It is appropriate that Donovan Campbell offers an inscription about love from 1 Corinthians 13:13 at the beginning of his book, Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood. That’s because he has written what is essentially a love story. While there are of course many soldier accounts from Afghanistan and Iraq, some that even tell more gripping stories or offer more humor, there may not be one that is more reflective on what it means to be a leader, and what it means to love the men you serve and lead.
This book is receiving considerable press attention and Campbell’s ability to convey love the way he does has to be a big reason for the popularity of the book. Campbell movingly says about his own Marines in the opening chapter, “And I hope and pray that whoever reads this story will know my men as I do, and that knowing them, they too might come to love them.”
Campbell’s account looks at the seven and a half months in which he serves as a platoon leader in some of the fiercest fighting of the Iraq war, which occurred in Ramadi in 2004. Before the Marine Corps, Campbell was an undergraduate at Princeton who spent a summer completing the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School (OCS) because he thought it would look good on his resume. Campbell says he hated the entire program, and didn’t think twice about joining since he hadn’t taken any money from the Corps, and therefore didn’t owe them anything. He would ultimately change his mind however as graduation approached.
If love and leadership are recurrent themes, it is often discussed from a faith perspective, and Campbell is somebody who has thought seriously about his own faith and what that means for him and his men. Campbell talks about how before each combat mission he huddles up with his platoon for prayer, which often included reciting the twenty-third Psalm. “I had a responsibility to my men to provide for all their needs, and those included their spiritual as well as their material ones,” says Campbell. He also discusses some of his early thoughts on the prayer ritual before each mission:
Deep in my heart, I believed that prayer would work without fail, that if together Joker One prayed long and hard enough, God would spare us all from Mac’s fate [another Marine seriously wounded by a road side bomb]. 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 believing 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.
This book is masterful at tracing the growth and experience of Campbell’s theological progression just as it does concerning his leadership skills, decision making ability, and the moral questions he asks himself. Where prayer before was focused more on personal safety, He says it changed even more as the chaos and random violence surged. “To those who sought it, the prayer also provided some comfort that God was in control, that their lives had worth and meaning stemming from an absolute source,” says Campbell.
After one of his own Marines, Lance Corporal Todd Bolding was killed in action, Campbell understandably lost much of his enthusiasm to continue the mission. He had promised himself that he would bring all of his platoon home. He says:
For whatever reason, [Private First Class Gabriel] Henderson’s tender heart kept a close watch on me, and one day, roughly two weeks after Bolding’s death, he walked up to me and said out of the blue: ‘Hey sir, you know that none of the platoon blames you for what happened to Bolding. It’s okay, sir.’ I didn’t know what to say to that. Henderson broke into a smile. ‘Bolding’s in heaven now, sir, and I know that he’s smiling down at us right now, just like he always smiled at us when he was here. He’s okay, sir. Don’t worry, sir. He’s okay. And someday you will get to see him again, sir.’ I had to turn away to keep from crying. I think that Henderson’s profound, simple faith was what finally allowed me to pick myself back up, and, in some very real sense, regain my own faith.
This book deals with a lot of raw emotion, the frustrations with all the problems in Iraq, and tragedy. At the closing of Campbell’s account, he does a beautiful job of articulating the greater-love principle from John’s Gospel (15:13).
In seminary I took a class on leadership and I know Campbell’s book teaches more lessons about leadership than classes or many other books could. His account is a strong reminder that some of America’s best, regardless of policy debates or politics, are the ones silently shouldering a heavy burden in America’s current conflicts. While much of the country goes to the mall, shops, and attends sporting events, there are those who suffer and have to make quick life and death decisions where the consequences of combat often result in bad or worse.
This is definitely one of the best books of 2009. The narrative is somewhat similar to Nathaniel Fick’s book from 2005, One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, in that both authors do a wonderful job at baring their heart and telling the stories of young men who do courageous acts solely for others and not themselves. Interestingly enough, both authors were officers in the Marines who came out of Ivy League schools. All of the wonderful sacrifices Campbell’s platoon made for a largely unappreciative civilian Ramadi population in 2004, and the havoc they wreaked on their foe, is a reminder of the truth that rings out from the great unofficial U.S. Marine motto, “No greater friend, no worse enemy.”