Sam Damon or Courtney Massengale?

The novel Once An Eagle (also made into a TV miniseries) tells the story of two American army officers, across a time span ranging from the First World War to the interwar years to World War II and beyond.  Sam Damon is a farm boy who has worked his way up in rank: he is committed to accomplishing his assigned missions and looking out for the survival and well-being of the men under his command.  Courtney Massengale is a West Point graduate with something of an upper-class background: he seeks out higher rank through political maneuvering, prefers Staff to Line assignments, and has little concern for subordinates.  The book is widely-read and highly-regarded in U.S. military circles.

In the story’s climactic scene, Sam is commanding a division destined to participate in an attack on a Japanese-held island.  He is not thrilled to find that his division has been placed under the command of Courtney–now a three-star general and corps commander despite having spent his entire career in staff roles.  He is even less thrilled when he hears Courtney’s plan for the invasion–“PALLADIUM”–which is in Sam’s judgment far too complex to succeed in actual combat conditions.

The Japanese launch their counterattack while Sam’s division is in a highly vulnerable state, in the midst of the turning maneuver required by the Palladium plan.  And the reserve unit which could have saved the situation has been redeployed by Courtney so that he can have the honor of being the first American general to capture a Japanese-held city intact.  While Sam is leading a desperate fight for the survival of his division, Courtney is riding in triumph through the town of Reina Blanca.

Sam Damon and Courtney Massengale are endpoints on a spectrum, of course; few real people are as good as Sam or as bad as Courtney.  But still, it seems to be useful to ask the following question:

What is the mix of Damon vs Massengale in each of our current presidential candidates and among other members of our national leadership?

33 thoughts on “Sam Damon or Courtney Massengale?”

  1. I always thought the two idealized adversarial career tracks portrayed- command vs staff – also paralleled the two you see in the corporate world, particularly car companies – engineering/technical vs sales/accounting.

    The parallel for government might be legislative vs administrative. Or possibly diplomatic vs military.

  2. Grurray…why would you call Sales a staff rather than a line job?

    I think the essence of Staff is that one analyzes and recommends, but does not make final decisions or have accountability for results.

  3. The verbal style of Massengale, as played by Cliff Potts in the movie, reminds me a good deal of Obama’s way of talking. Anyone who has seen the movie like to agree or disagree?

    And, of course, Obama has spent his entire career in Staff positions prior to being promoted to a job considerably above that of Corps Commander…

  4. The book is terrific and is listed by the War College as reading material.

    If you read David Hackworth’s books you get a feeling that Anton Myrer, who had been a Marine in combat, had seen other officers of both types. One model for Sam Damon was Evans Carlson, who had also spent time with the Chinese Route Army of Mao Zedong. Hackworth has some descriptions of officers similar to Massengale.

    I have always wondered if Myrer chose Massengale’s name because it was similar to a brand of douche.

    Sam Damon was played in the TV series by a favorite actor of mine, Sam Elliot.

    Sam Elliot also played the sergeant major in “We were soldiers once”

  5. “why would you call Sales a staff rather than a line job?”

    I think the “line job” refers to manufacturing. Sales is important but not part of the process of manufacturing although engineers make a big mistake when they don’t figure out what customers want and design for themselves. Computer software is a prominent example of such mistakes.

  6. “any *approximations* to a Sam Damon…among the presidential candidates of either party?”

    Nope. It has been many years. The last one I can think of was McKinley who had been a sergeant at Antietam.

  7. Sales is line. They are the pointed end of the spear. A good salesman has a lot of aggression.

  8. “A good salesman has a lot of aggression.”

    Yes but sometimes the dogs just don’t like the dog food. You have to have a product to sell.

  9. I grew up with this Bob Lutz thinking of product guys vs bean counters, but those are idealized, stereotypical distinctions. You could probably find any occupation or endeavor effective has effective leaders and hanger-on opportunists.

    I just flipped on the TV and saw one guy that impresses me – Trey Gowdy.

  10. To clarify, when I ask ‘who (if anyone) is at least a partial Sam Damon’, a military background is not required…only the attributes of genuinely caring about mission and people.

  11. “Up through the hawsepipe” was a common term back in the day. Not sure that such a thing is still possible. I can’t name a candidate. Some current and former Senate/House members, but not sure that can ever happen again, either.

  12. I gave this fabulous book to my youngest son, a fairly new lieutenant in the Air Force, last Christmas. He read it and enjoyed it very much.

    My comments when we talked about the book briefly were about the opposing natures of the two main characters, as described in the post, and that he would probably run into some people similar to one or the other.

    My advice was to choose the ones who would not require him to compromise his integrity as friends and models, and try to avoid the others whenever possible.

    Every day, a person has to face that person in the mirror, and life is much better when you can look him in the eye without shame and regret.

    My concern, by the way, was not about any weakness in my son’s character, as I am proud to say he is a very honorable and dedicated young officer, but to forestall any situation in which he might be led astray by a smooth talking, but empty, fellow officer.

    Out in the world, it’s better to recognize the skunks before you get sprayed.

  13. Of all the individuals who threw their hat in the ring, the only one that I might consider a “Sam Damon” is Jim Webb. I’ve read his books, Born Fighting and Fields of Fire, wherein he demonstrates that he knows (and loves) history, and that he is personally familiar with military service (which I knew anyway.)

    He’s been a Senator, so he knows something of the ins/outs of politics. Yet, notwithstanding his political experience, his essays on current affairs that I’ve read reveal that he’s given much objective and balanced thought & consideration to today’s issues (did you see what I did there? Heh.)

    He didn’t fair well in the Democratic “debates,” and he seemed awkward and uncomfortable with the whole campaign dog & pony show. (Although I see that as more a feature than a bug, he didn’t come across very well to the viewers, I think.) My memory may be faulty, but I don’t recall any whiff of corruption or favoritism about him, in his varied professional pursuits. He seems to demonstrate character with integrity and honor.

    He obviously was out of place as a Democrat. ;-)

  14. I do believe that Ted Cruz has a Damon-like sense of commitment to the mission, which in his case he sees as the restoration of constitutional government. Whether he feels a Damon-like sense of concern for individuals is harder to judge.

    Hillary Clinton is Massengale minus the man’s superficial charm.

    Would she go so far as to divert a reinforcement unit for her own aggrandizement, knowing that the probable result would be the destruction of a Division of 15,000 men? I’m afraid that the answer is probably ‘yes’.

  15. Jim Webb is a reasonable case for the closest to Sam Damon we see in politics.

    John Lehman is another but he has never run for office. He was involved in Romney and McCain’s campaigns. He has some similarities to Romney plus the military (reserve only) experience.

    I think I saw a brief speculation of Webb as a Trump VP candidate. He did endorse him.

    Wouldn’t that throw the cat amongst the pigeons !

  16. I think Carly Fiorina is a Sam Damon. Trump is a Massengale. Hillary’s certainly a Massengale. Bernie’s just an old fashioned bolshevik.

  17. Come on you guys, the obvious is staring you in the face. Trump is the Damon character. He leads an organization, he built it up, there are scores of testimonials to Trump from former employees and also from billionaire colleagues. As with a military commander who is judged on both mission success and mission execution, Trump coming from the worlds of business and real estate development is judged on profit and sales. He’s loyal to his subordinates, the Lewandowski affair aptly demonstrates this, even when the easier path for him would have been to cut him loose in order to avoid controversy. He’s not bending his position or himself in order to become something he’s not, he’s true to his mission.

  18. I was thinking Ryan Zinke. Also, I was a big Allen West fan, but I read some allegations of inappropriate behaviors. No idea if it’s factual . Tom Cotton showed some signs of fire, but has recently waffled a bit.

  19. I like Webb, but he’s dull as dishwater. On the other hand, some stolid steadiness might make a good complement to Trump’s bombast.

    Another obvious one might be Jim Mattis. Last month his name entered the mix by the ‘Draft an Anti-Trump’ movement.

  20. In business, there are really only two kinds of line jobs: You either make something/deliver a service, or you sell something. Everything else, in my view, are staff jobs that support line jobs. My consistent advice to young people, including my own kids, is to focus on line jobs especially early in one’s career.

    President Obama got to his position thru staff roles. He loves the idea of being President, but has no interest in the executive responsibilities of the job. It bores him, and he thinks things happen by proclamation. Leadership for Obama is making impassioned proclamations.

    The moment I heard the president early in his term say “shovel-ready” projects, I knew then that he had no grasp how projects actually get done in government. ObamaCare was a “creation of proclamation”…so it was doomed from the start.

    Love him or despise him, The Donald knows how to get things done, and sometimes eggs are broken. I just wish he had a conservative value compass.

  21. Long ago the firm where I worked was looking at a recession coming. My boss’s boss’s boss had a word with me: he’d gather “his chicks” to ensure they kept jobs. (I was struck to realise that this meant I was one of his chicks.) Anyway, the jobs into which he’d put them would be in sales or production. Everything else might be cut – research, design, marketing, strategy, …. But sales and production would survive or the firm wouldn’t.

  22. A high % of people recently out of college seem to prefer Staff to Line roles….they would rather do a study on ‘Trends in the American Grocery Market’ than run a Region for Kroger. They would rather write papers on ‘Transportation in the Year 2025’ than run the Atlanta Tower for the FAA.

    Partly a consequence of young people naturally wanting to ‘change the world,’ partly a consequence of faux intellectualism, partly a consequence of the perception of what gets rewarded.

    I saw a piece by somebody who said that at the old Digital Equipment Corporation, you could be involved in everything…but you couldn’t make decisions about anything (unless your name was Ken Olsen.) Whereas at the old IBM, you would only be involved in something relatively narrow..but you would own it.

    Not sure whether this is a good assessment of the environment at the 2 companies, but I do think these environments appeal to different personality types.

  23. “But sales and production would survive or the firm wouldn’t.”

    Sales determines if the company survives but production has to give sales something to sell.

    In my short career at Sears Roebuck in the 50s, I was very impressed by the guy who came in as the new Sporting Goods manager at the Boyle Street Store, Sears largest store in north America. He said, “I know how to sell anything. Just give me a product that is good quality and I can sell it.”

    I think you also have to know what the product is but it was an interesting POV, new to me at the time.

    I agree that new graduates want to manage things rather than make them. I like the German requirement (maybe this is no longer the case.) that engineering majors do an apprenticeship.

  24. Mike, the ones I’m talking about *don’* want to ‘manage things rather than make them’…they specifically have no interest in the task of managing people and being responsible for their results or lack of same. They want to think big thoughts about topics that have high status ascribed to them.

  25. They want to think big thoughts about topics that have high status ascribed to them.

    Years ago I was reading a blog written by a graduate student in education and she was writing about some survey taken within her school and one of the question was “why did you go into the field of education?” and she wrote that she was very surprised when something like 80%-90% (if memory serves) responded that they wanted to change the world rather than wanting to teach, wanting to share their love of a subject. Education was the vehicle through which they could push their “big thoughts” into the young, malleable minds of their students.

    Two of the biggest draws for MBAs are investment banking and consulting.

    I suspect much of this dynamic arises from the world of entertainment. Big thoughts positions make protagonists important, they get to drive the plot, there is drama and conflict when the big thoughts are fighting the small thoughts, the existing order. Look at the TV and movie landscape, you hardly ever see line managers executing on their task, instead you see physicians facing crisis, lawyers making fabulous cases, advertising creative people making innovative pitches, teachers teaching calculus to gangbangers, and so everyone learns that ordinary life is boring and a boring job is simply not worth having and life isn’t worth living if one can’t be influential.

  26. Here’s a different view: General Bob Scales argues that the book is now actually doing *harm* to the Army, by discouraging people with appropriate talents from pursuing or staying in staff assignments.

    Also, referencing his friend Allen Meyer:

    “My sense is that because too many of the Als and Courtneys have left, much of the critical brain work in the Pentagon today is being done by civilian Courtneys. Visit any influential policy shop in the Pentagon and you’ll see bitter senior staff officers willingly taking a back seat to a young Georgetown M.A. just returned from supporting some political campaign. The lack of uniformed staff brilliance has over the past decade distorted both the quality and the impact of the advice that soldiers are supposed to give to their civilian masters, and that’s too bad.”

    I wonder, though, if the causality is at least partly reversed here: maybe one reason for reluctance to take staff assignments is precisely the excessive involvement of and direction from “young Georgetown M.A.s”, whether the latter be civilian government employees or employees of consulting firms to which the the government increasingly outsources its thinking as well as doing.

    General Scales says:

    “Sam Damons serve well as company and battalion commanders. Courtney Massengales serve better as senior staff officers. Perhaps we have too many of the former and not enough of the latter. We need more officers with Courtney’s skill as strategists, officers with the ability to think in time, who are able to express themselves with elegance, clarity, conviction, and intellect, and yes, navigate through the swamp of political-military policymaking.”

    I’m not finding the “skill as a strategist” ascribed to Courtney actually anywhere in the book, though he certainly does demonstrate the ability to express himself with elegance, clarify, and (apparent) conviction and intellect. And when Gen Scales refers to the personality types best suited for company and battalion commanders vs senior staff officers, he leaves open the question of what types are suited for senior *operational* command…division, corps, and above.

  27. BS

    The problem in the military is a reflection of one of our societies’ major overall problems—too many lawyers, too many useless apparatchiks, too many hairsplitting rules, and too much political crap.

    BTW, the street warfare I have been predicting for some time is now off and running after the riot in Costa Mesa last night. Next time, the Trump people will be ready, and then watch the media scream bloody murder when it’s progs bleeding instead.

  28. “Sam Damons serve well as company and battalion commanders. Courtney Massengales serve better as senior staff officers

    A friend of mine is a Sam Damon like person who retired a colonel in the Marine Corps after a fabulous career as a fighter pilot.

    His story (omitting the part about what a Massangale-like senior did to him) is in Leatherneck magazine this month, but is behind a paywall.

    Manfred was a bit more flamboyant than Damon as a leader of a squadron and a group. In Vietnam he flew over 500 combat missions and in the Gulf War I, where he was group commander of the Marine F 18s, he flew 60 missions in spite of being told he was too senior.

    A Congressional delegation was touring their base on Bahrain when they asked him if the Marine had everything they needed for the coming war. He replied, “Actually not” and gave them a list, which they got before main combat began. That was one of the two reasons he was damned with faint praise by his Massengale type Wing commander.

    He was passed over for general and retired. He went into business and recently sold his company for $23 million. Here is a piece about the sale of his company. It includes a recent photo.

    The Wing commander was later cashiered for flying his girlfriend around in a Marine Corps plane.

    The Leatherneck article describes Manfred’s leadership methods. His father was a German soldier who died mysteriously in a Russian POW camp after the war ended. His mother got him and his sister to Minnesota where he grew up and attended college. He used to exaggerate his German accent at times in talking to his pilots. Lots of good stories about his methods in that article.

    He now has a 7000 acre ranch in Montana.

  29. A more important question: is one McClellan or Custer? Each a disaster in a different dimension. I don’t have the stomach to wish for Grant, he won, but the cost doesn’t bear contemplating.

    McClellan professed great solicitude for his troops. This didn’t keep him from sacrificing tens of thousands to indecision. Custer combined overweening ambition with poor judgement.

    In the real world, a staff officer is as likely to have had his fill of glory hound commanders and “Peter Principal” bumblers as not. Good company commanders have failed at higher levels. Wars break Generals, armies are lead by mere men, more often selected by the lottery of happenstance and proximity than by science. So are nations.

    Who, outside of a sociopath, can order thousands to their death today and do it again tomorrow? Yet we find them. Doing the job is the only proof of ability. The attrition of General officers at the end of a long peace is as bad as any battle.

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