Blog Post · Book Review

Joker One

Joker One:

A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood

By Donovan Campbell

Random House, hardcover, $26.00, March 2009, 313 pages


The writer-comdedian Ben Stein, in a speech on NPR, described a soldier who kept going on combat tours though no longer obligated to. When Stein asked why, the soldier said in America everybody was trying to cut him off in traffic or take his money, in short, it was dog eat dog. But in combat with his buddies, he knew the men on either side of him would die for him. In war he found more love than back home.

And this is the lesson of love that Donovan Campbell learned in the tour of duty he described in Joker One. He began by attending Marine Corps Officer Candidate School in his junior year of college (Princeton) because he thought it “would look good on my résumé.” After being screamed at for ten weeks he vowed never ever to join the Marines.


Over the course of my senior year, though, something shifted. Somehow the Fortune 500 recruiters and the postgraduation salaries lost their luster, and, somewhat to my surprise, I soon found myself casting about for a pursuit that would force me to give back, to serve others . . . . I knew that I wanted to learn to lead, which, I soon discovered, simply meant serving others to an increasingly great degree.


When Campbell, now a lieutenant, with his platoon, Joker One, arrives in Ramadi, Iraq, where they fought from March to September 2004, they take over from an Army unit that has seen little action. Campbell does not discuss politics in his book, never says whether he was for or against the war—he is a warrior not a politician. But he does give President Bush a dig for the “Mission Accomplished” banner. For that is when the insurgency in Ramadi kicked in and the street battles Joker One fought were nothing like what the Army had gone through.

Campbell simply tells the story of how he and his men lived, patrolled, fought and played, when they could, from day to day. And of how he learned to serve his men as best he could. There are terrible scenes of combat in the streets of Ramadi, foreshadowed when children, after begging for candy and treats, pelt the Marines with rocks, and, a little later, when insurgents surround themselves with children while firing their AK-47s.

Showing the same noble regard for decency, the insurgents stash weapons in houses scattered throughout the city so that they can always drop their weapons and run away to some other house and pick up more weapons. They convince the Ramadi civilians to do this, not by trying to win over the people, as the Marines do, with generosity, but with the threat that if the civilians give away the location of the weapons, then the insurgents will kill the family while forcing the father to watch, then behead the father.

Campbell is honest about how he and his men react to such conflict. After one of his men has been terribly wounded while Joker One has been defending a school under attack (and the Marines have also been trying to save the lives of wounded children), Campbell and his men very much want to hurt some Iraquis. In one of the most moving scenes in the book, Campbell tells his men they are there not to seek revenge or indiscriminately kill Iraquis, but to serve the people of Ramadi even if they don’t want to be helped. Campbell rushes away after the talk so his men won’t see him crying and his gunnery sergeant finds and holds him as Campbell breaks down.

On the other hand, Campbell says, he changed, because after a few days of combat he “took a grim satisfaction every time Joker One killed cleanly in the heat of battle.” At one point he sees a stack of “white things” in front of a mosque, but he can’t figure out what they are. When a mate tells him they are body bags he says, “As the rest of the patrol wound its way past al-Haq [the mosque], I found myself smiling.”

Joker One has, as a book, only the weakness of sometimes not portraying each soldier’s physical reality strongly enough for the reader to always remember who is who. But this was not a major flaw, just an intermittent problem, and there is a brief description of the major characters in the beginning of the book.

And the greater change that took place with Campbell, over time, the lesson of love Ben Stein’s soldier friend spoke of, far overshadows any flaws. Campbell’s book reminded me of William Manchester’s Goodbye Darkness and Paul Fussell’s The Boy’s Crusade, both of which are better written than Joker One but do not end with the note of hope with which Campbell does:


Now I think that I understand a bit more about what it means to truly love, because for my men, love was something much more than emotion. For them, love was expressed in the only currency that mattered in combat: action—a consistent pattern running throughout the large and small, a pattern of sacrifice that reinforced the idea that we all care more for the other than we did for ourselves. For them, love was about deeds, not words . . . .


Donovan Campbell shows in Joker One, then, that war is hell, but also that it is a place wherein glorious deeds of love are often performed.


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