Sunday, March 8, 2009

Book Review: Joker One

Joker One by Donovan Campbell is a love story, a war story, a leadership guide, and a Marine recruitment narrative. It's a military memoir, and a little bit of a faith memoir. Joker One is an amazing true story, brilliantly told. I have never before read any memoir like it, and I urge you, when it comes out on March 10, to pick up a copy, read it, and pass it along.

I received my copy through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer (ER) program. In the past, I have had mixed luck with the ER selections I have snagged. This book made up for the duds.

Donovan Campbell completed the ten-week Marine Corp Officer Candidate School ("ten weeks of uninterrupted screaming") as a college junior, after which he swore that he would "never, ever join the Marine Corp." He graduated from Princeton and promptly joined the Corps, looking for "a pursuit that would force me to assume responsibility for something greater than myself, something that would force me to give back, to serve others." This earnestness struck me as a little too heavily played--but not for long.

Campbell's compelling story begins in the middle of a firefight, just after a rocket attack on an abandoned hotel that Campbell and his men were using as an observation position. Surrounded by rubble, choking dust, and pieces of exploded rockets, with a friendly machine gun firing full-bore a few feet away, Lieutenant Campbell calls in his position, burns his fingers on the still-searing-hot hockey puck of a warhead, and eventually discovered that the enemy had failed to kill or wound a single Marine.

That's just the first six pages.

Campbell's memoir covers the seven months that he spent with his company in Ramadi, Iraq, plus the four months of pre-deployment training at Camp Pendleton, California. He introduces fifteen men, the main characters in his deployment drama; and over the next 300 pages we learn to love and admire most of them as much as Campbell himself does.

Yes, most of them. Campbell uses real names in most cases, but two characters remain anonymous: Ox, the arrogant executive officer, with an astounding lack of self-awareness; and the inexperienced platoon sergeant who, "in theory...should be a lieutenant's right-hand man." Early on, Campbell described a field exercise which "highlighted the Ox's greatest strength--his unthinking, unhesitating aggressiveness--and his greatest weakness--his unthinking, unhesitating aggressiveness."

Campbell writes like a philosophical memoirist. As he tells the story of the baby-faced, inexperienced soldiers heading into what would turn out to be fierce and unrelenting guerilla-type combat, he takes time to examine the challenges of platoon leadership and his own evolution from a green, book-educated lieutenant with "zero real-world infantry experience" to a battle-experienced leader who had earned the love and respect of his men.

Before the Marines even boarded the plane for Iraq, Campbell describes a discipline dilemma which highlighted "the tension between justice and mercy, and, to some extent, between respect and love." As the officer responsible for a Marine facing discipline for the charge of under-age drinking, Campbell understood the need for consistency and accountability in the situation; but he also believed that

there are moments when simply following the letter of the law is a cop-out, and ultimately hinders your efforts to pull the best out of your men. ...the latter requires a love founded on humility, self-sacrifice, and in some cases, mercy.

Campbell wages an internal philosophical debate, asking himself, "What, then, should a young officer do to navigate the delicate tension between justice and fear, between mercy and love?" (Just the fact that Campbell even asked this question made me shake my head in wonderment. This to me displays a rare level of self-awareness, decency, and humility to which all of us should aspire.)

"The way to satisfy both justice and mercy," Campbell concluded,

is, quite simply, to take the hit for your men, to divert whatever punishment they may rate onto your own head if you believe that mercy is warranted...If you wear the bars on your shoulders, then it is your job to practice the greater love principle.

The "greater love" principle, if you're not familiar with it, is a reference to Jesus' words in the gospel of John: "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." It's not the only time Campbell references a Biblical principal, and in fact, his narrative describes a faith journey almost as much as a military journey. "Deep in my heart," Campbell writes,

I believed that prayer would work without fail, that if together Joker One prayed long and hard enough, God would spare all of us...What I know now, and which didn't occur to me then, was that by praying as I prayed, and hoping what I hoped, and believeing what I believed, I was effectively reducing God to a result-dispensing genie who, if just fed the proper incantations, would give the sincere petitioner (me) the exact outcome desired.

There's plenty of shooting, swearing, exploding, bleeding, and sweating in Joker One--but it contains far more sensitivity, humility, and tenderness than you would expect in a book about soldiers and war. It's kind of a military memoir for girls, really--except that in the best of all possible worlds, these characteristics would be honored and admired in men as much as in women. This book must feel like a gift to the men of Joker One and to their families. It felt like a gift to me--and I'm grateful to Lieutenant Campbell for his service to our country, both as a soldier and as a rememberer.


Anonymous said...

This is a really good review. Thanks, E. Peevie.

-Rev. Butcher

E. Peevie said...

Thanks, Rev. Let me know if you want to borrow my copy.

Rose City Reader said...

Great review! I got an ER copy too and confess that in the tussle of moving house have not gotten around to reading it yet. I will move it to the top of my TBR pile, based on your recommendation.