Marine's memoir captures war's personal toll

Author Donovan Campbell, a Princeton graduate who became a platoon leader in Iraq, lets the drama of war speak for itself. Author Donovan Campbell, a Princeton graduate who became a platoon leader in Iraq, lets the drama of war speak for itself. (Wheeler Sparks)
By Claude R. Marx
May 8, 2009
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War memoirs are a challenging genre.

One doesn't want to romanticize war, yet one doesn't want to just focus on blood and guts.

Donovan Campbell, a Princeton graduate who went on to be a platoon leader in Iraq, has struck just the right balance. As a result, "Joker One: A Marine Platoon's Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood" is an extraordinary book.

Campbell, who admits that he initially chose Officer Candidate School because it looked good on his resume, grew to like being a Marine and the men with whom he served.

This evolution occurred while he and the other members of Joker One, an infantry platoon in the 2d Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, were guarding Ramadi, a city of more than 300,000 about 70 miles west of Baghdad. There, as one of his instructors in candidate school told him, "the currency in which we trade is human lives."

Campbell describes some of his men, but doesn't divulge too much about them. While we learn a lot about him, we don't find out enough about the others to get too attached to them.

To tell these stories, Campbell uses sparse writing that doesn't overwhelm readers. He lets the drama of the events speak for itself. Here is his description of their efforts to capture an enemy compound:

"We charged the compound, kicked down the door, and streamed through, weapons raised to fire. Nothing was inside save a large hole in the dirt, some dark streaks on the wall, and some dark dribbles on the ground. They had probably only been wounded. We cleared the courtyard and then turned around and headed back the way we had come," he writes.

Despite the prediction of some backers of the war, Campbell and his troops weren't treated as liberators. Even though they brought gifts (candy, soccer balls, and pencils), they were sometimes greeted with rocks.

But if that hostility caused Campbell to doubt the wisdom of the US presence in Iraq, you won't find evidence of it here.

Campbell doesn't engage in political discussions, nor does he second-guess the military leadership. For those perspectives, readers have plenty of options - among the best of them being Bob Woodward's four books on political decision making and Thomas Ricks's two books analyzing military strategy.

But the personal toll of the war and political decisions on the lives of the troops is made clear throughout.

"You can't think of home, you can't miss your wife, and you can't wonder how it would feel to take a round through the neck. You can only pretend that you're already dead and thus free yourself up to focus," he writes.

Ever the Marine, Campbell never feels sorry for himself. He is not nonchalant, but doesn't often let himself get overwhelmed by emotion. He describes an incident in which he broke down in tears (away from his troops after giving them bad news), but that is the exception.

The result is a moving narrative that brings a complicated and often messy war down to an extraordinarily personal level. Even those who have serious doubts about the wisdom of the war will come away from reading "Joker One" with a deep admiration for the values and character of those who are fighting it.

Claude R. Marx is a journalist who has written extensively on politics and history.

JOKER ONE: A Marine Platoon's Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood By Donovan Campbell

Random House, 307 pp., $26