Joker One

Not having read the book , it sounds like it would be an incredible insight…

Marine recounts how service in Iraq changed him

“Joker One” is a book that takes you into the heart of combat and into the soul of a young Marine lieutenant.

Author Donovan Campbell served two tours of duty in Iraq, the last (and the subject of this book) as an infantry platoon leader in Ramadi, one of the most dangerous areas of the country.

Ironically, Donovan never intended to join the military. He signed on for Officer Candidate School between his junior and senior years at Princeton because he believed it would enhance his résumé. He hated the experience, and because he was not ROTC and had not taken any money from the corps, he had no post-graduate military commitment. Nor did he want one.

But somehow that changed as he made the rounds of job recruiters at Princeton. The positions they offered “lost their luster.” He yearned for something meaningful, a job that would allow him “to assume responsibility for something greater than myself.” And as much as he tried to resist it, Campbell kept coming back to the Marines.

When the book begins, he is pushing for an assignment that gets him into combat, and when he doesn’t receive it he does what he says any Marine officer would do: he whines until he’s assigned as leader of the first platoon (Joker One) of Golf Company of the 2/4 (2nd battalion of the 4th Marine Regiment).

Some of what he writes is tragically familiar. His unit rides into Iraq in 2004 unprotected trucks. Hand grenades are rationed, because there are not enough to go around. The radios they are assigned have limited range of only a couple of blocks, so squads lose contact with each other. Ironically, the private contractors, the Blackwaters of the world, are better equipped than the Marines.

Beyond the colorfully described chaotic battle scenes, beyond the noble warriors who populate the book, what sets “Joker One” apart is its unsparing honesty. These Marines took their mission seriously. They wanted very much to win the hearts and minds of the locals. But that proved impossible. On one patrol, they were engulfed by kids asking for gifts. After distributing all the candy and pens and pencils they had, the platoon continued on. And then the kids started throwing stones at them. He wonders: “What kind of a child tries repeatedly to stone someone who has just give them a present?”

And it’s not just the kids. All their efforts to befriend the locals backfire. “Our kindness quickly became perceived as weakness by the insurgents and by most of Ramadi’s citizens, and by late March, 2/4 earned itself the nickname awat, an Iraqi term for a soft sugary cake that crumbles easily to the touch.”

Even though the Marines regularly altered missions and made themselves less safe in order to avoid offending or endangering locals, “the citizens of Ramadi had come out of their houses and actively tried to kill us.”

These were not insurgents. According to multiple intelligence sources, hundreds perhaps even thousands “of males, ranging from teenagers to 50-year-olds, had grabbed their family assault rifles, and using the chaos caused by the hard-core insurgents, they had taken potshots at U.S. forces.”

No wonder something inside him changed: “Some part of me took a grim satisfaction every time Joker One killed cleanly. . . .  After months of walking around Ramadi feeling as if we were more or less unsuspecting targets, it felt good to hit back strongly, to regain some of the initiative, to kill our enemies in large numbers. It felt good to know that someone else was . . .  suffering, and that if we were suffering maybe we could make our enemies suffer more.”

When he returned home on leave, he felt naked without a rifle in his hands, crowds made him nervous and loud noises made him jump. At first he wasn’t sure whether he would attend a battalion ceremony honoring its dead. He goes and meets the mother and sister of the one soldier who died under his command.

He rehearses what he’s going to say to them, how the young man was a hero. But when he finally stands in front of them, all he can sob and repeat is “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” over and over again.

The Marine’s mom stands up, pulls him down to her chest and hugs him tight. “I don’t remember if she said something to me, but when that moment passed I felt some measure of absolution. Life continued and so would I.”

Curt Schleier is a reviewer in New Jersey.

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