General Stanley McChrystal: The Book That Changed My Life

Credit: Getty Images

General Stanley McChrystal has a longstanding habit of reading two books at once, even while he was serving in the Middle East. During his various posts, which included the commanding the Joint Special Operations Command in Afghanistan, the four-star general devoured novels at an impressive rate, thanks to the ability to listen to them using his iPod at the time.

“I could throw on headphones while on aircraft between bases,” McChrystal says. “Instead of listening to engine noise I could be learning something new. I worked out for about an hour every morning, and I could make progress then as well. I had everything from books on business to Don Quixote on there.”

In addition to audio books, the nightstand of McChrystal’s army hooch was always stocked with reading material. For the most part, the stack there was constantly rotating, with new subjects and releases introduced regularly. But there was one permanent fixture: Once An Eagle by Anton Myrer.

Since retirement, McChrystal has become an author himself, working with former Navy SEAL Chris Fussell to write business texts for Penguin. So far they've released One Mission and Team of Teams, widely considered required reading for modern day management. Through these works, McChrystal hopes to inspire the next generation in the same way that Myrer’s 1,312-page war epic inspired him.

How did you first come across Once An Eagle?

The first time I read it was a few years after it came out. My mother had a copy of the book; I think it was from the library. I was a fan from the start. The story starts at the beginning of the first World War. There are two protagonists, who are both American army officers. One is named Courtney Massengale, who starts from a fairly privileged background, and the other, Sam Damon, who comes from a small farm and wins the Medal of Honor. They have parallel careers and get to become familiar with each other. It's the story of the army through the Depression, but also an analysis on two different types of leaders. Massengale is scheming and political but competent, while Sam Damon is bright, more valued, but perhaps naive.

Why do you think it affected you?

I think it strikes a chord for most military personnel. But when I came across it, my father was serving in Vietnam as an up-and-coming colonel. I was just a few years from shipping off to West Point myself but I had a very narrow understanding of what war was. I just knew that my father was my hero.

Has your opinion on the book or its characters changed since you had your own military experience?

I’ve read the book four times over the course of my career, most recently about a year ago. The story can seem simple the first time that you read it, a study on good and evil. But I have read it about four times now throughout my career, at different points, and each time it becomes a little more nuanced to me as I've grown. I found that my thoughts on Massengale became more complex, because while he may be scheming, he's effective, and there's merit to that. And Damon is a good person, but he has shortcomings that are revealed as well.

Have you shared the book with others?

I gave copies to all of my aides-de-camp when I was a general officer. Every time a new one showed up I would give them that book, because I thought it was a great way to communicate army life. It was always well received. I still give out copies of that book. The book is very familiar in the army, and soldiers even use the character names as shorthand to talk about officers or leaders. If someone called a commander a Courtney Massengale, that was an immediate negative, and if someone was called a Damon, that was the highest compliment you could give.

Did the characters influence how you served?

I think I most admired the Sam Damon character. He is brave and honest, but that makes him inflexible. In the book, while he's a great soldier, he has a troubled marriage with his wife and issues with his son. Sure, he's an iconically good character, but that doesn’t mean he has figured out life entirely. His morals come at a cost. I've spent my life trying to be Sam Damon, and in some ways I've paid some of the same costs as he does in the book. I don’t think I was as good as that character was, but he was a role model to me.