years later, one that might as well be shelved as a companion volume to Myrer's novel of martial sacrifice. In her 1999 book Stiffed, Susan Faludi identifies a notion of masculinity that grew out of World War II. By the conclusion of that war, Faludi writes, "the foot soldier was elevated into a masculine emblem — a man who proved his virility not by individual feats of showy heroism but by being quietly useful in conducting a war and supporting the welfare of his unit." That sentence might as well have appeared in a review of Once an Eagle, and the similarity of theme holds in the specifics — all the way to the moment at which both writers spot the apparent death of that kind of manhood in the burning villages of Vietnam.

The reluctance, the fact that of not having an appetite for it, is a cornerstone of both books. Faludi notes that Ernie Pyle hammered out a serial tale of "successful fatherhood and masculine transformation" — the fatherhood came from the Tom Hanks character, leading his boys into battle — that rejected militarism as it elevated military personnel to the highest state of heroism. "They just went," Pyle wrote. "They weren't warriors... They were afraid, but it was beyond their power to quit."

And so, during the first world war, Sam Damon, Once An Eagle's humble hero, visits his regimental commander, Colonel Caldwell. Despite his extraordinary heroism and care, Damon has led most of his men — including his friend, Sergeant Devlin — to impersonal, industrial deaths by artillery and machine gun fire, and doesn't see much of a point to any of it. Colonel Caldwell turns out, guess what, to agree, and so suggests that they "get on with it and get it behind us." The Myrer-Faludi-Pyle hive mind is humming right along in every particular, too: Sam sees "the eyes whose bemused, undeviating gaze seemed to behold the world in all its folly, all its avarice and violence and self-deception, and still go forward resolute and undismayed," and realizes what he wants from his commander. "If I could have a father again," he decides, "this is the man I'd want." (He comes close: He gets him as father-and-law. The wise old man has a hot daughter. Lucky one, yeah?)

Then Sam is wounded, and Caldwell visits him as he recovers — and asks him to stay in the army after the war ends. Because another war will eventually come bundling along, he argues, and then what'll happen to the country if the only people around to defend it are the idiots and monsters we've been killing and dying for all through this unbelievably stupid war? Sam just wants to go home; there is a moment of reluctance before he agrees. He is afraid, but it's beyond his power to quit.

A "society of utility" such as the one that arose during World War II, Faludi argues, judges men by their willingness to sacrifice, to shoulder burdens and provide for others — the very qualities "that society has long recognized in women as the essence of motherhood." Sam Damon's opposite, the spectacularly ambitious (read: "bad") staff officer Courtney Massengale — who misses a chance to have sex with Damon's wife because he can't work up an erection, as usual (and how about that name) — views Damon as a big loser for going to the aid of a private, Joe Brand, who stands accused of attacking a sergeant. Because what kind of officer wastes time on enlisted men, for one, and what does he gain by aligning himself with someone who's universally regarded as trouble? But Damon — a motel night clerk before he joined the army — persists against the "blind, vengeful grinding of Army justice," earning Brand's acquittal before a court martial. Brand follows Damon into the second world war.

Myrer waits several hundred pages to deliver the sacrificing-and-shouldering-the-burden point, all the way through World War II and many years into Damon's retirement. The phone rings, at home over the ocean in Carmel, and the chief of staff wants Sam to travel to Southeast Asia, have a look around, give us some pointers. His wife — Colonel Caldwell's daughter — objects. He's done his time in service, she argues; he's earned the right to leave the responsibility to others. He starts packing his socks.

He gazed up at her solemnly for a moment, chewing the inside of his cheek. "Honey, on Pala when I was hit, an Imperial Marine dumped a grenade in the CP hole and all I could do was lie there and look at it. And the only reason I'm sitting here right now looking at you is because a boy threw himself on it to save my beat-up old hide. And his name was Joe Brand."

Which means that if the Army asks him to go, you get it, he's going. So in a society of utility, decency and sacrifice are a kind of eternally circulating currency that accrues to everyone — sorry, every man — in at least the amount that he puts in. But it always obligates again upon payment, shoves what you owe out ahead of you.

What Damon finds in Vietnam is, in more ways than one, the end of the story. The four-star general he reports to is, of course, Courtney Massengale, the (sexually impotent) theater commander (with the girl's name), thinking furiously for the angle that will produce a dramatic event and finally bump him up to chief of staff. Damon tags along on a mission with some of Massengale's military "advisers," and ends up — and remember that Once an Eagle, a book almost a thousand pages long, was published in the summer of 1968 — watching soldiers throw grenades into thatched huts occupied by children. They shoot a boy — "it looked like a young boy" — and torture another to death to force him to give information. Not that it works.

Damon returns to tell Massengale — and Massengale's nominal boss, an undersecretary of defense — that the war is already lost. (1968!) He's dismissed as maybe a Cassandra and maybe a coward, not the least by the "thick, bald man with pudgy hands" at the table who represents a group of troubled industrial concerns in the region.

The war, of course, grinds on without him. But here is Faludi's Vietnam father-failure in a sentence: Sam Damon, being a real combat leader, shrinks from sending more of his boys to die because he's tested the path for them; he's taken their risk. He knows everything it means. Massengale — the bad dad — is a career staff officer, a longtime denizen of the planning room; he views troops as something to be managed. The battalion and brigade and divisional commanders who oversaw the operation at My Lai did so from helicopters, one each, that circled overhead but never landed. The entire range of victims who died on either side of that war, Faludi argues, were killed by "the army's wholesale shift from the ethic of leadership to the ideal of systems management." (Remember, Faludi nudges, Robert McNamara came from the Ford Motor Company. Hence the much-noted obsession of the U.S. military with body counts, with quantifiable outcome: X dead enemy rolled off the line, today.)

All of which means, finally, that the society of utility didn't make it out of Vietnam either. "In Charlie Company," a soldier who was at My Lai tells her, "cowardice and courage was all turned around. If you showed any sign of caring, it was seen as a weakness... We felt abandoned by all the men up there."

And so now a good piece of the generation that follows the one that fought in Vietnam — the generation that now occupies the so-called field grades, more or less, the ranks from major to colonel — has returned to embrace the notion of a paternal military, of an army that fathers and cares and owes lives to one another all up and down the ranks. There's certainly an argument to be made that all that notional father-love is a convenient way to be hostile to the expanding role of women in the organization, but to make that argument without some kindness is to miss the much larger point: The army, with all the power it has over all those lives, turns out to be sheltering a bunch of leaders who are breathlessly infatuated with a book about a reluctant hero who hates war and works, above all else, to protect his troops and fight the instinct of ambitious idiots to stir up violence. It should be at least a bit difficult to hold a grudge against men who think that a real man is someone who adopts those values that society has long recognized in women as the essence of motherhood.


courtesy of Ambrose Beers


pictures Terry Colon

Ambrose Beers