Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership and Brotherhood
By Donovan Campbell Random House, $26.00, 313pp.
“Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
I spent a good deal of time on Memorial Day re-reading passages from Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership and Brotherhood, a great new war memoir by former Marine Lt. Donovan Campbell. Now admittedly, it was because I needed to write this column, but it was such a rewarding experience that I intend to make it a yearly habit.
Ever since the film version of Blackhawk Down, cynics have misused the truth expressed by the Delta Force operator played by Eric Bana -- who says once the first bullet goes past a soldier’s head, “it's about the men next to you, and that's it. That's all it is.” -- to downplay the idea that the valor and dedication of American troops in any way reflects on their commitment to their mission, particularly in Iraq.
Of course, soldiers just “get stuck” in Iraq if they don’t do well in school,and can’t find any other career opportunities. Right, Senator Kerry?
In Joker One, Campbel -- a former platoon commander in Iraq -- shatters the media and Hollywood clichés about why Marines fight and the attitudes of those who lead them. Patriotism and service may not be the primary concern once the bullets fly, but it is a major motivation for their signing up in the first place.
And while emotions in combat run the gamut from vengeance, anger and bloodlust to esprit de corps, the desire to complete the mission and a passion to protect the innocent; Campbell asserts the greatest of these is love.
In fact, you could say Joker One is a love letter to his men. In his inexperience,Campbell confesses, he assumed the intense combat in which his unit was engaged for seven months was “normal.” Thus, he regrets not having put more of his men in for medals. Writing this book is his way of making up for that:
"So, that's me: an ordinary young man who once made the choice to serve. I wish I could present someone greater to the reader, someone whose exploits and whose fame could automatically make people sit up and pay attention to the story of my men, but I can't, because I'm not that someone. However, to this day I love my Marines with all that I'm capable of, and in spite of my shortcomings I want to do my utmost to help tell their tale. Though I can't offer myself to the reader, I can offer my men, and I can tell a true story with love and heartfelt emotion from the inside. And I hope and I pray that whoever reads this story will know my men as do I, and that knowing them, they too might come to love them."
A Princeton honors grad, Campbell decided to take the Marine Basic Officer Course as a mere resume builder. Since the military had not paid for his education, he had no obligation to serve. He placed first in his class, but after the 10-week course -- which he describes as “uninterrupted screaming” -- he swore he would"never, ever join the Marine Corps." But after that experience, he found his subsequent job interviews with Fortune 500 companies less than thrilling. He ultimately enlisted once he realized there was nothing in life he wanted more than to command a Marine platoon.
On September 11, 2001, he thanked God for his decision.
Not until 2004 did Campbell actually led men into a combat. He initially served a stint in Iraq as an intelligence officer, then was assigned to a sniper platoon that seemed unlikely to be sent back into action. But like every combat soldier whom author Robert Kaplan says he met in the past seven years, Campbell “complained (some might say whined) mightily and incessantly to my superiors” until he was assigned to Iraq-bound Golf Company. He was given command of a 40-man infantry platoon with the call sign “Joker One.”
In 2004, Golf Company was sent to Ramadi, a hitherto peaceful city where it seemed Joker One would be more about winning hearts and minds than killing bad guys. The platoon participated in a few successful raids on terrorist lairs and encountered a few RPG attacks without casualties, but to Campbell’s frustration, the enemy also lost no men to Joker One. Most of the real action, Campbell writes, was centered around Fallujah, a city almost completely populated by terrorists and insurgents.
All that changed in April, however, when Ramadi erupted in violence as part of a nationwide uprising ignited by Shiite radicals. Joker One’s first big fight came when another platoon in Golf Company was ambushed as the imams in Ramadi's minarets literally sounded the call, “Jihad, jihad jihad.”
After that engagement, Campbell began to appreciate the commitment and perspective of his Marines when one of them approached him after the fight with an unexpected concern:
“`Sir,’ he said, ‘do you think we fought well today, sir? I mean, that was our first big fight. Would the Marines who fought at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, you know, be proud of us?’
“On hearing this, I almost broke down crying. I had to turn away, choke back my voice before I answered.
“’Yeah, Mahardy. We fought well. The Corps is proud of us, we did fine.’”
Golf Company’s job became counterinsurgency in the city of 350,000, where the enemy blended in with the populace — and the company had all of about 150 troops to accomplish the task. Joker One’s primary job was to command the high ground in the city’s tallest building to keep an eye on things. This also made the troops an irresistible target, although insurgents attacking dug-in Marines was always a losing proposition for the bad guys.
The pivotal event in the book centers around the widely reported atrocity by jihadists who waited for a large group of Ramadi's children to gather around Joker One before launching two RPGs into their midst, causing unbelievable carnage. While caring for victims was not really their job and the Marines were under fire, they didn't consider it a hard decision.
“We were United States Marines, and a bunch of dying children needed our help, it was just that simple,” Campbell states.
However, it was while defending the children and the rescuers that Joker One suffered it’s only KIA of the tour. Lance Cpl. Todd Bolding -- possibly the platoon's most popular member -- had his legs blown off by an RPG. Although no one else questioned his decision or his leadership, Campbell second-guessed himself nearly to a state of ineffectiveness after the fight was over.
“So I was tired all of the time, physically and psychologically … tired of my Marines paying the price for my shortcomings, tired of my responsibility as a leader. And I was tired of trying to go help the ungrateful Iraqis who seemed completely unappreciative of our efforts and our sacrifices on their behalf…
“Fortunately, my Marines understood this basic truth much better than I did. The enemy left us no time for a respite after Bolding’s death, so my men strapped on their gear daily and headed back out into the city, still trying to make life a little bit better for the people we were there to protect. They weren’t bitter, they weren’t angry, and, unlike me, they weren’t trapped in a selfish spiral of recrimination and angst. On some level, my men still retained a beautiful, simple, powerful faith: There was a mission to help a brutalized people, that mission was worth doing, and if someone had to do it, it might as well be them. And if anyone tried to stop my Marines in pursuit of their mission, then God help them because my men would do their utmost to kill our enemies stone dead.”
Campbell succeeds admirably in his mission to tell his men’s stories and to make us love them as he does. We get to know at least a dozen of them in a way that the reader is unlikely to forget, from human battering ram Nick Carson to the excitable Filipino Sgt. Noriel; squad leader Chris Bowen, who went around solving problems before his lieutenant even knew they existed; medical corpsman “Doc” Comacho, who memorably draws fire away from a wounded Marine by running out in the open and yelling “Hey, over here!”; and the incredibly likeable Todd Bolding, whose death makes an indelible impact on the reader.
A devout Christian whose pre-mission ritual included a voluntary group prayer which everyone participated in to one extent or another, Campbell is honest about struggling with his faith in the face of brutality and the seeming randomness of combat. His conclusions may not make anyone forget C.S. Lewis, but they beat the snot out of most of what passes for “spiritual” or “inspirational” writing these days.
“I didn’t understand the tragedy of Bolding’s death, and I still don’t and I won’t pretend to, but seeing the simple faith of my Marines made me realize that, as a leader, I had a very basic choice to make. 1) I could throw in the towel on God — in other words, rationalize away my inability to understand and comprehend the infinite by stating that He didn’t exist; or 2) I could accept the fact that this life is painful, and tragic, and messy, and that God’s designs often don’t coincide with my plans and that many times I won’t , and will never, understand why they don’t, but that none of this means that God doesn’t exist or that He isn’t ultimately good. The first choice, as I saw it, offered me no hope. Without God, then Bolding’s life and death mere meaningless — he served no ultimate purpose, he worked for no greater good, and now that he was gone, he had no hope for the future. With God, though, Bolding’s life and death were in service of the infinite, of a personal deity who cared ad who intended the best for His people, even if they didn’t see it or didn’t want it. The second choice offered me hope, and I reached for it and strapped myself back into the responsibility of leadership.”
While Bolding was Joker One’s only fatality, Golf Company suffered a greater percentage of casualties from combat than any since Vietnam. It was named the “best combat company of 2004 — the same year as the second battle for Fallujah. Campbell, as always, credits his men, in whose actions he found the illustration of I Corinthians: 13.
“The Mahardys and the Hendersons and the Guzons -- the ones who'd deployed barely two months of training and who kept me awake with worry on the plane flight over -- had been transformed from wide-eyed recruits into slit-eyed combat veterans. They'd seen all the horrors of war firsthand, again and again, but somehow, someway, they retained their faith in each other and in their mission. They knew with unshakeable certainty that the Corps was strong and that Joker One was strong and that given enough time, we'd both prevail no matter what the circumstances.
“They loved one another and their mission -- the people of Ramadi -- in a way that I didn't fully appreciate until just a few days before we left the city, during the second week of September. I'd run into Mahardy, smoking outside the hangar bay as usual, and I'd asked him the standard throwaway question: Was he excited to go home? The response shocked me.
“On the one hand, Mahardy said, he was excited to see his family, but on the other, he was sad to leave before the job in Ramadi was finished. .... Furthermore, going home meant that his new family, Joker One, wouldn't be around all the time like they were now. Mahardy loved the guys, he said, and he wasn't sure what he'd do without them...
“So that was how we loved those who hated us; blessed those who persecuted us; daily laid down our lives for our neighbors. No matter what we felt, we tried to demonstrate love though our daily actions. Now I understand more about what it means to truly love, and what it means to love your neighbor--how you can do it even when your neighbor literally tries to kill you."
As the Obama administration moves forward with its vision of how Americans should live, it’s worth considering what might be lost by introducing an element of sexual tension into this bond by decreeing that open homosexuals and/or women should be allowed in combat units. Would the easy camaraderie, freedom of action, emotion and instinct toward self-sacrifice for one another survive? The powerful impression one takes from Joker One is that this element is far more important to a combat platoon than the latest weaponry or body armor.
But lest one think that Campbell is primarily a philosopher or that Joker Oneis mawkish or overly sentimental, the author lays it out plainly in the opening chapter:
“My job description,” he says, “was twofold: 1) save live, 2) take lives. Not necessarily in that order.”
Joker One is a classic of modern warfare along the lines of Nathaniel Fick’s One Bullet Away. Both books go a long way toward answering the oft-asked question: “Where do we get men such as these?”